Davante Lewis, the progressive candidate who unseated a longtime incumbent on the Louisiana Public Service Commission last December, wanted to know how much people in prisons and jails across Louisiana are paying for their phone calls to family, friends and outside support systems compared to other states.

Because of a study he’s directed Public Service Commission staff to deliver, he may have his answers by next month. But doing something to change prison phone call rates could be more difficult and politically challenging.

Advocates have long argued that regular contact with loved ones outside the prisons and jails helps with rehabilitation and reduces recidivism, as studies have also shown. Still, jail operators have staunchly opposed efforts to cut costs, claiming they need the money generated by the calls to maintain services and staff. The costs of the calls may seem relatively small, but they can run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars and often fall upon families operating on the thinnest of margins.  

Lewis believes such phone calls, which can average more than $3 for 15 minutes in Louisiana, should be free. The commission, which regulates everything from electricity and utilities to towing companies, also has oversight of telecom services. 

After he defeated longtime commissioner Lambert Boissiere — who was instrumental in stalling the commission’s last effort to reduce the call rates — in a December runoff election, Lewis saw an opportunity to begin to push for lowering costs. 

Lewis argues the prices of such phone calls place financial burdens on families, limiting opportunities for rehabilitation for incarcerated people: “I don’t believe we should be charging people for human interaction,” Lewis said in an interview with Verite.

In January, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill giving the Federal Communications Commission greater power to regulate calls in correctional facilities. Lewis thought the PSC now needed up-to-date, accurate data on rates and fees so the body could offer informed input once the FCC begins its regulatory process. That information would also be useful to guide the PSC’s own conversations and debates, he figured.

Lewis initially planned to open up a docket — a formal proceeding through which the Public Service Commission sets regulations —  that would direct PSC staff to conduct a study comparing Louisiana’s rates to other states, a potential first step toward lowering them.  

A new docket would have gone before the commission, and commissioners could have offered objections and taken a vote on whether to adopt it. In an interview, Lewis said he quickly sensed some of the friction that emerged the last time the PSC made a concerted effort to reduce the costs of prison and jail calls. That docket, opened in 2011, pitted clergy and prisoner advocates asking for lowered costs against sheriffs and corrections officials — whose departments get a cut of the fees — citing revenue needs. It was a “nasty fight,” as Lewis put it. 

Lewis ultimately amended his ask last month, directing staff to conduct the study without creating a new docket. That meant the study itself would get done, though the broader issue wouldn’t yet come up for debate or face votes. The study is scheduled for completion next month. Lewis said the study will also examine the commission’s ability to regulate other forms of communication in jails and prisons, like video calling and text messaging services.

Once it’s complete, the study could form the basis for a new docket — complete with public hearings and other input. After that, Lewis would have to secure two other votes on the commission to make any changes at the state level. 

‘They took me by surprise’

Soon after the Feb.16 Public Service Commission meeting agenda was public, Lewis claimed in an interview, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association started making calls to the commission’s three Republican members. The powerful association has in prior years argued to the commission that sheriffs need sources of revenue outside of the per diem payments they receive from local and state government to cover jail costs, and that monitoring such calls for security purposes also costs money. 

“They wasted no time,” Lewis said. “They took me by surprise.”

None of the commission’s three Republican members — Eric Skrmetta, Craig Greene and Mike Francis — responded to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association also did not respond to a request for comment.

In Louisiana, people spend millions of dollars a year on jail and prison calls, as The Times-Picayune reported in 2017. The phone service providers and facility operators split the revenue from the calls, with jail operators taking anywhere from 34% to 87% of the revenue, which then flows to the parish, according to that report.

Renee Carthan of Lake Charles, with the group Daughters Beyond Incarceration, told the commission at its February meeting about the financial consequences of staying in touch with her father, who was incarcerated for much of her life.

“Every milestone in my life cost me. When I wanted to tell my father I made banner roll, I was charged,” Carthan said. “When I wanted to tell him I was asked to prom, I was charged. When I wanted to share that I was a member of Barbe High School’s championship track team, I was charged. Same for high school graduation, college acceptance and just about anything else.”

In the spring of 2011, the Public Service Commission began investigating inmate telephone systems at the request of commissioners Foster Campbell, a Democrat who said he had also tried tackling the issue as a state senator, and Jimmy Field, a Republican. 

A unanimous PSC eventually voted in 2012 to implement some changes, capping certain prison and jail calls to a $1.69 initial charge and another 5-cent charge per minute – roughly $2.44 for a 15-minute call – and requiring companies to stop adding illegal fees and surcharges. Months later, the commission paused the overhaul, with then-commissioner Boissiere moving for a stay, which appears to have never been lifted. (Attempts to contact Boissiere for this story were unsuccessful.)

Campbell, the commission’s longest-tenured member, was outspoken in favor of the changes 10 years ago. Now, he’s hopeful that he and Lewis can secure a third vote among the Republicans on the commission to work on the matter, he told Verite.

“I’m sensitive to people that are in jail that have no help, and people on the outside are putting their foot on their neck to get every nickel out of them,” Campbell said. “That makes me sick to my stomach.”

With the exception of Lewis, every current member of the PSC has received contributions from companies that operate these phone systems. Skrmetta, who was a critic of the proposed changes in 2012 and initially voted against them, has received the most money, including $15,000 from City Tele-Coin.

Nationally, some states and cities have slashed prison and jail phone costs and others have made such calls free in recent years. Still, the industry has been estimated to generate more than $1 billion a year, and is dominated by just a few companies. One of its top players, Securus, holds the contract to provide prisoner phone services for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, as well as for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify Commissioner Eric Skrmetta’s votes on the 2012 proposal to lower phone rates.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...