BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The price tag for inmates to call home from Louisiana's prisons and local jails will drop over the next couple of years, under a proposal approved Wednesday by the Public Service Commission after complaints that current rates are burdensome on poor families.
The five-member regulatory panel, which oversees telecommunications companies, unanimously agreed to cut the rates charged for prison calls by about 25 percent when a prisoner is calling family, legal counsel, clergy or certain government agencies like schools.
Surcharges on the calls will be removed.
The changes will take effect in two years or when existing phone contracts expire at the prisons, said Colby Cook, a PSC spokesman.
If prison officials believe they need to charge higher rates or add new fees, they'll have to make individual requests to the regulatory agency.
The issue was contentious, and the PSC deadlocked on it a month earlier while asking for more study. PSC Chairman Foster Campbell pushed for the rate reduction, calling it a moral outrage that collect calls from Louisiana jails averaged 30-cents per minute, plus additional fees, compared to about 2 cents outside the prison.
Sheriffs said cuts in phone charges would damage their budgets and the dollars were used to pay for prison services. Critics of the high prison phone rates, including members of the clergy, said the price tag was unjust to inmate families who pay the charges.
"Those rates are 15 times higher than the average citizen pays on a daily basis. It's just grossly unfair that we should penalize the families of the people who are incarcerated in our state," said Opelousas Mayor Don Cravins.
Rep. Terry Landry, a former state police superintendent, said the phone rates are a tax on working people who didn't commit a crime. He called it profiteering.
"There are people filling their pockets with money on human capital," Landry said.
PSC member Eric Skrmetta of Metairie said prisoners have used their calls to arrange for illegal activities, like drug deals and murders. He said the telephone services cost more in prison because sheriffs and jail operators must monitor calls for security concerns.
"There's a lot of sheriffs in here who, if this happens, they may just have to turn their systems off," Skrmetta said.
But a consultant hired by the PSC to review the rates said the changes would still cover the costs of providing phone services and shouldn't force any prison or jail to shut down its phones.
Commission members agreed to limit the rate cut to certain categories of calls and approved the changes, which will include an initial phone charge of $1.69, plus a 5-cent charge for each additional minute.
Before the vote, exchanges over the issue were heated.
At one point, Skrmetta questioned whether Rob Tasman, representing the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, was properly describing the bishops' position on the issue.
Tasman said the bishops group supported a reduction in rates. Skrmetta, however, said he was told by one bishop that while the group doesn't want to see the rates rise higher, it's not necessarily pushing for a reduction. Skrmetta told Tasman that he'd meet him "at confession on Sunday."
"Sir, I don't need to confess," Tasman replied.
PSC member Lambert Boissiere of New Orleans took issue with comments Campbell made after Boissiere last month sought to postpone a decision. He suggested Campbell had questioned his integrity.