Thursday Thinkpiece: Policy, Practice and Privatized Prison Telephones in Saskatchewan

Date:November 07, 2019

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Policy, Practice and Privatized Prison Telephones in Saskatchewan
(2019) 8:1 Can J Hum Rts 1

Sarah Buhler is an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. Amanda Dodge did legal and systemic advocacy at the Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City (CLASSIC) for 8 years. She is currently the director of peace and justice programs at Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan.

Excerpt: Abstract & Part V: At Ground Level: Themes from the Study
[Footnotes omitted. They can be found in the original via the link above]


Governing law and policy in Saskatchewan mandates fair and reasonable telephone access for prisoners in provincial correctional centres. Our community-engaged, qualitative research project investigated the state of telephone access in Saskatchewan correctional centres from the point of view of former prisoners. Our research shows that prisoners’ experiences of telephone access cannot be described as fair or reasonable. Rather, telephone access is experienced by many prisoners as a precarious privilege that is perpetually at risk of revocation by guards. Former prisoners also placed the issue of telephone access squarely within a larger context of institutional violence and deprivation. Finally, our research highlights the ways in which the profit-seeking motives of a private prison telephone company impact prisoners’ day-to-day experiences of unfairness with the telephone system, both in terms of technological problems and cost barriers that include and also go beyond the cost of individual calls.

V. At Ground Level: Themes from the Study

Saskatchewan legislation and policy recognize a right to reasonable telephone access for prisoners, however, there is little detail in official policy or rules outlining how access to the system is to be allocated and monitored. The provincial Corrections Inmate Telephone System Policy provides guidelines and standards for the institutions and their staff to follow as they “allow inmates to have reasonable contact with family, friends and professional counsel.” The Policy specifically affords discretion to the directors of the institutions to establish relevant rules. Section 1.3 provides that “each correctional centre director is responsible for establishing local rules for offender access and utilization of the inmate telephone for personal and business calls.” Section 2.4 of the Policy provides that an internal review process be developed so prisoners can apply for telephone fee waivers on the basis of “exceptional financial and emotional hardship.” Despite this, it does not appear that such a process has been officially developed. The policy also provides that a few categories of calls are exempt from fees (e.g. for remanded and immigration hold prisoners) and that certain types of calls (e.g. to lawyers or the Ombudsman) are free. The institutions and their staff, therefore, have a great deal of discretion in the implementation of telephone access.

We argue that reasonable access should include, at minimum, a telephone system that is accessible, reliable and affordable. Our research shows that the telephone system in Saskatchewan provincial correctional centres cannot be described as such. As noted above, the government announced several changes to the system in 2017, including a universal free call per day plus a new flat rate for both local and long-distance calls. However, our research reveals deeper and persistent problems with the operation of the telephone system at ground level. We turn now to the themes and issues raised in our interviews.

A. The Guards Make the Rules

For the participants in our research, telephone access was a fragile privilege always at risk of being revoked. Not one participant referred to reasonable telephone access as a right held by prisoners. None referred to an awareness, while they were in prison, of the existence of official legislation, policy or institutional rules mandating reasonable telephone access for prisoners. Participants made it clear to us that on the ground in prisons, corrections staff make the rules. One participant explained that telephone access takes place within the larger context of how things work in prison, stating: “In jail, it’s different, it’s a whole different set of rules, it’s totally different from the outside. It’s all about eat or be eaten I guess.” Another explained that the entire telephone system could be shut down at the behest of the staff, stating: “[T]he guards do have control, overall, control in the office. They can shut [the phone system] off.” Another former prisoner stated that when it comes to telephone access, “[t]he staff don’t tell you what the rules are, they just tell you what you are going to do.”

Without awareness of a legal or policy framework that meaningfully supports the concept of reasonable telephone access including, for example, free calls in the case of emergency or emotional hardship, participants explained that telephone access was precarious and fragile. Telephone access was subject to arbitrary interventions by staff to allow and withdraw access. Participants indicated that telephone access was often contingent on prisoners’ relationship with correctional officers and, in particular, their attitude of respect and good behaviour. One participant noted that “if you are caught arguing on the phone … you can lose all access to...

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