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Costly jailhouse calls, PSC and local phone company go to court - KTBS.com - Shreveport, LA News, Weather and Sports

Costly jailhouse calls, PSC and local phone company head to court over fees

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SHREVEPORT-BOSSIER CITY (KTBS) -

 

For months now, Louisiana's Public Service Commissioners have bickered over the cost prisoners pay to use a telephone and the companies that provide the phone services to them. An administrative law judge will soon help bring the matter to a close. The final decision will determine if expensive phone service fees applied by phone companies are legal and can remain in effect. It may also affect sheriff's offices' budges, which means taxpayers.

Louisiana prisoners don't use coins to operate their old fashioned, booth style phones. They pass the usage charge onto those they call. Foster Campbell, longtime PSC commissioner for district 5, says often a prisoner's family pays for the calls. It's a topic that gets Campbell seeing red. He claims the phone companies that provide Louisiana's prisons services have a monopoly on that particular market, overcharge and take advantage a prison family's situation.

These phone companies' supporters say calls are expensive because the providers do more than connect prisoners with their loved ones. Each prisoner's phone call is monitored for any hint of suspicious activity and findings are passed along to a sheriff's office for further investigation. At the Caddo Correctional Center, Bossier City based City Telecoin is the phone service provider. Sheriff Steve Prator says Telecoin has saved lives by stopping murder plots and more with its surveillance tactics.

"We have prevented all sorts of crimes," Prator said. "We have solved all sorts of crimes. Just the mere fact that we are listening prevents a lot of things."

The sheriff's office is doing more than preventing crimes with its five year long service contract with Telecoin. It's making money, along with the private company. Each year between $400,000 and $500,000 are collected by the sheriff's office from prisoners' calls. The money comes from the expensive flat rate fees applied for each minute of a call.

Telecoin charges 57 cents for calls within ten minutes and 79 cents for call 11 to 16 minutes long. Those prices were lowered by 25 percent in December 2012, and phone companies have two years to implement them, starting back in January 2013. Prator says money collected from these rates goes into the general fund and pays for things like new patrol cars, salaries and more.

The sheriff's office takes most of that money generated by a calls' flat, minute-by-minute fee. Telecoin gets very little of these earnings. They make their money from additional fees generated by the creation of direct pay accounts. This is a setup where prisoners or their families pay a minimum of $50 to create a planned calling contract instead of just calling collect. Telecoin charges an administration fee of $8.50 to create this account. It charges $2.50 for extra numbers to be added onto the account. Then if you want your money refunded, there's a $5.00 fee and $10 are swept out each month. These fees seem to be the direct source of Campbell's outrage.

"They never stopped charging them!" Campbell said passionately. "How do you like that? The public service commission voted to remove these fees, and they never stopped charging them!"

According to Campbell, the fees have been implemented since the late 1980s without the PSC's permission. Again in December 2012, the PSC voted to lower the flat rate charged each minute by 25 percent. Campbell says it also voted to stop Telecoin and other phone companies from charging additional service fees, ending them for good.

However, Telecoin and the others really didn't stop charging prisoners the additional fees. Greg Bouisson, Telecoin's public relations manager, says the company kept charging CCC prisoners because the PSC has yet to set a standard, low additional fee all companies can benefit from equally.

"As things change, what's been in effect is what's being done at the moment until the actual change is considered is determined by everybody and they haven't determined that yet," Bouisson said.

The PSC's most discussed issue so far this year has been whether or not these additional fees will be made legal and set at price all parties can accept. After much debate and discussion in executive session, the PSC voted to allow a judge to help them make the decision on April 15th. It's a major court date for Telecoin, which faces several charges the PSC will no longer deliberate. Campbell believes the fees should finally come to their end and that prisoner families should get their money back. That could mean heavy fines for Telecoin and other companies.

"I am for charging these companies for the "overchargement" and making them refund the money, plus interest," Campbell said.

Campbell remains certain that this is a moral issue. He accuses the phone companies of being greedy and manipulating. Earlier in April, Campbell invited several prison families and former prisoners to speak about the hardships of remaining connected. He believes prisoners need phone time as part of their rehabilitation or so that children can keep in touch with their parents. Bouisson keeps pushing Campbell to be an advocate for prisoners' rights and sees this controversy as a victims' rights case. Both he and Prator point out, again, that in several cases prison phone calls are made with bad intentions.

"To say the prisoners out there are just talking to their momma on a particular Sunday, like you hope you could believe, that's not true," Prator said.

Bouisson stresses the additional fees pay for lifesaving surveillance. Prator also points out that the cost is just part of prison life. Prisoners, it seems to Prator, have put themselves in this situation and must pay an extra price for several, everyday comforts of life at CCC, including condiments and other nonessential items. To make the phone calls cheaper, the additional fees need to go, but that means the sheriff's office has a gap in its budget. The phone companies would most likely shift their earnings source to the minute-by-minute rates. Prator says the public shouldn't have to pay to make up the loss.

"If there is a case out there, I hate that someone couldn't talk to their mother on a Sunday afternoon because they couldn't afford it," Prator said. "If they were out, they might not could afford it either. So, why should the people of Caddo Parish have to provide them a very expensive service."

Campbell would probably scoff at that comment. In his opinion, sheriff's offices can easily make up the difference by shifting other costs in their general budgets. "When this amounts to just one percent or a half percent of your budget, there's lots of ways to make it up," Campbell said.

The cost to Telecoin and other companies may be much greater if they are forced to pay fines and refund money. Jerry Juneau, Telecoin's owner, says he plans to expand his company. Juneau claims to have been approached by leaders in Texas and Arkansas to move Telecoin's headquarters to one of the states. This situation with the PSC has made moving seem very attractive to him.

Telecoin and the PSC will go before a judge on April 15th.

 

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