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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.

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“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.

“We think that the free telecommunication is less costly than the cost of separating people from their families, from their supports,” said Souheil Benslimane, co-ordinator of the Jail Accountability and Information Line, a hotline fielding calls from prisoners at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) concerned about jail conditions. “When people are cut off from their families, they become angry; they become ill; they cannot co-ordinate with loved ones when they get out and they end up back in jail.”

Bell’s contract with the province, signed in 2013 and expiring later this year, states that rates should not exceed the basic residential rate charged in the community surrounding the prison. In a statement, Bell Canada spokesman Nathan Gibson said the cost is comparable to public pay phones, not to home-phone packages. The company advertises basic home-phone service for $46.45 a month with an extra $10 a month for unlimited long distance in North America.

Isabel managed to top that monthly rate in just two calls. Her phone bill shows charges as high as $30.43 for single calls from the jail, each capped at 20 minutes. That squares with the experiences of other prisoners.

“To call locally, I pay two bucks, but calling Toronto or Vancouver is 30 bucks a call,” said Deepan Budlakoti, a current prisoner at OCDC.

Unlike the federal and other provincial prison systems, Ontario allows for calls only to numbers that can accept collect charges. That prohibits calls to cellphones, forcing many families to get home-phone lines for the sole purpose of talking to an incarcerated relative.

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It also poses access-to-justice issues, said Mr. Budlakoti, who had to postpone his bail hearing three times while trying to track down lawyers and family members on landlines to arrange legal representation and sureties.

Prisons do post phone numbers of toll-free social-service agencies, but Mr. Budlakoti said the current list at OCDC is largely out of date. “There are 24 numbers on the list here and a lot of them don’t even work,” he said. “The John Howard Society number doesn’t work. The lawyer referral number doesn’t work. It’s a joke.”

In its policy and procedures manual, the province acknowledges that phone calls are “important for rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society.” That jibes with voluminous research showing the value of family contact to a prisoner’s mental health and prospects following release.

“Regular calls are absolutely critical,” said Louise Leonardi, executive director of Canadian Families and Corrections Network. “It’s better for the person inside; it’s better for the family on the outside and any children. With strong supports, that person is less likely to reoffend, and that means better public safety for you and me. Everybody wins.”

The Ministry of the Solicitor-General has been aware of the burdensome phone bills for years. A 2016 ministry briefing note obtained by The Globe states the Liberal government of the day was considering alternative options to collect calling “in order to assist inmates with limited income.”

The province has a financial stake in the status quo. The contract shows that Bell pays the government a commission from its gross monthly prison revenues, but the exact figures were redacted.

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“I find that aspect repulsive,” said lawyer Michael Spratt, who filed an access-to-information request for the contract to examine why his firm was spending thousands of dollars a month to receive collect calls from prisoners who were simply exercising their constitutional right to contact counsel. “Gone are the days when we should be profiting off an incarcerated population."

Ministry spokeswoman Kristy Denette said the government intends to provide phone services at “reasonable rates” and allow prisoners to call cellphones in its next contract. Bell is among the bidders.

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