The proposal to reduce the phone rates first came before the LPSC for a vote on November 15, 2012. At that hearing, Commissioners Foster L. Campbell and Jimmy Field voted in favor of the proposal while Commissioners Eric Skrmetta and Clyde Holloway voted against. Responding to pleas from sheriffs, Commissioner Lambert C. Boissiere III abstained, wanting to give the sheriffs another month to review the proposal before deciding whether he would vote in favor of cutting prison and jail phone rates. The LPSC then voted 3-2 to defer the vote until December.
Former prisoners, prisoners’ family members, attorneys and advocates took the stand at the LPSC hearings in November and December to testify in support of lowering the high costs of prison phone calls so they could more easily communicate with friends, loved ones and clients behind bars.
“I have the 10-year-old, who wants to hear from her father. ‘Mom, can Dad call? Can he call this month?’” said Espinola Quinn at the November 15 LPSC hearing.
“The telephone calls are really all [my children] have, and in some cases and some months, they don’t even have that,” Quinn stated.
Louisiana sheriffs raised the strongest opposition to the statewide phone rate reduction.
Sheriffs claimed that the loss of revenue from the high phone rates would negatively impact corrections budgets. Sheriff Newell Normand of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana said his office makes $1 million a year off prisoner phone calls; of that amount, $830,000 is used to “help pay other expenses.”
Louisiana, which incarcerates the most people per capita in the nation, is not unlike the more than 40 other states that make money off kickbacks from prison phone calls.
However, the Louisiana Department of Corrections’ new contract with Securus Technologies for phone services at the Angola Penitentiary and 10 other state prisons includes a 70% commission rate – one of the highest kickbacks for prison telephone calls in the United States.
Commissioner Campbell’s initial proposal included a 25% rate cut for all prison and jail phone calls and the removal of costly surcharges. Under the proposed revised rates, consumers would pay a $1.69 connection fee and $.05 per minute. This would reduce the average cost of a 10-minute call from Louisiana prisoners to $2.19 from $3.00 – an almost 30% reduction in overall call rates.
At its December 12 hearing, however, the LPSC arrived at a compromise: it cut the rates by 25% for phone calls made by prisoners to “family, clergy, government agencies, schools, legal aid, clinics, rehabilitative organizations and other specifically named entities.” Consistent with Commissioner Campbell’s proposal, the surcharges for prison phone calls – such as a $6.95 fee for establishing a phone account and a $5.00 processing fee for obtaining a refund of unused time – will be eliminated.
“This is a big victory for fairness in the treatment of thousands of Louisiana families with members who are incarcerated,” said Campbell, who chairs the LPSC. “The exorbitant rates they have been paying to speak by telephone with loved ones behind bars will now come down by a third.”
Norris Henderson, executive director of VOTE-NOLA and a former prisoner, testified at the hearings. “This is a great day for the families with loved ones inside the jails and prisons of Louisiana,” he said. “I want to think the members of the Commission who ... put their constituents first. For me this has been a struggle for over 37 years.”
How corrections officials will decide which call recipients will fit under the new rate structure is yet to be determined.
The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, jointly led by Prison Legal News, Media Action Grassroots Network and Working Narratives, congratulates Louisiana activists and advocates on their victory in reducing prison phone costs. The Campaign is pushing for an end to exorbitant prison phone rates across the nation – for more information, visit www.phonejustice.org or see page 27 of this issue of PLN.
Sources: www.digital.turn-page.com, www.theadvocate.com, www.pewstates.org, www.thenewsstar.com
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