Fannie McKnight can no longer accept phone calls from her son.

It’s a decision she made with a heavy heart. After he was booked into Orleans Parish Prison, McKnight, 72, deposited money into a phone account that was debited every time they talked. But because the per-minute rates were so high, the account emptied faster than she could fill it up. “So I told my son that he can’t call me anymore,” she said.

Brenda Williams, 61, spent several thousand dollars out of her retirement pension to stay in touch with her son Jency Williams, 36, who was recently released from a state prison after seven years. In order to stay in contact with her son, Williams limited calls to 15 minutes, twice a week, but still had to scrimp to pay the bills. “I just made the sacrifices,” she said.

It’s “morally wrong” to exact that kind of money — sometimes hundreds of dollars a month — from “the poorest people in Louisiana,” said Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell.

This morning, the commission, which Campbell chairs, was slated to vote on his proposal to cut the total charges for jail and prison calls by an estimated 35 percent. That would have been accomplished by cutting the maximum allowable rates by 25 percent and eliminating a few of the “crazy fees” that push bills to levels he’s described as “sinful.”

James “Jimmy” LeBlanc, Louisiana’s secretary of Public Safety & Corrections, spoke against the proposal.

“Commissions earned by our department help to offset costs to providing offender telephone systems,” said LeBlanc. “I do sympathize with the hardships” that families of those incarcerated face, he said. But “it seems a bit unfair for the public to have to pick up the tab for providing security to monitor the phone calls and pursue investigative leads based on those calls. While the majority of phone calls between offenders and their families are legitimate … there are plenty that are not.”

After much discussion, the commission deferred the issue until its Dec. 12 meeting. Craig Frosch, representing the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, said the group wasn’t given the opportunity to weigh in on the matter, a contention denied by the PSC attorneys.

The December meeting is the last for retiring Commissioner Jimmy Field, Campbell’s biggest supporter on reducing prison phone charges. Campbell said that after December he won’t have Field’s key vote and will likely have to scrap the idea altogether.

Fees, commissions and “straight-up baloney”

According to Campbell’s staff research, phone calls from Louisiana prisons cost an average of 30 cents a minute — 15 times more than non-collect calls originating outside prison gates. “Is that gouging people? Of course it is,” said Campbell, who gets most fired up when he talks about kids on the outside who need to be in touch with their parents.

Imprisoned parents should be able to call home and tell their kids Merry Christmas, he said. They should be able to check in on a regular basis to ask basic questions such as, “How’s Jack doing with his algebra?”

Campbell’s folksy interpretation of family ties is backed up by a growing body of research. The federal Bureau of Prisons charges comparatively low rates because “telephone privileges are a supplemental means of maintaining community and family ties that will contribute to an inmate’s personal development.”

When Congress enacted the Second Chance Act in 2007 to address prisoner re-entry, it noted that family calls and visits lead to better behavior: “Inmates who are connected to their children and families are more likely to avoid negative incidents and have reduced sentences.”

Department of Justice statistics show that 52 percent of state prisoners and 63 percent of federal prisoners are parents of minor children.

Prison phone companies and correctional departments have long said that prison phone rates are higher not to take advantage of a captive audience, but because the phone systems require unique security features. Correctional officials also often say that the fees benefit prisoners by paying for recreational and educational programs.

Each parish jail chooses a phone provider, just like individuals or companies do. Though contracts vary, most providers install and maintain the payphones within the institution in addition to providing the actual lines and service for the phones. They must also set up certain blocks on the line to prevent typical phone functions such as three-way calling and to prevent prisoners from phoning anyone outside their approved call lists.

Anecdoctally, through conversations with Campbell and with families of prisoners, it seems as though parish jails often require families to make a deposit of about $50 before they can receive calls, while companies contracted through the state usually require families to accept collect calls on their home phones.

Conscious of the pressure from sheriffs to keep those fees, Campbell has wheedled and compromised and counted his votes. Still, he can’t be absolutely sure he’ll get the three votes next month because his commissioners are under such enormous pressure, he said.

And even if he succeeds, Louisiana’s correctional phone rates still will be higher than most other states, Campbell said. He originally had hoped to slash rates by twice as much and eliminate the exorbitant commissions received by sheriffs and the Department of Corrections, which gets 70 percent of all call revenues through its contract with the phone company Securus.

Campbell said that’s one of the highest — if not the highest — in the U.S., even though more than 18 percent of Louisiana residents live under the poverty rate. He argued that the high commissions encourage prison administrators to seek companies that charge the most.

Some sheriffs receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions each year, Campbell said, noting that the state corrections department’s $450 million budget has included more than $4 million of phone revenue. A Department of Corrections spokeswoman didn’t respond to queries for this year’s commission payments and how the department would respond if commissions are reduced by the amount Campbell projects.

To navigate Louisiana’s political system, Campbell settled for Thursday’s proposal, which doesn’t touch an array of fees, such as the “operator-assisted” label and surcharges ranging from $3 to $7 that phone companies add for calls originating from prisons. Campbell scoffs at having to leave such fees in place. “Straight-up baloney,” he said.

Cheaper to call Singapore

In eight states, such phone-company commissions are not allowed. But Louisiana is hardly alone in its “astronomical” correctional rates, said prisoner advocate Norris Henderson, who calls it “a national epidemic.”

Thursday, as Campbell hoped to put his proposal to a vote, activists nationally were planning an unrelated protest at the Federal Communications Commission. A group of 30 organizations and families has calling on the agency to set price caps on long-distance rates, which would force prison-phone companies to bring their rates more in line with national norms.

“It is cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it would be to speak to someone in prison in this country,” the group said in its petition, filed in May.

An FCC filing by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice noted that most prisoners lived in poverty prior to their incarceration. It included affidavits from families who had, as the result of the high cost of prison calls, been evicted from their apartments and had their phones and electricity disconnected. Others took second jobs merely to afford the cost of the collect calls coming from prison.

Henderson was released from Angola nearly a decade ago and now is a well-known advocate for ex-felons and their families through his organization, Voice Of The Ex-offender (VOTE). In the mid-1990s, he helped to spearhead a phone boycott that prisoners instituted for more than a month in response to high rates and corruption. Their concerns were investigated by Kathleen Blanco, who was then serving on the Public Service Commission. She and her commission put restrictions on the company, Global Tel*Link and “ran it out of state,” Henderson said.

Now he sees many of the same problems he saw nearly 20 years ago, he said, as he testified to the commission Thursday.

These days, despite doing most of his work via cell phone, Henderson maintains a residential phone line so he can accept calls from prisoners as part of his work. But he also receives collect calls once a month or so from his brother and other friends, and that cost is not easy to bear.

It’s tough to get a handle on prison phone charges because they vary between systems installed in the state’s prisons and in parish jails, where half of Louisiana prisoners are held through contracts with the state.

Not every phone company allows collect calls from prisons. Brenda Williams, for instance, had to drop a more cost-effective phone plan and replace it with one that could accept collect calls coming from C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center in Calcasieu Parish, where her son was held.

The Prison Policy Initiative said in a recent report that 90 percent of the nation’s prisoners make calls through three companies – Securus Technologies, Global Tel*Link and CenturyLink. Still, charges vary wildly. The report noted that, in states like New York that don’t allow the state to profit from prison phone calls, Global Tel*Link charges about five cents a minute. That’s a quarter of what Louisiana’s rates would be, even if Campbell’s proposal succeeds next month.

Eve Abrams and Tom Gogola contributed reporting for this story.