Jail Phones – Always Critical

If you’ve ever gone to jail, had someone you care about in jail, or tried to serve a client in jail, then you already know about phones. Phones are everything. Most often, they’re the only access inmates have to the outside world. And if you don’t know this already, just believe me when I say there’s nothing positive going on inside the jail. It isn’t a good place to make new friends, there’s almost nothing useful to do, and the staff who are theoretically there to help with rehabilitation have barely any tools to do so and often no inclination to try. So the outside world is everything.

That’s why it was so significant when the Ontario government, without warning, started screwing with the phone systems in jail. They’ve apparently contracted to a new service provider. Smaller jails changed to the new system over the past few months, and in just the last week or two the larger jails have followed. Not surprisingly, there were problems in implementation. Inmates weren’t able to call their families and friends, and weren’t able to call their lawyers. This should have been considered a disaster by anyone who actually gave a damn, but the Ministry dealt with it as one of those “we’re working on it” problems. Thanks to vocal advocacy from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association – which I’m glad I had a role in – the problem got solved and things seem to be working again. In fact, I’ll even admit the new system is probably somewhat better than the old. But then it was so bad in the past it would have been hard to do worse.

I don’t want to call out the new phone provider by name (though it isn’t hard to search it up if you really care) because they’re a private, for-profit company and it is what it is. Their customer service hasn’t been bad, when I’ve needed to call. But they make money off a literally captive population of clients by selling them access to their only lifeline. And that’s just barbaric. It isn’t the private company that’s responsible for this barbarism. It’s the government that’s decided they don’t want to provide even access to phones for free, and so they find a company to provide the “service” and obviously the private provider charges for the privilege. Ironically, the very same provider touts an article on their website emphasizing how beneficial and important it is for people in jail to stay in touch with their supports on the outside. You’d think something so obvious would be an argument that it should be provided for free to everyone, and not that inmates and their families should be motivated to pay ridiculous rates for something the rest of us take for granted.

There’s no good advice to this particular article. I wish there were. Phones in jail can now, at least, immediately reach mobile numbers (believe it or not they couldn’t) and inmates can pay for the privilege of calling anyone they want without setting up a trap line (again, an innovation). So things are “better,” I guess. It’s just sad how low our expectations really are in this area.

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