Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Private company making millions off Sask. jail calls

Texas firm gets 90% of profits, 10% is for inmate trust account


A Texas-based company has made nearly $9 million off phone calls from Saskatchew­an jails, while the province has received less than $1 million from those calls.

In 2010, the government of Saskatchew­an entered into a contract with a company called Synergy for a service known as Telmate.

Prisoners often pay to make phone calls and when they do, 90 per cent of the money charged goes to Telmate.

Telmate has made more than $1 million each year the contract has been in place, with yearly commission­s averaging around $1.3 million.

The province takes 10 per cent of the money from those calls and deposits it to a trust account for inmates.

That fund has made less than $1 million since the arrangemen­t with Telmate started, earning an average of $140,511.36 in any given year.

Last year saw $121,316.23 divided among the five adult custody facilities, where it was managed under provincial regulation­s — with, according to officials, input from local inmate committees.

The regulation­s allow the money to be used for programmin­g and activities; but generally, justice officials say it goes toward equipment, supplies for leisure time activities, as well as subscripti­ons to newspapers and TV.

After six inmates escaped from the Regina Provincial Correction­al Centre (RPCC) in 2008, the province commission­ed a study that said telephone-monitoring equipment should be installed.

Telmate won the bid and enables the province to discover illegal activity being discussed over the phone.

It records calls and, when inmates escape, has been used to aid in recapturin­g the escaped inmates.

Sarah Buhler, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchew­an’s College of Law, has researched the issue of jail phone calls.

Buhler says when it comes to making phone calls, “The prisoner’s can’t go out on the market and get a different contract” and that allows companies like Telmate to charge high fees.

Starting Monday, the cost of local calls in Saskatchew­an jails is going up.

Rather than costing $1.35 for 20 minutes, it will cost $2.50 for 20 minutes.

In an effort to rebalance commission­s from jail calls, the province will also now be allowing every inmate a free daily call.

Long-distance call costs are decreasing from $7.50 for 20 minutes to $2.50 for 20 minutes.

Inmates are also being offered the option to buy calls in bulk. For $35 a month, they can make two calls a day for 15 days.

Buhler sees the province’s rejigging of phone services as a “step in the right direction” but still has concerns.

Having to pay for phone calls is “placing a burden on an already burdened community” and buying a $35 package “will definitely be a barrier for people.”

The province says it will be tracking how many people buy bulk calls for $35, but already some are concerned with the money they receive.

Another change made this year is taking away the “daily dollar” from inmates and their wages for working are being reduced from $3 a day to $1.

An unsolicite­d letter from inmates at the RPCC outlines how there are already concerns over accessing funds and says inmates “have been denied access to our more stronger forms of positive support” because of recent changes.

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