Every time a Louisiana prison inmate picks up a telephone and places a call, it’s money in the bank for sheriff’s offices and correctional facilities across the state.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections has received $10.2 million in commissions from vendors operating prison phones during the past three fiscal years, records show, and sheriff’s offices in Louisiana’s 64 parishes have received millions more.
For the most part, the money comes from the families of inmates — many of them poor — who pay the tab in the form of collect call charges that critics say are exorbitant, unfair and ultimately counterproductive to rehabilitation and re-entry objectives.
Now, the system is under scrutiny by the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates the rates that telephone companies are allowed to charge.
The commissions that vendors are required to pay sheriff’s offices and the state — as much as 55 percent of gross revenues — are a big factor in the steep phone charges, records show.
A local collect call of zero to five minutes from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison means a charge of $1.31 under existing allowable rates, with a 50-cent charge for each five-minute period after that, meaning a 15- minute phone call costs $2.31, records show.
Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said the cost of 15-minute local collect calls from state prisons average $1.05, while intrastate collect calls average $5.55.
The charges can be a crushing blow for poor families trying desperately to stay in contact with loved ones behind bars, said Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell.
“A lot of people think this is grossly unfair,” Campbell said. “This affects a lot of families in Louisiana.”
He recently prodded the PSC to hire outside legal counsel to analyze rates, examine regulations and compare them with other jurisdictions to determine if they are “just, fair and reasonable.”
Campbell said he tried to deal with the issue when he was a state senator but politically powerful Louisiana sheriffs blocked attempts to cut phone rates.
Cleo Fields, a lawyer who served in the state Senate with Campbell, said it was tough legislation to try to pass.
“Obviously, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association opposed the bill vigorously,” Fields said. “They felt it would be an infringement on their revenues. My argument is they shouldn’t use those types of revenues to balance their budget.”
Fields said the person being penalized is not the one who is incarcerated but rather the mother, child or other family member who is being charged the high rates.
Laborde said collect phone charges for the 19,000 inmates housed in state-run prisons in Louisiana are much lower than is the case for prison inmates in the neighboring states of Texas and Mississippi.
She said the local rate for a 15-minute inmate collect call in Mississippi is $2.85, while a 15-minute long-distance call is $14.55. In Texas, the rates are $3.90 for a local collect call and $6.45 for a long-distance collect call, she said.
Under its contract to provide inmate telephone services in state-run prisons, Global Tel Link pays 55 percent of its gross revenues to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
The commissions generated $3.3 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to figures provided by the department.
Although a small part of a public safety department budget that is $480.6 million this year, phone commissions are an important source of revenue, state corrections officials say.
Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said the agency has done everything it can to cut expenses short of closing or privatizing prisons.
“It would be a major impact to us if we had to cut $3.3 million from our budget,” he said.
LeBlanc said staff levels have been sharply reduced during the past three years and cutting corrections officer positions is not an option.
He said that means the ax likely would have to fall on services such as rehabilitation and re-entry programs designed to help inmates transition successfully back into the community. He said that’s not a direction he wants to see the department take.
“Our staff, from the bottom up, are committed to re-entry,” LeBlanc said.
He also noted that family ties are not always healthy and conducive to an inmate’s successful re-entry into the community.
“Family culture sometimes is not the best thing because they may have come up in a culture of crime,” LeBlanc said.
He also said money generated from phone commissions helps cover the costs of investigators who review recorded calls for security purposes, often generating useful information for the FBI, State Police or other law enforcement agencies.
Like the state corrections department, sheriff’s offices in Louisiana have also come to rely on income from phone commissions to help run their operations.
For example, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office includes $620,000 from phone commissions payments in its $79 million budget for this fiscal year.
Casey Rayborn-Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, said in an email that the money goes into the sheriff’s general fund to help meet operating expenses, including such things as a crime victim’s assistance program.
The Sheriff’s Office’s agreement with American Phone Systems of Lafayette requires the company to pay 48 percent of its gross revenue to the Sheriff’s Office.
The contract is similar to that for other parish sheriff’s offices The Advocate examined. The same contract also sets the commission rate at 48 percent.
Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, said the LSA doesn’t compile information on how much money sheriff’s offices statewide receive from phone commissions.
“I don’t know from parish-to- parish what it generates,” Ranatza said.
He said he wouldn’t speculate on what position the LSA might take on any attempt to eliminate commissions as a way of reducing phone charges that relatives of inmates have to pay.
“That’s something that’s not on the table right now,” Ranatza said. “We would look at the merits of any proposal based on what is presented and make a determination at that time.”
Curt Selman, chief executive officer of Payphones of Arkansas LLC and past president of a trade association for specialized communications providers, said phone systems installed in prisons have to be able to screen, record and block calls and must have other security features that make such systems more expensive than others.
He acknowledged that the commissions paid to state or local correctional facilities — sometimes amounting to more than half of gross revenues — drive up the costs for inmates and their families. But, he said, it’s a tradeoff because the money goes back into operating the prisons, reducing costs for taxpayers.
“There is some pressure from individual counties, states and parishes to get the commissions as high as possible and who can blame them? They are trying to run a jail and revenues are down,” Selman said.
He said companies bidding to provide phone services try to set rates at levels people can afford but also have to accommodate the requirements of prison systems that are trying to maximize the revenues they receive.
“Most of the providers of the service are not making outlandish profits,” Selman said. “Their margins are actually pretty slim.”
The PSC’s Campbell said his objection is to the tacked-on commissions that drive up phone rates and have nothing to do with the cost of providing the service.
Moreover, Campbell said, it can be harmful to re-entry and rehabilitation goals if an inmate’s family can’t afford to stay in touch with him while he’s incarcerated.
“You should do the human thing and let the man talk to his wife and children,” Campbell said. “It shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
He said it is wrong to fund sheriff’s offices and prisons by “taking it out of the hides of the poorest of the poor.”
Fields said the current practices are predatory.
“We’ve got to take the profit out of prisons, period,” Fields said. “At this point, it’s profitable to incarcerate people. It should not be a way to make money.”
The phone commission system used in Louisiana is similar to that used in many other states.
A publication called Prison Legal News earlier this year found that phone service vendors, on average, paid state corrections departments 42 percent of their gross revenues from phone calls made by prisoners.
The report found that “pure, unabated greed by both the phone companies” and state prison systems controls the rates set for inmate phone services.
The report said that eight states have banned prison phone commissions — Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, California and Missouri.