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PSC lowers prison phone rates

26th December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Ben Ledbetter
Contributing Writer

The cost of inmate phone calls will be getting cheaper for Louisiana families.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission recently voted on changes that lowered the rates of phone calls originating from jail by 25 percent.

The vote comes on the heels of the passage of the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners’ (NARUC) resolution on the cost of prison phone calls, as well as an announcement from the Federal Communications Commission that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is circulating a further notice of proposed rulemaking for a vote on the issue. These developments mark the first step forward in a ten-year national effort to make the cost of phone calls made by prisoners more affordable.

However, this only applies to phone calls a prisoner makes to family members, legal counsel, clergy and certain government agencies.

This means the first minute of a qualifying call will cost $1.69 and $.05 each additional minute, resulting in a 12-minute call costing $2.24. However, this could take up to two years for this change to take effect for prisons that have current contracts with vendors. The current rate is $.30 per minute, which means a 12-minute call costs $3.60.

“This is a big victory for fairness in the treatment of thousands of Louisiana families with members who are incarcerated,” PSC Chairman Foster Campbell said in a written statement. “The exorbitant rates they have been paying to speak by telephone with loved ones behind bars will now come down by a third.”

Louisiana is the ninth state in the nation to reform inmate telephone rates, according to Campbell’s executive assistant and spokesperson Bill Robertson. He said Louisiana will have the fourth-lowest rates in the South.

“It’s going to mean relief for a lot of families,” Robertson said. “We’re just bringing the scales a little closer to balance. It’s not easy for these families.”

Robertson said there might be some fine-tuning to the recently approved reform. If the phone companies feel like they need to re-implement the add-on fees that were struck down, they can ask the PSC to revisit the issue.

Campbell’s office worked on the issue for a year and a half and was pleased with the vote that might not have happened if it had been delayed another month, because key supporter Jimmy Field is retiring from the commission this month.

Campbell of Shreveport and Field, of Baton Rouge led the in-state charge to reduce the phone rates that prisoners’ families are forced to pay. Their efforts come after a LaPSC study found that venders are required to pay up to 55 percent of gross revenues to sheriff’s offices and the state – creating a major incentive for both the state and Global Tel*Link, the prison phone provider, to ramp up pricing for prison phone calls.

Last month LaPSC deadlocked on the issue when Commissioner Lambert Boissiere of New Orleans changed his position, citing last-minute concerns raised by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association (LSA). However, Campbell points out that LSA has had close to a year to respond to, or refute, the findings of the LaPSC study but until now has not acted. Thanks to the combined efforts of Campbell, Field and grassroots organizations, the LaPSC voted to cut the cost of prisoners’ calls to families, clergy, government officials, and some others, by 25 percent and to eliminate unauthorized fees charged by prison phone companies.

“For families in Louisiana paying 15 times the amount for a normal collect call, they don’t have the luxury of waiting another month for LSA to respond to a document that has been in front of them for a year,” says Nick Szuberla, Director of Working Narratives. “Today families are paying hundreds of dollars a month to Global Tel*Link and being forced to choose bet­ween keeping children connected to their parents or paying for other necessities like groceries or medication.”

While the lowered phone rates can benefit families, the recently approved rates also highlight the importance of the phone calls to the inmates.

Despite claims from LSA that a reduction in the cost of prison phone calls could have a negative impact on public safety, LaPSC found that reducing the phone rates by 25 percent would have no impact on law enforcement’s ability to screen calls. “Research tells us that making calls from prison affordable and keeping families connected reduces the likelihood of people returning to prison,” says Paul Wright, Director of Prison Legal News. “Lowering the state recidivism rate of nearly 50 percent would cut state costs far more in the long term than would continuing to profit off the backs of vulnerable consumers.”

Norris Henderson runs the New Orleans-based nonprofit organization, Voice of the Ex-Offender, which aims at ending discrimination against those previously incarcerated. Henderson is a former Angola inmate and said while he is appreciative of the work of the PSC on the issue, more work needs to be done.

“It’s very important,” Henderson said. “It’s the first step of a thousand mile journey.”

Henderson said for people that don’t have family, they have an extended family, which may or may not be related to the inmate. He is working with someone now who is receiving help from a former judge and the calls between that judge and the inmate might not be covered under the new rates.

While inmates might have family and others to talk with, the winter holidays can become an important time for phone calls.

“It’s very important, especially this time of year,” Henderson said about phone calls. “The phone call is really important.”

Henderson said an inmate might think about the day he or she can call home, especially the particular day when everyone is likely to be gathering at one location.

“It’s really important this time of year. Most folks will be gathering at someone’s house,” he said. “The phone call is really important.”

A growing legion of diverse groups across the country has come together to push for capping the cost of prison phone calls. According to Steven Renderos, National Organizer for the Media Action Grassroots Network, “This is a bipartisan issue, on both sides of the aisle leaders agree that making calls from prison affordable is critical to keeping families strong and communities safe.”

According to Colorlines.com, a website that covers racial justice issues, most of the states in the nation receive revenue from prison phone rates. The ones that don’t are New Mexico, South Carolina, California, Nebraska, Missouri, Michigan, New York, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.

With this vote, Louisiana becomes the ninth state to regulate the cost of in-state prison phone calls. All eyes now turn to the FCC, as public attention focuses on that federal agency to establish benchmark rates that lower the cost of interstate phone calls made by prisoners to their families.

“It’s the first step of a thousand mile journey,” said Henderson. “It’s the first step of resolving the prison phone problem, not just in Louisiana, but in this country.”

This article was originally published in the December 26, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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