photo: Eve Abrams

The departing chairman of the Louisiana Public Service Commission has accused phone companies that do business in state lockups of ignoring new commission rules regarding phone charges — and breaking the law in the process.

The rules, put forward last year by the five-member commission, are part of a two-pronged push to reduce prison phone costs, which run to 30 cents a minute, or about 15 times the national per-minute average.

The prison-phone companies are hopeful that the commission’s phone ruling will be short-lived. Indeed, the rules could be abolished Wednesday, as the commission revisits the issue at its meeting in Baton Rouge. (Update: The commission decided to suspend a portion of its prior order for six months.) 

Newly minted chairman Eric Skrmetta, from Metairie, has put the ruling up for a vote Wednesday morning.

Outgoing chairman Foster Campbell has been urging Skrmetta to reaffirm his initial support for the commission’s prison-phone rulings.

Eighteen months of study culminated in a December vote by the commission and unanimous approval of the reductions, designed to ease the financial strain of prison phone calls on the families making them. Contact with families is widely regarded as an important factor in prisoner rehabilitation.

Campbell said that despite the imposition of an immediate ban on fees and charges added to the phone accounts — several jail-phone providers in the state are “still illegally padding the bills of families paying to speak to their relatives in jail.”

Two companies, Securus and City Tele Coin, are doubling down on their opposition to the PSC move. In a public statement, Campbell wrote that the companies have “asked the PSC to reverse the December reforms. The requests are on the agenda … along with a similar request by PSC member Eric Skrmetta.”

Campbell’s executive assistant, Bill Robertson, said that Skrmetta and District 4 commissioner Clyde Holloway both voted yes on the prison-phone package in December but were “somewhat skeptical of the reforms.” Skrmetta represents District 1, which includes parts of Orleans Parish. He was elected chairman in January.

Robertson added that Skrmetta’s questions to supporters of the prison-phone cost reductions during hearings were “pointed and intensely negative.”

Adding to the uncertainty: There’s a new commissioner at the PSC, Scott Angelle, who replaced District 2 commissioner Jimmy Field earlier this year and may be the linchpin vote on whether the new phone rules will be abolished.

“Angelle has not cast a vote on inmate phones as of now,” Robertson said.

Angelle did not respond to a phone message left with his office.

The prison-phone companies appeared at the commission’s Feb. 27 meeting to ask for a reversal of the new rules.

Anticipating the pushback from the industry, Campbell said he wrote Skrmetta on Feb. 22 and urged him to “vote to uphold our unanimous decision.”

Instead, Skrmetta put the revote on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting. Roberston said the commission would vote to rehear the arguments in favor and against the rules. Skrmetta could then immediately call for a vote that would abolish or reaffirm the new rules.

Skrmetta’s office said he would have no comment before tomorrow’s meeting.

A message left with Securus’ chief operating officer Robert Pickens was not returned.

Securus has the largest piece of the prison-phone action in the state. The Texas-based company handles prisoner calls for almost all state prisons operating under the aegis of the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections as well as many local prisons, including the one in New Orleans, the state’s largest parish lockup.

Wardens and sheriffs around the state go into business with outfits like Securus under an arrangement that allows the lawmen to collect a commission of up to 75 percent of the amount billed to customers of phone-services providers.

Sheriffs offer two general arguments in support of the status quo:

  • They have to pay to monitor all prisoner calls to make sure criminal activity is not conducted by phone.
  • The commissions they collect from the providers can pay for programs designed with prisoner rehabilitation in mind.

Seeking to address what Campbell called “sinful” prison-phone rates, the commission in December also ruled to cut by 25 percent the per-minute cost of calls between inmates and immediate family members, lawyers, or clergy — but even if the commission reaffirms its prior vote, that reduction won’t be implemented for up to two years at state prisons and the Orleans Parish jail.

That’s because the commission grandfathered in the terms of existing contracts for up to two years.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections signed a new contract with Securus in March 2012. Gusman signed his new deal with Securus barely a month before the commission approved its new rules.

The Securus contract with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office came with a promise of an upfront $1 million payment to Sheriff Marlin Gusman in anticipated commission fees.

Gusman said he’d collect $1.54 million in phone commissions in 2013, according to budget documents he provided to the New Orleans City Council.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Norman collects about $1 million a year in commissions, according to the Advocate.

Both lawmen are members of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, one of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups. The association has been steadfast in its opposition to the new Public Service Commission rules.

This story was updated to reflect the commission’s decision at its meeting Wednesday.

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...