Advocates fight for prisoners' phone rights

A group that assists women in prison thinks the B.C. government is overcharging provincial inmates for their phone calls. But John Les, the minister of public safety and solicitor general, told the Georgia Straight that he rejects any suggestion that the cost of inmates' local calls should be reduced from 90 cents.

"I don't think 90 cents is prohibitive," Les said. "I don't think it denies anybody their ability to make phone calls. I mean, 90 cents, after all, is not a big chunk of money.”¦I also support the fact that any excess revenues that are accumulated this way go into other prison amenities and services."

Shawn Bayes, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver, told the Straight that inmates should not have to pay 90 cents for a local call if they are to stand any chance of retaining contact with the outside world and family. Bayes also said that inmate Betty Krawczyk should not be expected to earn only a small stipend at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women and yet fork over almost a dollar if she makes a local call.

The Straight previously reported that only calls to lawyers and government agencies are free in the B.C. Corrections Branch system. "From our perspective, all the social research suggests that inmates who have community support have better long-term outcomes and that it's important to have family and friends support you," Bayes said. "If you make it prohibitively expensive for people to be able to phone, you reduce the ability of individuals to maintain contact with their families. From my perspective, it's counterproductive to long-term and effective inmate rehabilitation."

Pivot Legal Society president Katrina Pacey told the Straight she agrees.

"If the facilities make access to telephones difficult, either because there is a limited number or because the cost of the call is prohibitively expensive, then you end up in a situation where, in my opinion, the provincial corrections facilities are not meeting their objectives," Pacey said.

Any limiting of affordable phone contact adds a barrier for inmates trying to gain parole, Pacey said.

"Say somebody was applying for day parole and part of their day parole was that they had to establish that they had community support," she said. "If they can't have contact with those people–in order to establish what halfway house they are going to end up at, and whether or not that is close to family, and whether family [will] provide them with financial support–it bars them from being able to set up a plan for a return to the community."

Bayes said the problem could relate to institutions not wanting "to worry about managing or monitoring phones". B.C. Corrections Branch spokesperson Lisa Lapointe previously said that call costs are structured in a way that supports the running of the Inmate Call Control System implemented in April 2001.

"That is a telephone system that provides inmates with access to telephone service while maintaining institutional security and maintaining public safety," Lapointe told the Straight on April 27.

"What they are telling you is, 'We have a security problem,'" Bayes said. "'We have a problem being able to effectively manage our prison, so what we'll do is make it so prohibitively expensive that you can't do that.'"