Prisoners' rights advocates say restrictions on calls from correctional facilities are cutting off access to families and “directly affecting the mental health of prisoners”
Bell Let’s Talk Day, Bell Canada’s annual campaign to get people talking about mental health, is being marked today (January 29) by people across the country. The company will donate a nickel to mental health initiatives every time somebody uses its #BellLetsTalk hashtag online.
But the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project will be protesting the campaign outside the telecom’s corporate offices on Adelaide this afternoon. They’ll be there to demand changes to the Offender Telephone Management System, an exclusive contract between the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General and Bell Canada to provide telephone services to inmates in the province’s correctional facilities.
Under the current plan, inmates cannot make phone calls to cell phones or automated switchboards. The calls can also be expensive for inmates trying to maintain a connection to family and friends in the outside world. The Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project is calling on the province and Bell Canada to provide free calling for inmates and for the elimination of the 20 minute cut-off on calls.
When Moka Dawkins was held in the Toronto South Detention Centre, she says her mother in Montreal was racking up $300 to $500 per month in collect call fees.
“It was difficult for my family to be there for me in the most devastating time in my life because the phone bill was too high,” said Dawkins. “Depression plays a really strong role behind those walls and it leads to suicidal thoughts, especially when you can’t reach people you need the most like your family or your lawyer.”
Alannah Fricker, a co-organizer of the protest representing Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Ryerson University, says the current plan is “directly affecting the mental health of prisoners” and “destroying connections of families in our community.”
The five-year contract between Bell Canada and the Ontario government is set to expire later this year, and according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, inmates will be able to call cell phones under the new system “at reasonable rates.”
According to the spokesperson, the system in place now is designed to “restrict the ability of inmates to conduct criminal activity.”
Monte Vieselmeyer, a correctional officer and active member of the Corrections Division of the Ontario Public Service Workers Union (OPSEU), supports easier phone access for inmates.
“Anything that creates less hostility within the range, so everyone has access to what they need and when they need it, improves everyone’s mental health,” he says.
In advance of Ontario’s 2020 budget, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the OPSEU corrections division have jointly called on the province to fix the “inhumane conditions” and “gross overcrowding” in prisons by increasing front line staffing.
“We need to make sure people are able to be in contact with their family members on a daily basis especially those who are suffering from mental illness,” says Yusuf Faqiri, whose brother Soleiman died after 11 days in the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario.
During those 11 days, Soleiman was waiting to be transferred to a mental health facility. His family was unable to visit or contact him. Faqiri says “BellLetsTalk is a commendable campaign and we should have it every day,” and although his concern is more with the Ministry of the Solicitor General “that did not allow communication with my brother,” he says that “we all need to be a voice for other families who are overwhelmed by the system.”
Bell spokesperson Isabelle Boulet was unavailable when contacted by NOW for comment.
Many, including Karen Letofsky, associate director for the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, praise Bell for its efforts as a corporate leader in raising awareness and de-stigmatizing mental illness.
And while Letofsky believes some criticisms of the Bell campaign are legitimate, she says, “I do not believe it should be allowed to undermine the benefits of the campaign. While it gets you coverage it may not be the best way of addressing the issue in the end.”
Bell Let’s Talk has undeniably caused people to start talking about mental health, but who’s listening?