Our Views: End gouging on phone calls

Jails and prisons are supposed to punish criminal offenders and instill a respect for law and order.

The best way to advance those goals, we believe, is to treat prisoners sternly, but fairly. Incarceration policies that are based on an injustice subvert the cause of law and order — weakening, rather than strengthening, the kind of civil society that most of us seem to want.

That’s why we hope that the Louisiana Public Service Commission votes to approve a proposal championed by one of its commissioners, Foster Campbell, to advance more reasonably priced phone service for prison inmates.

An investigation launched by Campbell determined that the average cost of calls between inmates and their families in Louisiana is 30 cents a minute — roughly 15 times higher than calls on the outside. Phone companies that secure the business for prisons share some of the proceeds with agencies that operate the prisons, such as local sheriffs and the Louisiana Department of Corrections. That creates a natural incentive for prison operators to keep the existing phone service pricing system in place.

Sheriffs and state corrections officials have argued that the money generated by the higher-than-market phone service prices is necessary to support prison operations and pay for adequate monitoring of inmate phone calls. But inmate phone calls can be monitored at relatively little cost, and the cost of prison operations should not be supported by overcharging inmates to talk with their families. That’s no way to promote rehabilitation, and the ultimate goal should be to make as many of these offenders as possible into productive taxpayers, not wards of the state. In most cases, the cost of these phone calls will be borne by the inmates’ families, who are often poor and especially vulnerable to the expense of these phone services.

One doesn’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to conclude that inmates should have reasonably priced access to phone service. The American Correctional Association, a professional group representing prison administrators, has suggested that reasonably priced phone service for inmates should be a best practice within the correctional system.

The Public Service Commission debated this issue last month, then postponed action until Wednesday. There’s no reason to further delay a vote on this issue, which has been studied and debated at length.

The Federal Communications Commission has begun investigating the high prices for phone service charged to inmates in many places around the United States. We suspect that eventually, the FCC will take federal action to rein in this practice. But several states have already acted to stop inordinate phone service charges for inmates. Now is the time for the Louisiana Public Service Commission to follow suit.