New phone plan for provincial prisoners

Fees are an act of aggression against criminalized communities

With all the deaths at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, the public may feel like it’s time for some good news coming from provincial jails in Manitoba. Well, sorry to disappoint. 

Last month, a private company called Synergy took over the inmate financial and telephone systems in provincial institutions. Up until then, the costs of phone calls were ostensibly rolled into the prices for the rest of canteen items (hygiene, food, stamps, etc.) and inmates had roughly an hour and a half of “free” calls every day. 

Since this new system went live, people are charged $3 for every fifteen minutes or $12 an hour. For the amount of phone time under the previous arrangement, costs would be in the $700-a-month range. To make things worse, deposits made into inmates’ accounts have fees, which have seen one family’s deposit of $100 turn into $88 (12 per cent). 

Those who work with the oppressive so-called “justice system” know that the vast majority of people ensnared in its hungry teeth are poor. Add to that the fact that the few jobs to go around in jails pay microscopic wages. 

This new system will have two major effects: cutting off contact for families and friends who cannot afford the new fees, and for those who can make the sacrifice, it’s added bills for people already struggling to make ends meet. Of course, Synergy makes a tidy profit.

Those playing devil’s advocate may point out that calls to lawyers and certain social service agencies will remain free. This paternalistic approach (“these are the people you should be in touch with”) assumes the system knows best for criminalized people, or worse yet, that it has the best intentions for them. That the prison system, alongside the child welfare system, has been repeatedly called the “new residential school system” should put that attitude to rest. 

The new phone system further isolates incarcerated people and deepens the gulf between them and their chosen and familial support systems, and is an act of aggression on the part of Manitoba Justice against criminalized communities. 

That a private company is making a profit off this oppression is gross, but the question of whether this drives the policy is one of the chicken and the egg: the whole system feeds off historical oppressions and their every innovation.

Those who keep the best interests of already vulnerable people in mind wouldn’t institute a system like this, and it should be noted that it was the NDP who did, when they were still in power last winter. It’s time to leave behind the naive and comforting idea that the prison system is simply failing and only needs to be tinkered with and improved until it works perfectly. Synergy’s new phone system is just the newest degradation within an unredeemable system of control and humiliation, division and isolation.

Stéphane Doucet works with Bar None, a local prison abolitionist group, and the Justice for Errol campaign.

Published in Volume 71, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 17, 2016)

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