Last summer, a 65-year-old at a Montreal seniors’ home racked up a phone bill of $6,072.12 in just three months. Administrators at the complex were so alarmed they warned her she was being defrauded.
When she reviewed the bill, however, she realized the charges originated from the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, a provincial prison where her son was being held on domestic-abuse allegations. His criminal charges were eventually dropped, but the phone charges remained.
The tenant couldn’t afford the whole bill at once, so she opted for a payment plan: $50 a month for 11 years.
“They’ve got me until I’m 76 years old,” said the tenant, Isabel, whose full name The Globe and Mail is withholding to avoid discrimination against her son. “He was innocent, yet this huge bill came our way. That’s what makes this whole thing more infuriating.”
As it turned out, she was not the victim of fraud, but rather a telephone system in Ontario prisons that critics say divides families, deters rehabilitation and limits access to the justice system by hitting a vulnerable population with exorbitant bills. Bell Canada holds the contract for providing phone service at Ontario prisons. On Wednesday, the 10th anniversary of Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to eliminate stigma around mental health, advocates for prisoners called on the company and the province to make the phone system free.