After a three-hour hearing, state regulators Thursday ultimately delayed a decision to lower the cost of phone calls between inmates and their families, a vote that Public Service Commission Chairman Foster Campbell said would effectively kill the measure.
The five elected members of the PSC voted two for, two against and one abstaining, which defeated the proposal to simplify the prison phone pricing system, to reduce the rates by 25 percent and to eliminate some fees. The panel then voted to revisit the issue in the future and ordered PSC staff to work with the sheriffs who oppose the rate reduction recommendation.
Usually frequented by lobbyists, lawyers and utility executives, the hearing room was crammed Thursday with law enforcement officials, ministers and families of inmates.
For instance, the Rev. David R. Melville, of the First United Methodist Church in Amite, testified that the high prices, which often include a 70 percent commission for jailers, keep inmates from communicating with their families, thereby undermining rehabilitation efforts.
“It is yet another tax borne by the poor,” Melville said. “Sheriffs trying to meet a budget look to the most vulnerable people for more money. As a Christian and a taxpayer, I do not believe this is right.”
PSC Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III, of New Orleans, said after the meeting that he abstained from voting because knew the issue would be revisited after the sheriffs had more time to review the proposal.
“I have no intention of waiting for 60 days,” Boissiere said, adding that he would press for a vote Dec. 12.
Skrmetta and Holloway said that they would not support a vote in December if the proposal was not finalized.
After the meeting Campbell, of Bossier Parish, said opponents want to postpone the vote until after PSC Commissioner Jimmy Field, of Baton Rouge, retires at the end of the year. Field voted with Campbell in favor of the PSC staff’s recommendation to cap the inmate phone charges.
He is being replaced by Scott Angelle, R-Breaux Bridge, in January. Angelle, who did not respond to phone messages, has not said where he stands on the issue.
“I don’t know about Angelle, but I know he’s a politician,” Campbell said. “I know that he got a lot of support from a lot of sheriffs.”
PSC Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, of Metairie, said: “In reality, these phone systems provide revenues for the sheriffs, and if the font of that revenue is lost, then the sheriffs are going to have to go to their parish assessors and their counsels and they have to raise taxes on the public.”
Skrmetta and Commissioner Clyde Holloway, of Forest Hill, voted against the staff’s recommendation to decrease the phone rates.
“You’re going to make me cut my budget by over a million dollars,” said James LeBlanc, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
He said prison phones require monitoring for safety and law enforcement reasons. The money also helps pay for services provided the inmates that will have to be cut because no additional revenues are available, he said.
Campbell said the agency’s annual budget is about $460 million annually and the $1 million is about 2/100ths of 1 percent of spending at the Corrections department.
LeBlanc held up a disc that he said was a recording of rapper Lil Boosie using prison phones to do a concert in Houston. The Baton Rouge singer, whose name is Torence Hatch, is serving an eight-year sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
“It’s reality on these inmate phones. You think a lot of good things are going on, there are. But there’s equal bad things going on,” LeBlanc said. “This is not all about calling Mom, Dad and the kids.”