The Yukon government is forcing inmates at Whitehorse Correctional Centre to pick up the tab for the jail’s new state-of-the-art phone system.
Prisoners, both convicted inmates and those awaiting trail, must pay $1.35 for every local phone call they make.
The charges pay for the new system, which also monitors and records every call being made except those between inmates and their lawyers.
The new fee means many inmates can’t afford to call their lawyers, according to the Yukon’s legal aid director, Nils Clarke.
“It’s utterly perverse. At its worst, they wouldn’t even be able to apply for legal aid because they wouldn’t be able to call us,” Clarke said.
Inmates get an allowance of $2.50 per day, which they can spend at the jail’s canteen or on the new phone system.
Clarke said the extra charge puts undue pressure on prisoners who already face many challenges. His office works with between 90 and 95 per cent of people charged with crimes in the Yukon, and many of them are already at a significant disadvantage when it comes to the legal system.
“It’s an ongoing marginalization of aboriginal people, people suffering from FASD, people who are otherwise mentally ill or suffering from significant substance abuse issues,” Clarke said.
He wants to see calls to legal aid exempted from the new fee system. If that doesn’t happen, Clarke said he’s worried that it will result in a logjam in the courtroom because everyone will have to appear before a judge before they can apply for legal help.
“An additional hour of court time costs a lot more than $1.35,” said Clarke.
“We think it’s unnecessary and shortsighted. We weren’t consulted about its implementation. We’ve asked for clarification prior to talking to the press and we have not received that clarification,” he said.
Neither the N.W.T. or Nunavut charge prisoners for local calls. Charlene Doolittle, the executive director of the N.W.T.‘s legal aid system, agreed with Clarke that imposing fees for inmates calling their lawyers is unfair.
But Dan Cable, the director of policy and communications for the Yukon’s Department of Justice, said fee-for-use phone systems in jails are common in other jurisdictions in Canada.
“They have enough money coming in that they can make one call a day to their lawyer. They can make five calls or eight calls a week. The amount of times that individuals may call their lawyers is not as high as one might think,” Cable said.
Cable said that the jail is still working out some glitches with the new system, and inmates have all been issued with a $30 phone card while the bugs are sorted out.
Inmates are also given a bank account when they arrive at the jail. They can either have their own money deposited, or have family and friends make contributions. For those inmates who have no money at all, the jail issues a $5.05 calling card so they can call their lawyers three times, Cable said.
He said the system was designed to help ensure that inmates are not continuing their criminal activity or harassing victims or witnesses from inside the jail.
“One of the great things about this system is that it allows people to refuse calls. Victims can have their numbers blocked. It allows us to help ensure that there is no further victimization,” Cable said.
The volume of calls and where they go is still being monitored.
“Right now, the inmates have the money in their accounts to make the calls, so I’m not sure that there’s been an issue yet,” Cable said.
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