State utility regulators voted 3-2 Wednesday morning to postpone for six months part of their order aimed at lowering the cost of phone calls from prisons between incarcerated inmates and their families.
“Right now they can still charge exorbitant fees and they continue to do so,” said Checo Yancy, after the vote by the Louisiana Public Service Commission. “It’s just a money-making tool.”
Yancy is president of LaCure, a group that helps prison inmates and their families.
After two stormy public hearings last year, the PSC in December imposed caps on the fees and rates private companies providing phone service could charge. The order called for a 25 percent reduction in phone rates, beginning in 2014 or upon renewal of the contract between prison officials and the private phone companies. It also put an end to the practice of charging additional fees for phone calls that originate in prison.
Some Protestant and Catholic clergy who counsel families with imprisoned loved ones pushed for a reduction in the cost of prison phone rates. Law enforcement, which uses the money generated by prison phone contracts to supplement their budgets, generally opposed the reduction.
PSC Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III, of New Orleans, moved to suspend the part of the December order addressing expenses, saying that the companies should be allowed to charge the fees and put them in an escrow account until the PSC decides whether a particular fee can be exempted.
He said suspending that part of the order dealing with fees for six months actually gave commissioners a better procedure from which they could enforce the order.
“I want to clarify this does not give them the right to charge the fee,” said Boissiere, whose district stretches up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and includes much of Baton Rouge.
If the companies choose to charge a fee that the PSC later finds to be incorrect, then the company must refund the money.
PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish, said that in 1998 the PSC had outlawed prison phone companies to charge certain fees. Then, the PSC voted to specifically forbid those fees in December.
Campbell said he was concerned that rolling back the December order would give utilities and other regulated companies the ability to ignore the PSC’s directives.
“We told them no, that should be it,” said PSC Commissioner Clyde Holloway, of Forest Hill.
Commissioner Scott Angelle, of Breaux Bridge, said he was worried if the private phone providers could use this decision in the future to argue for an exemption that would allow them to charge particular fees. Angelle was elected to replace Jimmy Field, of Baton Rouge, who advocated for the order reducing prison phone charges.
“The system isn’t right and it needs to be corrected,” said PSC Chairman Eric Skrmetta, of Metairie.
Several companies appealed penalties that were imposed, saying they were penalized retroactively and that PSC staff had approved their surcharges on inmate users, he said.
Joseph P. Brantley IV, a Baton Rouge lawyer representing City Tele Coin, Inc., one of the private companies contracted to handle phone systems for some prisons, said in an interview after the vote that dropping the ability to charge fees would require abruptly dropping services promised to jailers and lead to layoffs of company personnel.
“This thing is really still up in the air,” Brantley said.