Every January, Bell puts out a market spin in the form of an awareness campaign – you may know it as #BellLetsTalk. Once a year, Bell prides itself on its ability to “start a conversation about mental health,” while simultaneously spending the rest of the year exploiting its workers by underpaying, not offering health benefits, and holding contracts with companies that disenfranchise marginalized people.
Bell donates a few million dollars for this campaign to mental health programs, and infers hundreds of thousands of social media interactions and positive branding mentions from politicians and celebrities. This past campaign raised over $100 million, which is nothing compared to the company’s $23 billion annual revenue.
The reality is that corporations don’t care about the mental health of their employees or their fellow Canadians. It is seemingly a marketing scheme, and results in a tax write off; exploiting your personal experience and pain for profit.
In 2013, Bell signed a contract with the Ministry of Correctional Services, giving Bell control over the phones in Ontario prisons. Toronto Prisoners Rights Project (@letstalkjails) outlines this shady deal in a comprehensive Twitter thread. Here are the main points:
Every call made by an individual from prison is a collect call, costing $1 per minute. These calls are considered local, while a long-distance call can be $25 for 20 minutes. Comparatively, one would have to tweet 20 times with #BellLetsTalk for a one-minute call, 100 tweets for five minutes, and 1200 tweets for an hour.
Calls can only be made to landlines; people in prisons are not allowed to make calls to cell phones. It is estimated that fewer than two-thirds of Ontarians have a landline, making it difficult for an incarcerated person to contact their loved ones. Bell also profits directly from the phone call costs, while the Ministry of Correctional Services reps the rewards.
Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour make up a good portion of the prison population in Canada. Bell and the government are exploiting families, primarily marginalized families, for the ability to contact their loved ones.
But what does this have to do with mental health? With all the showboating Bell does with their one-day-a-year acknowledgement of mental health issues, it is hard to ignore the direct impact they have on the mental health and well-being of incarcerated people. Bell Canada is actively exploiting the mental health of vulnerable incarcerated people for profit.
After an incident in 2017 at an Ottawa prison, where Cleve Geddes died by suicide after attempting to reach out during a mental health crisis, a coroner made the following recommendations:
“[The Ministry] should ensure that the phone system… is changed to make it easier for inmates to make outgoing phone calls. Specifically, the phones available to inmates should be able to call cell phones, and should not only make collect calls.” Since the recommendation, nothing has changed.
The Prison Phone contract expired at the end of January 2020. To help stop Bell and the Ministry of Correctional Services from profiting and exploiting incarcerated people and their families, you may contact the Ministry of the Solicitor General, Sylvia Jones MPP. Toronto Prisoners Rights Project has made the following demands: (1) free calls, (2) no 20-minute caps on calls, (3) calls to cellphones and switchboards.