Private Companies in Saskatchewan Prisons: The Impact of the Increasing Cost Barrier for Accessing Inmate Telecommunications

This comment explores the impact of outsourcing inmate telecommunication services in Saskatchewan to a private company, GTL, which provides calling technology in correctional facilities. This technology has resulted in excessive pricing schemes for inmate calling and detrimental effects on inmate health and well-being.

In 2006, an experimental privatized prison in Ontario, Central North Correctional Centre (“Central North”), closed its doors. Characterized as a “bizarre venture”1 in the history of corrections in Canada, Central North was an unsuccessful attempt at transplanting the United States’ private prison model into Canada.2 Central North failed for multiple reasons but ultimately closed due to concerns over poor prisoner healthcare, inadequate security, and high rates of recidivism.3 Following the end of the Central North experiment, Canadian correctional centres have remained exclusively under government control.4

Despite Central North’s failure and the recognition that a privatized prison system is ill-suited for Canada, Saskatchewan has imported an element of privatization into correctional centres in the province. In 2010, the Government of Saskatchewan signed a contract with a private company, Telmate Inmate Communications (“Telmate”),5 to provide inmate telecommunication services by selling calling packages to prisoners.6 Telmate provides services for more than three hundred correctional facilities in Canada and the United States.7 The use of Telmate services in provincial custodial facilities is authorized by The Correctional Services Act, 2012,8 which stipulates in s. 29 that “[t]he head of corrections may establish communication systems for use in correctional facilities that provide inmates with means to communicate with other persons, including other inmates.”9

Using a private technology provider such as Telmate monopolizes a service that is integral to inmate health and well-being. As noted by Associate Professor Sarah Buhler from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law, “[t]he prisoner’s [sic] can’t go out on the market and get a different contract,”10 enabling private companies to set high fees. Although the Government of Saskatchewan addressed concerns regarding caller inaccessibility by granting inmates one free call per day, governmental interests continue to dominate the narrative surrounding inmate telecommunications. From the government’s perspective, there is an incentive to select the company that offers the highest commission rate: “the actual consumers have no input in the bidding process—mak[ing] the prison telephone market susceptible to prices that are well-above ordinary rates for non-incarcerated persons.”11

The impact of expensive calling is not limited to the incarceration period:

Studies demonstrate that telephone access increases the success of release planning and reintegration, and that maintaining contact with family, friends and supports not only improves prisoners’ mental and emotional health during incarceration, but also notably reduces recidivism after release.12

Signing a contract with a private company that seeks to profit from inmates does not align with what many perceive the purpose of prisons to be: a balance between rehabilitation, punishment, and deterrence.13 The system is inherently flawed. Without giving inmates the tools to succeed upon release, there will continue to be high recidivism rates.

Telmate’s prices for single calls and bundled calls vary. The Government of Saskatchewan website states that prepaid calling packages can be purchased for as low as $1 plus tax and fees per call.14 However, purchasing a calling package requires an upfront payment, which is unmanageable for the friends or families of some inmates. For a single prepaid call, the rates are closer to $2.50 for twenty minutes and are subject to additional fees.15 Calls can be purchased directly at correctional centres, but this can be an issue for the friends or families of many inmates, as finding transportation may not be feasible. Alternatively, deposits can be made online through Synergy Inmate Phone Solutions,16 but these deposits are taxed extensively. For an online deposit, there is a 5 per cent charge in addition to the 11 per cent Goods and Services Tax and Provincial Sales Tax.17 The pricing system and additional fees for making online deposits speak to one purpose: profit.

The significance of the pricing system is best illustrated by comparing calling fees to inmates’ wages. While incarcerated, prisoners are given an opportunity to earn money by working. Prior to 2013, federal inmates were paid approximately $6.90 per day for working while incarcerated. However, during former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s time in office, extensive cuts were made and the resulting wage was $2 per day.18 While these changes were implemented on the federal level, provincial correctional centres have also witnessed significant decreases for inmate wages, with inmates earning as little as $1 a day.19 As articulated by Jarrod Shook, a former inmate, “if you work it out on an hour to hour basis, assuming that prisoners work about six hours a day, [it’s] pennies per hour that prisoners are being paid for the work that they do.”20 In some instances, inmates might need to save their wages for days to afford a single phone call.

Academics in this area state that expensive calling is adding a “burden on an already burdened community”21 because calling is not the only expense that inmates incur. Prisoners are responsible for purchasing basic medications, hygiene products such as deodorant, and spare clothing.22 In addition to these personal expenses, many inmates try to save in preparation for their release and may also be providing financial support to their families.23

The Government of Saskatchewan purportedly justifies the outsourcing of calling services by reinvesting its portion of earnings into improving inmate life; however, the portion that stays within the province is meagre in comparison to Telmate’s share. According to a 2017 news article, the service had generated over $9,000,000 from Saskatchewan prisons since the signing of the contract in 2010, with only 10 per cent of those earnings staying within the province.24 Telmate makes over $1,000,000 annually from the service, whereas in 2016, only $121,316.23 stayed in the province.25 Statements regarding precisely how the province’s share is spent have been vague. Regulations state that the money can be used for inmate activities and programming.26 Most often, the funds are used for “equipment, supplies for leisure time activities, as well as subscriptions to newspapers and TV.”27

Despite Telmate’s decades of experience in inmate telecommunications, there are complications with the services the company provides. AIDS Saskatoon and others, including Professor Buhler, note the following key areas of concern: the high cost for telephone access is disproportionate to inmates’ wages; there are safety issues while using the telephones; accessibility is limited due to a low number of telephone units in the centres; technological failures are frequent; and discretional issues arise in the social context surrounding telephone use because there is no uniform conduct guideline.28

Although all calling systems have a cost, it is difficult to justify a private company making commissions from inmate services in Saskatchewan prisons. Although the money Saskatchewan retains is reinvested in services intended to benefit correctional facilities, there is the underlying question of whether the cost for inmates could be reduced if Saskatchewan used a different company. For example, there are questions as to why the provincial correctional centres outsource calling when Saskatchewan has a Crown communications corporation, SaskTel. Given the company’s extensive resources, SaskTel is undoubtedly equipped to handle the security and technology that is required for correctional contracts.29

Despite the fact that the money generated from Telmate’s services is used to improve corrections in Saskatchewan, the use of an expensive calling system minimizes emotional support during periods of incarceration. Inmates are seemingly left with little means to maintain connections with relatives and members of their support systems and, as a result, likely feel an increased disconnect upon their release if they are unable to maintain these relationships.30 This lack of support can result in an increased likelihood of recidivism, and can place individuals in a cycle of repeat offending.31 Debate over the true purpose of our prisons is at the forefront of these conversations: are we aiming for a strictly punitive purpose in which a profit-from-punishment system is a benefit, or are we looking to rehabilitate offenders and lower rates of recidivism? The use of privatized prison services makes it difficult to achieve both.

* J.D. Candidate (Saskatchewan).

1 Alex Roslin, “Stephen Harper opens door to prison privatization”, The Georgia Straight (21 November 2007), online: <>, archived: <>.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 See generally Roslin, supra note 1, quoting Federal Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day stating that “‘The question of privatization is not on the table’” for Canadian prisons; see also “Ontario to take back control of private super-jail”, CBC News (10 November 2006), online: <>. No other private prisons have been opened or operated since the closing of North Central in 2006.

5 DC Fraser, “Private firm making millions off of Sask. jail calls”, Regina Leader Post (30 April 2017), online: <>, archived: <> [Fraser, “Private Firm”]. In 2017, Telmate was purchased by GTL, a company that specializes in inmate communications and government payment services. GTL and Telmate are not the only two names involved in communications for Saskatchewan Corrections. Synergy Inmate Phone Solutions acts in partnership with Telmate and allows online deposits for the use of Telmate services. For the purposes of this blog, I focus specifically on Telmate technology and refer to the provider as Telmate for consistency and because Telmate was the company that originally signed the contract with the Government of Saskatchewan. See generally Telmate, “GTL Acquires Telmate, a Leading Provider of Secure Corrections Solutions and Community Corrections and Probation, Parole Applications” (1 August 2017), online: <>, archived: <>. See also Synergy Inmate Phone Solutions, “About Us” (2010), online: <>, archived: <>.

6 AIDS Saskatoon et al, “The High Costs of Calling: Telephone Access in Saskatchewan’s Correctional Centres” (7 June 2017) at 4, 14–15, online (pdf): University of Saskatchewan <>, archived: <>.

7 Telmate, supra note 5.

8 SS 2012, c C-39.2.

9 Ibid, s 29.

10 Fraser, “Private Firm”, supra note 5.

11 Drew Kukorowski, “The price to call home: state-sanctioned monopolization in the prison phone industry” (11 September 2012), online: Prison Policy Initiative <>, archived: <>.

12 AIDS Saskatoon et al, supra note 6 at 3.

13 Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 718.

14 Government of Saskatchewan, “Calling an Inmate” (last visited 7 January 2020), online: <>, archived: <>.

15 Ibid.

16 Synergy Inmate Phone Solutions, “Deposits” (last visited 7 January 2020), online: <>, archived: <>.

17 Government of Saskatchewan, supra note 14.

18 Claire Brownell, “Prisoners Making $1.95 a Day Want a Raise. Taxpayers want a Break”, Financial Post (30 August 2017), online: <>, archived: <>.

19 Taline McPhedran, “Saskatchewan inmates on strike after daily wages reduced to $1”, CTV News (4 May 2017), online: <>, archived: <>. See also DC Fraser “Inmates in Saskatchewan jails see pay reduced”, Regina Leader-Post (26 April 2017) online: <>, archived: <>; AIDS Saskatoon et al, supra note 6 at 15.

20 Interview of Jarrod Shook by Alan Neal, “Inmate Pay Cut” (30 January 2018) on All in a Day, CBC Radio, Ottawa at 00h:03m:14s, online (podcast): <>, archived: <>.

21 Fraser, “Private Firm”, supra note 5 (quoting Sarah Buhler).

22 Shook, supra note 20 at 00h:03m:28s.

23 Ibid at 00h:03m:40s.

24 Fraser, “Private Firm”, supra note 5.

25 See ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 AIDS Saskatoon et al, supra note 6 at 14–25.

29 Jason Demers, “Warehousing Prisoners in Saskatchewan” (September 2014) at 35, n 46, online (pdf): Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives <>, archived: <>.

30 See AIDS Saskatoon et al, supra note 6 at 9:

While offenders are in prison, visits from family and friends offer a means of establishing, maintaining, or enhancing social support networks. Strengthening social bonds for incarcerated offenders may be important not only because it can help prevent them from assuming a criminal identity but also because many released prisoners rely on family and friends for employment opportunities, financial assistance, and housing.

31 Ibid at 8–10.

Share this story