Late last year, the state Public Service Commission moved to reduce per-minute charges for calls that inmates make to family, clergy and lawyers. But the families of prisoners at the Orleans jail and most state lockups won’t see relief for at least a year because the regulatory body grandfathered in existing rates.

The new rate cap takes effect “when a new contract is signed, or within two years,” said Bill Robertson, executive assistant to Public Service Commission Chairman Foster Campbell.

The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office signed contracts with the phone services provider Securus in 2012. They won’t be subject to the new rules for up to two years from whenever they go into effect, which Robertson said last week could be “any day now.”

At issue are prison-based phone calls and their relative merit in rehabilitating prisoners. Prisoner-rights advocates have argued that contact with family members is crucial for any inmate’s prospects for rehabilitation. Corrections officials and sheriffs say they need phone fees to pay for rehabilitation programs.

And a complex set of security issues inherent in a prison phone system — all calls have to be monitored, for instance — puts significant financial strain on the system as a whole. That price, they say, shouldn’t be borne by taxpayers.

Instead, it is passed off on the families of the incarcerated — who are often struggling in the shadow of poverty — at a steep cost. The Public Service Commission has noted that Louisiana prisons charge an average of 30 cents a minute for calls, 15 times higher than the national average for non-collect calls.

Most of that money goes to the jailers, in the form of commissions. Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman stands to collect $1.54 million in phone commission fees in 2013, according to budget documents submitted to the City Council last year. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Norman collects about $1 million a year, according to The Advocate.

Though Campbell had sought to reduce rates on all calls, the Public Service Commission decided in December to cut certain calls — only those made to clergy, immediate family members, and lawyers — by 25 percent.

That means sheriffs and the state corrections agency will get less money in commissions, some of which are as high as 75 percent of the amount collected by the companies that run inmate phone systems.

As the utilities board was considering its changes, Gusman was re-upping his contract with the Dallas-based inmate phone-services provider Securus. That contract, signed in November, set his commission at 74.5 percent.

Securus also pledged to front Gusman $1 million in anticipated commission within a month of the start date of the one-year contract.

He “probably got in under the wire,” said Robertson. He added that the board has fielded “quite a few complaints from inmates” about phone costs at the Orleans Parish jail.

The Sheriff’s Office didn’t provide The Lens with answers to questions about the current and previous phone contracts, including whether the sheriff had received the advance. Securus Chief Operating Officer Robert Pickens did not respond to several attempts to reach him for comment.

In March, the state corrections department signed a five-year deal with Securus setting its commission at 70 percent. That means recipients of phone calls from inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and 10 other prisons will continue to pay the higher rate through 2014. The Department of Corrections got 55 percent under its previous contract with Global Tel*Link, according to the state Office of State Purchasing.

Robertson said the 70 percent commission will yield about $250,000 a month across the eleven facilities, a figure reflected in the terms of the new contract.

In a parallel development, the commission also moved to ban phone companies from collecting fees or other processing charges, said Robertson. He said companies charge up to $7 for each deposit made to an inmate’s phone account, usually by family members.

“The commissioner considers those charges to be illegal,” said Robertson, who added that the commission “will crack down and eliminate those charges” as soon as the new rules are implemented, with no grace period.

“This is a monopoly utility matter correctly regulated by the PSC,” he said.

Retooling the commission rate was always a dicey proposition in a tough-on-crime state where the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association has historically held sway over Baton Rouge lawmakers. Pressure from the lobbying group — including Gusman himself — was a factor in the limited fix that the commission ultimately voted on and unanimously approved.

The association is comprised of 65 sheriffs and about 14,000 deputies across the state. Its 2012 conference was underwritten in part by Securus, which was listed as a “Platinum” sponsor.

The sheriffs’ lobby, which did not respond to two requests for comment for this story, assented to the limited rate cut, which came about largely through the efforts of Commissioner Lambert Boissiere.

Robertson said Gusman personally lobbied Bossiere, whose district includes the New Orleans area, to keep the old rates intact. Gusman’s office didn’t respond to a question on the matter, and Bossiere’s office declined to comment.

Robertson added that while his boss Campbell considers Gusman a friend, “they were on opposite sides on this.”

Securus has been doing business at the Orleans Parish jail since at least 2006.

The company and its subsidiary Evercom donated $17,000 to Gusman’s political campaigns between 2005 and 2011, according to state campaign finance records. That includes $11,000 in 2006, when Gusman was running for his first full term as sheriff.

Soon after he was elected in November 2006, according to documents obtained by The Lens, Securus was hard at work installing an inmate phone system at the Orleans Parish jail.

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...