BOSSIER CITY – Today’s key decision by the Federal Communications Commission to set rates for all telephone calls from jails and prisons across America is the right move for Louisiana, according to Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell.
“This is one instance where a federal takeover of local affairs makes sense,” Campbell said. “Only a handful of states have had the courage to take on the inmate telephone companies and the politics associated with this industry.
“This FCC decision will affect Louisiana more than any other state, because we incarcerate more people per capita than any place on Earth. It will mean fair and just treatment for the families accepting calls from 40,000 inmates in state and local jails.”
The FCC adopted a tiered rate structure for all calls from jail – local, long-distance and international. The rates range from a low of 11 cents a minute for calls from state or federal prisons to 22 cents a minute for calls from the smallest local jails holding up to 349 inmates.
Campbell, the North Louisiana representative on the Louisiana PSC, led a two-year fight resulting in the establishment of a 24-cent-per-minute average rate for calls from Louisiana jails and prisons in 2012. Since then he’s lost repeated attempts to keep inmate phone companies from inflating their bills with unauthorized fees and surcharges.
“I’m pleased to see the FCC address this industry’s underhanded practice of adding illegal charges to bills,” Campbell said. “We found companies charging fees to open accounts, add telephones to accounts and even issue refunds.
“Some companies would even confiscate customer money left in accounts after a certain period of time.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn cited their desire to ensure that rates for telephone calls between inmates and their families be “just, reasonable and fair.” They said correctional facilities and inmate calling companies need the revenue to provide safety and crime prevention, but not so much that communication between inmates and family members is prohibitively expensive.
“These reforms will help inmates and their families stay in touch by making calling more affordable, and benefit society as a whole by helping inmates transition more smoothly back into society upon their release,” the FCC commissioners said.
In 2013 the FCC set caps on the cost of inmate calls crossing state lines. A year later the federal commission said it was planning to set rates for “intrastate” calls, or those that stay within state boundaries.
Campbell noted that some states object to the FCC intruding on state authority to set rates for intrastate calls, but he supports the federal move.
“There’s a reason only a small number of states took on this task: the politics were just too hot. It was a job for the federal government.”
To illustrate his point, Campbell referred to the recent visit to America by Pope Francis.
“One of the places the Pope visited was a jail, to remind us of our moral obligation to rehabilitate prisoners. What does our Louisiana commission do when the Louisiana Catholic Bishops show their support for lower rates for inmate calls? One of our commissioners accuses their representative of lying!
“That shows how difficult the politics of inmate telephone reform can be.”
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