Group pushes for price decrease on inmate calls

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING  -- Public Service Commission Chairman Foster Campbell, right, speaks Tuesday to a meeting of members of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference's Commission on Criminal Justice. He and PSC Commissioner Jimmy Field attended the group's meeting to discuss efforts to have the PSC cap amounts charged to prisoners using telephones while incarcerated.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Public Service Commission Chairman Foster Campbell, right, speaks Tuesday to a meeting of members of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference's Commission on Criminal Justice. He and PSC Commissioner Jimmy Field attended the group's meeting to discuss efforts to have the PSC cap amounts charged to prisoners using telephones while incarcerated.

A coalition of clergy and prisoner support groups voted Tuesday to support efforts by two utility regulators to reduce the cost of telephone calls between prisoners and their families.

“States across the country have been dealing with this issue for decades,” said Linda G. Fjeldsjo, coordinator of prison ministry at Catholic Charities.

The Louisiana Interchurch Conference Committee on Criminal Justice agreed to draft a resolution supporting the proposal to present at the upcoming Nov. 15 meeting of the state Public Service Commission.

The Rev. Dan Krutz, of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and executive director of the Interchurch Conference, said the organization has representatives of 15 denominations along with several groups that help people in or recently released from prison and their families.

Representatives of prisoner support groups said they would ask their organizations to independently draft similar resolutions and to attend the PSC’s meeting next week. For instance, James Windom, executive director Capital Area ReEntry Coalition in Baton Rouge, said his group would prepare its own resolution in support.

“It is not politically popular with the law enforcement people,” PSC Commissioner Jimmy Field, of Baton Rouge, said of the proposal. “But this is the right thing to do scripturally … We need to be responsible because we ultimately answer to God, not men.”

Field and PSC Chairman Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish, addressed the meeting, asking for help in getting the proposal passed.

“You got your foot on the back of the heads of the state’s poorest of the poor,” Campbell said. “People who have no voice.”

Calls from prison are more costly than they are on the outside because many of the calls are tapped for security and investigatory reasons, he said. But the highest costs come from administrative fees and high rates, particularly given the technological advances, he said.

For instance, Campbell said, some Louisiana prisons require family members to deposit at least $50 into an account in order to talk to an inmate on the phone, and administrative fees are subtracted before the call. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, to name one example, charges a $7 origination fee, he said.

Some contractors keep whatever deposited money is not used in phone calls; others charge a $5 fee to return the remaining funds, Campbell said.

“We propose cutting out the administrative fees like that and lower the rates by 25 percent. These moves will provide relief to the families of Louisiana’s 40,000 inmates in 170 state and local jails,” he said.

The average cost of all calls from jail in Louisiana is about $3 for a 10-minute call, Campbell said. That is 30 cents a minute, compared with 2 cents outside the prison. Reducing the rate by 25 percent will bring the average to roughly $2.29 for a 10-minute call, he said.

Campbell showed the bill of Virginia Harris, of Keithville, which is about 10 miles southwest of Shreveport. She is the grandmother of an inmate at David Wade Correctional Center in Homer. She also receives calls from an inmate incarcerated at a facility in Quincy, Fla., near Tallahassee.

Both contract phone services from the same private provider, Securus Technologies, headquartered in Dallas, but the phone bill shows that a 15-minute call on Sept. 12 to Homer, about 70 miles away, cost $4.78 while a call of the same length the next week to Quincy, about 660 miles away, cost $1.80.

“That’s ridiculous,” Campbell said, adding that some prisons and jails in Louisiana charge private contractors commissions of up to 70 percent of every dollar collected from the phone call.

The New York State Assembly in 2008 banned commissions paid to jails and prisons for inmate phone calls, he said.

Checo Yancy, president of the Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, said, “We get a lot of complaints from our members.”