Prisoners' calls at a premium

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      Betty Krawczyk says she does not believe that she and other inmates in the B.C. Corrections system should have to pay 90 cents for a local phone call.

      The 78-year-old grandmother and long-time environmental activist was sentenced to 10 months on March 5 at B.C. Supreme Court. She is serving her time at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women.

      "Most women here make between $2.50 and $3 a day," Krawczyk recently told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from the Maple Ridge facility. "At a local phone booth it costs a quarter; why do I have to pay 90 cents? All the money I have goes on phone calls."

      On her blog, Betty's Early Edition, Krawczyk urges people who agree with her position to contact B.C. Solicitor General John Les and ask him why phone costs are that high.

      Criminal defence lawyer John Conroy, who has acted in several prisoner-rights cases, told the Straight that he finds Krawczyk's predicament "ridiculous". "What do we pay?" he said by phone from his Abbotsford office. "What does a citizen on the street pay? It's 25 cents at a payphone."

      B.C. Corrections Branch spokesperson Lisa Lapointe explained to the Straight that prisoners are not charged for any calls to lawyers or other government agencies, including long-distance calls placed to obtain legal advice.

      "What we operate in Corrections is something called the Inmate Call Control System," she said. "That is a telephone system that provides inmates with access to telephone service while maintaining institutional security and maintaining public safety."

      When asked whether it would still be possible to charge inmates 25 cents for a regular local call, Lapointe replied, "No."

      "They do get free calls to lawyers and government agencies," she said. "So the 90-cent rate helps with that. The rest of the money from the phone system is used to purchase and install equipment, such as the televisions, that are for the benefit of all inmates. There are monies that go toward an inmate benefit fund. So it isn't a standard phone system. It's going to cost a little more than a standard phone system."

      According to Jason Gratl, a board member of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, local calls should still be 25 cents.

      "On its face, it discriminates against prisoners," Gratl told the Straight. "It's a quarter for everyone else. Why should prisoners be charged more? The right to counsel should not be subsidised [by 90-cent calls]. In that case, it's a discriminatory tax."

      Conroy, who is on the board of Pivot Legal Society, has extensive experience with the rights of prisoners as they relate to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But he said that, based on the limited information he has heard, he does not believe that the phone-call rate represents a clear violation of a citizen's guaranteed right to freedom of speech or freedom of expression, as expressed in Section 2(b) of the charter.

      "One would look at whatever rules and regulations are in place [at B.C. Corrections] to determine if they meet the test under Section 1 of the charter as a reasonable limit [on one's civil liberties], 'demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society'," Conroy said. "I can't imagine such a thing would be considered reasonable for prisoners, vis-í -vis the general population."

      Conroy said this could be part of the "age-old" story, that "there has never been much sympathy for prisoners."

      "They are on the bottom rung," he said. "People aren't going to be sympathetic, but you would think that it should twig something with fair-minded and right-thinking people who would say, 'Maybe these people are bad people because they have broken the law and they are serving a sentence of imprisonment, but is this part of the punishment, gouging them for phone calls?' I think if you look carefully at the [Corrections] legislation, it says they want to promote contact with families and people on the street, because that's where they will be going when they finish their sentences. So you want to encourage community contact in that way. Having an exorbitant price on your phone system doesn't do that."