Louisiana Public Service Commission Considers Prison Phone Issues
The Advocate reported in March 2014 that tensions were high between Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) Chairman Eric Skrmetta and PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell during a hearing on issues related to prison and jail phone rates.
Previously, in December 2012, the PSC voted to lower the cost of phone calls made by Louisiana prisoners by cutting the rates of some calls by 25% and prohibiting surcharges. The ban on surcharges went into effect on February 28, 2013, while the rate reduction – which only applies to calls made to family members, clergy, attorneys and certain other parties – was postponed until 2014. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.29; Jan. 2013, p.14; Feb. 2012, p.36].
Two prison phone service providers, City Tele-Coin and Securus Technologies (which also has the phone contract for Louisiana’s state prison system), were subsequently cited by the PSC for contempt for charging additional fees in spite of the prohibition on surcharges.
Commissioner Campbell had championed the prison phone reforms, including the 25% rate reduction. City Tele-Coin and Securus have since petitioned the PSC to rescind the rate cut and ban on surcharges.
Additionally, City Tele-Coin hosted a fundraiser for PSC Chairman Skrmetta’s election campaign, and the company’s owner, Jerry Juneau, and his wife donated $10,000 to Skrmetta’s campaign fund in December 2013.
Although the contempt citations against Securus and City Tele-Coin were pending before administrative law judges, Chairman Skrmetta asked the PSC to settle the cases.
The City Tele-Coin surcharges at issue include an “administrative cost” of up to $10 when opening a direct-pay account; a “processing cost” on direct-pay refunds of $5; a “transfer fee” of up to $2.50 to move balances on direct-pay accounts to a different phone number; and a monthly “inactivity fee” of up to $10 for accounts with no activity in a six-month period.
Securus charges a “processing fee” of $6.95 for credit card and check-by-phone payments; a “wireless administrative fee” of up to $2.99 a month when a user lists a wireless number authorized to receive prison phone calls; and a “processing fee” of $4.95 on refunds from unused accounts.
On April 2, 2014, the PSC held a hearing to address issues related to the contempt citations. Commissioner Campbell had asked the PSC to hire a technical consultant to audit the books of the two prison phone companies, but the Commission rejected his request. Chairman Skrmetta sought to go into a behind-closed-doors executive session to settle the citations against Securus and City Tele-Coin, which also was rejected by the full Commission; consequently, the administrative law process will continue and the verdicts will be reviewed by the PSC. A number of prison phone justice advocates and community faith leaders testified at the hearing as to how the surcharges and high phone rates hurt prisoners’ families and the local community.
Another PSC hearing, held in May 2014, was attended by Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator, who criticized the Commission’s actions to reduce prison and jail phone rates, saying they compromised security at his jail.
“I’m not getting in your business about what the phone rates are. That’s not what I’m here to tell you. I’m just going to emphasize they’ve got to be monitored and we’ve got to have the technology, and it’s expensive to do. Government has to pay for it. We have to pay for it,” Prator said.
The rate reductions also have been criticized by an organization called “Crimefighters,” founded by a retired New Orleans police officer, which took out a full-page ad in the ShreveportTimes accusing Commissioner Campbell of “fighting for the rights of criminals” and “being soft on crime.”
Similarly, Keith Gates, an attorney who is challenging Campbell’s seat on the PSC in elections this fall, accused him of helping “jailbirds.”
On June 6, 2014, in a monthly news column, Commissioner Campbell noted that high prison phone rates have troubled him for more than a decade. “This issue involves millions of dollars collected by monopoly telephone companies, the correctional facilities they do business with, and the families of 40,000 people in jail in Louisiana,” he said.
“The Public Service Commission must assure that monopoly utility companies don’t abuse their customers,” Campbell added. “Inmate families have few advocates to defend them against corporations charging outrageous phone rates and questionable fees.”
PLN will report future developments concerning prison phone rates in Louisiana. If City Tele-Coin and Securus are found guilty of the contempt citations, they face thousands of dollars in fines and the potential loss of their licenses to operate in the state.
Sources: The Advocate, www.shreveporttimes.com, Commissioner Foster Campbell’s monthly news column (June 6, 2014), www.kcbd.com, www.fox8live.com
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