photo: Eve Abrams
Photo by Eve Abrams

A vote today will decide whether prisoners’ families will pay an estimated 35 percent less for calls placed from Louisiana lockups. Current rates are 15 times the cost of a normal phone service in Louisiana.

The five-member Public Service Commission is slated to vote on the issue during their monthly 9 a.m. meeting in Baton Rouge. Last month, after lengthy discussion, the commission deadlocked on the issue with a 2-2 vote from which New Orleans Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III abstained.

[Update: The commission voted to lower the rate, but not as much as proposed and only for certain calls — to family, clergy, government agencies and a few other groups.]

On Monday, Chairman Foster Campbell said that he was only certain of two votes favoring the rate reduction – his and Vice Chairman Jimmy Field’s. “It’s all up to Lambert Boissiere,” Campbell said. “If he votes right on it, we’ll have reform.”

After last month’s vote, Boissiere’s office was besieged by calls and email messages, and he was criticized sharply in a Louisiana Weekly article headlined “Boissiere’s defection delays prison vote.”

Boissiere said his abstention was even-handed public policy. He thought it fair, he said, to give sheriffs a chance to make adjustments on their own, because people who participate in a decision are more likely to embrace it.

And while Boissiere said that he wouldn’t announce his vote in advance, he seemed to indicate that he would side with Campbell and Field. He said he has long favored a reduction. “I think reform is necessary,” Boissiere said. “I think that the rates are too high and that prisoners need to be in contact with families.”

Campbell’s proposal last month would have reduced total phone charges an estimated 35 percent, by cutting the maximum allowable rates by 25 percent and eliminating a few of the “crazy fees” that push bills to levels he has described as “sinful.”

Jimmy LeBlanc, Louisiana’s corrections secretary, spoke against the proposal at last month’s meeting, saying that higher rates make for more secure phones. “While the majority of phone calls between offenders and their families are legitimate … there are plenty that are not,” he said.

When Campbell asked him how much the cuts would cost his department, LeBlanc said roughly $1 million of his roughly $500 million budget, an amount that Campbell described this week as “minuscule.”

A corrections department spokeswoman didn’t return messages asking whether LeBlanc remained steadfast in opposition to a rate cut. A contract signed earlier this year shows that the Department of Corrections gets 70 percent of all call revenues from state prisons through its contract with the phone company Securus.

The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, whose members run parish jails paid to hold half of the state’s prisoners, renewed its criticism of the proposal in a new statement issued this week by executive director Michael Ranatza. The statement pointed out that the higher rates provide recording, security and tracking features that are of value to law-enforcement officers.

The sheriffs group also contends that taxpayers will be harmed if the proposal passes. “Capping the rate, indirectly and artificially deflects costs from the offender, who caused the costs to be incurred in the first place,” the statement says.

Campbell argued that high rates don’t hurt inmates but rather “their parents, grandparents, wives and children,” who pay an average 30 cents a minute for calls coming from prisons and jails, roughly 15 times higher than calls placed from regular phones in the state. Sheriffs and prison officials are taking the phone money “out of the hides of the poorest of the poor,” he said.