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Canada

Russomanno: Stop isolating inmates with restrictive telephone policy, Ontario

Nothing could be more natural than to pick up the phone and hear the familiar voice of a friend or relative. Unless, of course, you happen to be whiling away your time in a provincial detention centre – in which case, this fundamental human need is so outrageously costly and unwieldy as to be out of reach for most inmates.

Under a policy that still holds sway in Ontario – notwithstanding frequent criticism – inmates in provincial institutions cannot place a call to a cellphone. In addition, calls to land lines must be placed collect. This may sound like a mere irritant, but it becomes a nightmare for those serving a sentence or awaiting trial. They are effectively cut off from loved ones and legal counsel.

Any consideration of this anomaly must begin by recognizing two realities. First, the act of removing an offender from home and society is the actual punishment. In Canada, we do not pile on further punishment just because we can. Second, approximately 70 per cent of provincial inmates are awaiting trial. They have not been found guilty of anything. They may ultimately be acquitted. Those affected also tend to be disproportionately poor, racialized or Indigenous. Many suffer from mental illness or are otherwise marginalized.

Approximately 70 per cent of provincial inmates are awaiting trial. They have not been found guilty of anything. They may ultimately be acquitted.

Without doubt, the province’s unconscionable phone policy is rooted in some arcane bureaucratic or security concern. However, any such rationale fails to explain why policies in provinces such as Quebec and in federal penitentiaries are more flexible and humane.

A 2017 inquest into the death of Cleve Geddes amounted to a particularly poignant condemnation of Ontario’s procedures. Geddes, a severely schizophrenic man who ended up in the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre because there were no beds available at a psychiatric facility, was awaiting a judge-ordered assessment. He was unable to reach his main family contact, his sister, because she had only a cellphone. Alone, frightened and disoriented, Geddes hanged himself in his cell. His family did not learn of his incarceration until it was too late.

Reports in the Citizen have also exposed instances where relatives were left on the hook for outrageous phone bills. In one instance, a woman living in a retirement home was billed $6,079 for collect and long-distance charges over a three-month period in which her son was an inmate at OCDC. This injustice was heightened when he was eventually acquitted and released.

Ontario’s status quo also raises important questions of injustice. Like any defence counsel, my clients are often thwarted in their attempts to reach me by phone to discuss their case and convey instructions. This impediment can, in turn, lead to judicial frustration when a case stalls because a lawyer has not been able to obtain instructions. The barrier is particularly damaging when counsel are preparing a bail plan or a trial. All of this just adds to the inefficiency of an already backlogged justice system.

Visiting clients in person can be equally problematic. Defence counsel are usually able to see a client at a detention centre in Gatineau within a day or two. In contrast, gaining access to a client in an Ottawa institution typically takes two weeks. This regional discrepancy serves to compound the obstacles created by phone policies.

A contract between Bell Canada and the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General is up for review in 2020, presenting a perfect opportunity to reform the province’s phone policy. However, government representatives have been generally noncommittal about doing so. As usual, a shortage of empathy and goodwill underlie the inertia that invariably infests justice reform.

Most of our most vexing societal problems – from climate change to foreign trade imbalances – are complex and difficult to remedy. Here, on the other hand, is a situation that could be fixed with the stroke of a political pen.

Thus far in its mandate, the Doug Ford government has established a reputation for being distant and devoid of empathy particularly with those that are our most vulnerable. But in 2020, the province could take a step toward transforming its stony public persona by correcting this injustice.

Leo Russomanno is a criminal lawyer and Ottawa Director of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.

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