As FCC deliberates, Louisiana lowers prison phone rates

Staff Writer
Donaldsonville Chief

Baton Rouge, LA – The Louisiana Public Service Commission (LaPSC) has voted to reduce the cost of phone calls from prisoners.  Following the coordinated efforts of human rights organizations in the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice to lower the cost of inter-state prison phone calls, Louisiana state officials took matters into their own hands and voted today to lower rates in their state.

The vote comes on the heels of the passage of the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners’ (NARUC) resolution on the cost of prison phone calls, as well as an announcement from the Federal Communications Commission that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is circulating a further notice of proposed rulemaking for a vote on the issue.  These developments mark the first step forward in a ten-year national effort to make the cost of phone calls made by prisoners more affordable.

“This is a great day for the families with loved ones inside the jails and prisons of Louisiana,” said Norris Henderson of VOTE NOLA, a local, grassroots membership-based organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated persons in partnership with allied groups. “I want to thank the members of the Commission who put their constituents first.  For me this has been a struggle for over 37 years.”

LaPSC Commissioners Foster Campbell and Jimmy Field in particular have led the in-state charge to reduce the phone rates that prisoners’ families are forced to pay.  Their efforts come after a LaPSC study found that venders are required to pay up to 55% of gross revenues to sheriff’s offices and the state – creating a major incentive for both the state and Global Tel*Link, the prison phone provider, to ramp up pricing for prison phone calls.

Last month LaPSC deadlocked on the issue amid last-minute concerns raised by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association (LSA).   However, Campbell points out that LSA has had close to a year to respond to, or refute, the findings of the LaPSC study but until now has not acted. Thanks to the combined efforts of Campbell, Field and grassroots organizations, the LaPSC voted to cut the cost of prisoners' calls to families, clergy, government officials, and some others, by 25 percent and to eliminate unauthorized fees charged by prison phone companies.

“For families in Louisiana paying 15 times the amount for a normal collect call, they don’t have the luxury of waiting another month for LSA to respond to a document that has been in front of them for a year,” said Nick Szuberla, Director of Working Narratives.  “Today families are paying hundreds of dollars a month to Global Tel*Link and being forced to choose between keeping children connected to their parents or paying for other necessities like groceries or medication.”

Despite claims from LSA that a reduction in the cost of prison phone calls could have a negative impact on public safety, LaPSC found that reducing the phone rates by 25 percent would have no impact on law enforcement’s ability to screen calls. 

“Research tells us that making calls from prison affordable and keeping families connected reduces the likelihood of people returning to prison,” said Paul Wright, Director of Prison Legal News.  “Lowering the state recidivism rate of nearly 50% would cut state costs far more in the long term than would continuing to profit off the backs of vulnerable consumers.”

A growing legion of diverse groups across the country has come together to push for capping the cost of prison phone calls. According to Steven Renderos, National Organizer for the Media Action Grassroots Network, “This is a bipartisan issue, on both sides of the aisle leaders agree that making calls from prison affordable is critical to keeping families strong and communities safe.”

With this vote, Louisiana becomes the ninth state to regulate the cost of in-state prison phone calls.  All eyes now turn to the FCC, as public attention focuses on that federal agency to establish benchmark rates that lower the cost of interstate phone calls made by prisoners to their families.