In Louisiana housing prison inmates is a big business. Currently, 40 thousand people are locked up in the state; that’s about one out of every sixty-eight residents. One public service commissioner says the families of the prison inmates are being taken advantage of by the system. Foster Campbell says families have to pay outrageous charges just to call someone who is locked up.
“It’s outrageous”, says Campbell.
Campbell says an inmate’s family is paying 15 times more per minute than the cost of a payphone you’d find on the street. That rate was set by the Public Service Commission and Campbell wants it reduced, but since prison phones are owned by a private company; families have to open an account. Campbell says it the added fees that are unfair to families.
“How do you charge $7 to set up an account, and if you don't use it all they charge you $5 to get your money. That's unreasonable and morally wrong to put your foot on people's heads like that”, says Campbell.
Foster Campbell believes those added fees are illegal. He says the reason nothing has been done before is because the prison phones are big business for parish and state prisons. Campbell says the state prison at Angola is guaranteed at least a quarter of a million dollars a month from the company that runs its prison phone system. Locally, the sheriff’s office in both Caddo and Bossier collect more than 400 thousand dollars a year in commission from the company that operates the prison phones.
“That’s a lot of money for the sheriff’s office”, says Campbell.
Caddo Sheriff Steve Prator says his office has no say on the fees or usage cost for the prison phones. He says his office just shops around for the best deal, since taxpayer dollars don’t fully fund the facility.
“You don't have to be on the phone. So, if you choose to use the phone service, that's your choice. And we take the money and use it to help keep the prisoners”, says Prator.
Foster Campbell expects a fight when he brings this up before the Public Service Commission at its November meeting. One this he’s certain of is these private phone companies will never pull the plug on prison phones.
“You're not gonna run them out of there. There's gold in them thar hills as they say. They're gonna be there, cause that's where the money's at”, says Campbell.
Caddo and Bossier are not alone in collecting commission; other parishes like Desoto also use the same private phone company. Since the prison population there is a lot smaller, only fifteen-hundred dollars was collected last month. Campbell says he doesn’t want to take any money away from the sheriffs; they just have to renegotiate their contract with the phone operators.