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Boissiere defection delays prison phone vote

3rd December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By J. Kojo Livingston
Contributing Writer

“It was a helluva setback!!”

These were the words of Public Service Commission Chair Foster Campbell regarding an unexpected turn of events in the November 15 commission meeting. Campbell told The Louisiana Weekly he was certain he had enough votes to pass a bill that would lower the high costs of prison phone calls.

The Commission Chair had a huge surprise coming, “We lost Lambert Boissiere!!! Lambert Boissiere is a Black man. I would say that at least 50 percent of the people in Angola are Black and most of them live in his district. He said he wanted to give the sheriffs more time, but they’ve had years. I hate it. I don’t know why he did it because his district is affected more than anybody else. He knew we had the votes. It was really troubling. He told us he was with us and all of a sudden he wanted to give the Sheriffs more time. They are always going to need more time. They’re not for this!”

Boissiere is the only Black person on the commission and he represents the Greater New Orleans area. Prior to the meeting he claimed to be solidly for the rate cut. But when it came time to vote he abstained, causing the issue to be postponed and
also creating tremendous speculation regarding the types of pressures that might have been used to alter his vote.

The docket for this bill was opened in April of 2011 and published in the official bulletin. Asked what he thought the Sheriffs needed more time to do? Campbell was quick to reply, “Time to kill it. That’s all. Stall to kill. Mr. Fields goes off the commission January 31– we’ll get a new commissioner and he will not be for this. So this will be dead and if it dies it falls right at the feet of Lambert Boissiere. Right at his feet; nobody else’s because he could have passed it.”

Many families of inmates and others testified at the meeting regarding the hardships imposed by the high rates and extra charges. “It’s a shame because these poor people on the outside cannot talk to people incarcerated,” said Campbell. “The children can’t talk to their dads. The people on the outside didn’t break the law they’re working and trying to keep families together and they can’t pay the high price to talk on these phones. It costs 30 cents a minute.”

The sheriffs argue that they need the money from the phone rates but no one claims the rates are fair. “We’re going to cut them 25 percent,” says Campbell, “It’s not like we’re going to throw them completely out. It’s the wrong thing to do. You’re putting your foot on the poorest of the poor. These people have a right to talk to their families. If you’re going to rehabilitate anyone it’s going to have to be through rehabilitation. We want to let them talk to their wives and their kids and their grandmothers but they can’t today because it costs too much.”

The morality of the prison rates which are 15 times that of normal rates was raised by several witnesses at the hearing. In fact, one minister raised the Christian perspective reflected in the words of Christ regarding treating “the least of these among you” as they would himself. Christ names prisoners on the list that included the poor and the sick. He asked “Which side would Jesus be on? The ethics of price-gouging was not an issue that the Sheriffs wanted to address.

According to Campbell, The phone rates highlight another ethical issue that will have to be addressed. “At least 50 percent of the people who fill parish and city jails have not even had a trial.” In other words, most of the inmates in local facilities have not been proven to be criminals. They are only guilty of not making bail. Yet they are being punished with high phone rates and the sheriffs continually seek funding to expand their facilities.

“That’s about one word, greed,” said the Commissioner.

Campbell could not hide his chagrin at the Boissiere defection, “He’s probably blown it. I hate it. They’ll always have a reason not to do it. Mr. Boissiere had a chance to help thousands of Black people in Louisiana and he didn’t do it. There’s no compromise on this, either you want to help the people or you don’t. Now it’s going to be real hard to pass it. We had two solid votes; all he had to do was vote with us. We had a lot of ministers there. We had the Catholic Church, the Methodist Church. How could he do that representing New Orleans and up and down that river where thousands of people are incarcerated from his area” In Angola more than 50 percent are from New Orleans. He had a chance to let them make their calls before Christmas and Easter he didn’t do it. I’m very disappointed.”

Campbell says that the operations are not only unfair but also violate the law. “Some of the fees are charged by the operators is illegal. If you go to jail you have to put up a $50 deposit. They take $7 for some kind of origination fee and if you have any money left over they take $5 to give your money back. That is illegal. You’re taking money from people illegally and the people have a right to a refund. This is going to get worse. It’s a shame.”

In a very-related story, the Federal Communication Commission is considering a proposal to cap the rates charged to families of prisoners. Mounting public pressure seems to be having an effect. The next step is for the FCC Commissioners to vote on the text of a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.” If successful, the FCC would open a new comment period for the public and the prison telephone industry to submit evidence on whether the regulation should be implemented. This could trump whatever the state PSC does or declines to do at its December 12 meeting.

To make your voice heard on this issue call each of the five commissioners prior to the December 12 meeting. Their districts and phone numbers are below.

Calling and written letters are the most persuasive forms of contact from a distance.
District 1 (Jefferson Parish, North Shore, etc.): Eric Skrmetta, 800 228 9368
District 2 (Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houma-Thibodeaux), Jimmy Field, 800 256 6004
District 3 (New Orleans, River Parishes, Baton Rouge), Lambert Boissiere III, 800-256-2413
District 4 (Alexandria, Lake Charles, SW LA), Clyde Holloway, 800-256-2490
District 5 (North LA), Foster Campbell, 800-256-2412.

This article originally published in the December 3, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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