Foster Campbell

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner

RIGHTING A WRONG: Louisiana Confronts the High Cost Of Prison Telephone Calls

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Reducing the excessive cost of telephone calls between inmates and their families will reduce crime, lower Louisiana’s incarceration burden, and right a moral wrong.

On November 15th in Baton Rouge I will ask the Public Service Commission to cut by 25 percent the rate that monopoly telephone providers charge to families to speak to their relatives behind bars.

I will also ask that unauthorized charges for such things as opening telephone accounts and getting refunds on unused balances be eliminated immediately.

These moves will provide relief to the families of Louisiana’s 40,000 inmates in 170 state and local jails – the highest number of incarcerated people per capita in the world.

It is not the inmates but their wives, children, parents and grandparents who pay an average of 30 cents a minute to stay in touch with their loved ones in jail.  That is 15 times higher than the going rate for calls on the outside.

Set aside the moral wrong in these outrageous fees and consider the practical side of the issue.  Prison experts agree that allowing inmates to stay in contact with family members is crucial to their rehabilitation and reduces the chances they will return to crime once released from jail.

Cutting the high cost of inmate telephones will not hamper the ability of jails to deter prisoners from criminal activity by telephone.  Those legitimate oversight functions will continue.

Since my service in the Louisiana Senate I have been concerned about the high telephone rates charged to families of Louisiana inmates.  Throughout my public service I have looked out for those who cannot afford a lobbyist, and few groups have less standing in politics than the families of incarcerated people.

The Public Service Commission sets inmate telephone rates and terms of service and has the authority to fix this situation.

Earlier this year I asked the PSC to investigate this industry.  What we found confirmed my concern — that rates for calls between inmates and their families are extreme compared to calls on the outside.

The average cost of all calls from jail in Louisiana is about $3 for a 10-minute call.  That is 30 cents a minute — compared to 2 cents on the outside.

Other southern states are lower than Louisiana.  Texas is about $2.68 for the average 10-minute call and Florida is about $1.21.

At 48 cents New York has the lowest cost for that average 10-minute call – 4.8 cents a minute.

Reducing the rate in Louisiana jails by 25 percent will bring our average to roughly $2.29 for a 10-minute call.  That will make us 14th lowest in the country and 4th lowest in the South.

I will propose that the new rates take effect as soon as current contracts between jails and telephone providers expire, or within two years, whichever happens first.

I will also propose that we immediately stop add-on charges imposed on inmates and families by jail telephone companies.  Despite PSC orders against surcharges in jail telephone contracts, we found charges like $6.95 for funding a telephone account and $5 for getting a refund for unused calling time.

Prisoners and their families have no choice on the company they use to communicate.  That choice is made by the state Department of Corrections, the local sheriff or the jail operator.

Most government contracts go to the low bidder, but in this industry the reverse is true.  Jails seeking an exclusive telephone provider often choose the high bidder — the provider offering the highest commission to the jail.

Case in point: the new contract negotiated by the state Department of Corrections for telephones at Angola Penitentiary and 10 other state jails.  It calls for the DOC to receive an astonishing 70-percent commission.

That contract also provides for a $250,000-per-month guarantee, so the DOC, over the five years of the contract, is guaranteed $15 million or 70 percent of receipts, whichever is greater.

Those millions of dollars will come out of the pockets of families trying to stay in touch with their loved ones behind bars.

Other states have lowered rates by addressing these commissions.  New York banned commissions in 2008 and its 4.8 cents per minute is now the nation’s lowest.

My investigation of prison telephones is not the first by the LPSC.  In the early 1990s the commission found widespread abuses in the industry.  Customers were double-billed, charged exorbitant rates and had time illegally added to their calls.

The commission ordered more than a million dollars in refunds.

In the world outside prison, the cost of telephone calls is declining thanks to technology and competition.  On the inside, high prices for calls prevent inmates from remaining in contact with parents, spouses and children, and make it more difficult for them to adjust to life after prison.

In November the Public Service Commission will be asked to correct this ineffective and immoral situation.