State regulators voted Wednesday to roll back the cost of calls for prisoners phoning home, after a raucous hearing that featured one commissioner challenging a representative of the Roman Catholic Church to go to confession.
The state Public Service Commission changed a proposal to cut the rates charged for all prison calls by 25 percent in an order that lowered the costs for those calls to family, clergy, government officials and some others.
The five elected members of the board that oversees utilities and telecommunications companies approved the amended measure without objection after hearing about four hours of often-angry testimony.
Sheriffs from around Louisiana testified that an across-the-board rate reduction in the cost of an inmate making a phone call from within a prison or jail would severely affect their budgets. Inmates are charged more because law enforcement is required to monitor calls that originate from behind prison walls, the sheriffs said.
Supporters argued that the families of the incarcerated are the ones who are called upon to pay for the expensive phone calls.
Robert M. Tasman, associate director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, testified that the group of the bishops leading the dioceses of Louisiana voted to support the effort to lower the prison phone rates.
PSC Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, of Metairie, said the Most Rev. Gregory M. Aymond, archbishop of New Orleans, personally told him that the church’s official position was that the rate should not be raised.
“He never said anything about lowering the rate,” Skrmetta said. “I’ll meet you over at confession on Saturday, if you want.”
“Sir, I don’t need to go to confession,” Tasman responded, adding that he was sanctioned to represent the bishops. “I have no doubt that I am correct in what I say,” he said.
Michael Ranatza, executive director, of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, said sheriffs receive a per diem from the state and from local government but the payments don’t cover the costs of housing inmates. “What is actually happening is that other sources of revenue within our sheriff’s offices are having to make up this loss of revenue in the jail,” he said.
Rapides Parish Sheriff William Earl Hilton said he loses about $3 million a year housing prisoners and uses the phone money to help offset the price of the equipment needed to monitor the phone calls as well as other costs. “If these rates are cut 25 percent, I’ll lose $124,500 a year. It is not a for-profit business housing these inmates,” Hilton said.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand condemned what he called the “villainization” of sheriffs for seeking the highest commission rate to help defray costs. Prison phone calls are not constitutionally required and his constituents have made clear that they don’t want to pay those expenses. “It is disingenuous of people to come before this commission and suggest that the enterprise in the United States,” Normand said, “that we’re going to talk about not making a profit? Give me a break.”
Normand said his office makes about $1 million a year from the prisoner phone calls, of which about $830,000 is profit used to help pay other expenses.
PSC Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III, of New Orleans, said he was the subject of much personal criticism for choosing sides earlier. But Boissiere came up with a compromise that he said he hoped would lower the temperature of the debate. He proposed limiting the 25 percent rate reduction to prisoner phone calls to family, clergy, government agencies, schools, legal aid, clinics, rehabilitative organizations and other specifically named entities. Costs for all other prison phone calls would remain the same.
“We’ll work on the definitions,” Boissiere said.
Field seconded the proposal. The order then passed without objection.
PSC Chairman Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish, wanted a flat rate for all calls of $1.69 plus five cents a minute. The average cost of all calls from jail in Louisiana is about $3 for a 10-minute call, Campbell said. Reducing the costs by 25 percent will bring the average to roughly $2.29 for a 10-minute call, he said.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said after the meeting that he philosophically supported the plan. “It won’t be easy on the identification of who gets the 25 percent discount,” Wiley said. “We’ll try to work our way through it.”