NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Richardson children tell their father about their lives 15 minutes at a time.
They've shared stories of college visits and job offers and dance recitals: everything Robert Richardson has missed in his two decades behind bars. But how much they talk depends on how many 15-minute intervals the family can afford.
Sitting in her New Orleans office, Sibil Richardson pulls up her phone bill from Securus Technologies, the Dallas-based company contracted to provide telephone service to the Louisiana Department of Corrections. She's billed $2.31 for every 15 minutes her family spends on the phone with her husband, who is serving a 60-year sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary for bank robbery.
To keep Robert Richardson in the lives of the couple's six kids, she pays anywhere from $260 to $450 a month.
"It's the only way I can maintain my family," says Richardson, 45, a small-business owner and cofounder of Coalition for Mercy, an organization focused on criminal justice reform. "It's sad to see how much we have to spend."
Phone calls are often the only way children can maintain regular contact with an incarcerated parent, given the hundreds of miles separating some families from their loved ones in prison.
The benefits of these calls go well beyond the families, experts say, to broader areas of public safety, public health and public dollars. They help children cope with the upheaval that follows the loss of a parent to prison, the trauma of which can lead them down the same path that put the parent in jail.
The calls also give incarcerated parents an incentive to remain out of prison upon their release, thus lowering crime rates and reducing the burden on taxpayers paying for the care and housing of inmates.
But staying connected comes at a hefty price for families, many of whom were living on the edge of poverty even before a family member ended up behind bars.
Louisiana families spend millions of dollars every year to stay connected with their loved ones in the state's prisons and parish jails, The Times-Picayune has found through a series of public records requests.
The money generated by the families' calls is divided between telephone service providers and correctional facility operators, who are paid through commission fees. Those fees, ranging in Louisiana from 34 percent to 87 percent of total phone revenue, end up in parish coffers to be used at the discretion of sheriffs and government leaders.
In 2015, commission payments generated nearly $5 million for the state's Department of Corrections and $6 million-plus to sheriff's offices and parish governments across Louisiana, the review of billing records found.
Prisons and jails are not required by law to provide telephone service, and the higher rates and fees attached to inmate telephone calls are necessary, prison officials and phone company executives say. Advanced features like voice recognition and call-forwarding detection justify the added costs, and the task of monitoring, recording and storing inmate phone conversations -- which has provided evidence to aid in criminal prosecutions and helped warn guards of impending trouble behind prison walls - should be paid for by those who use the service, they say.
"That technology should never be ignored or minimized," said Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre. "There's a cost to that. It should not be law-abiding taxpayers who shoulder that cost."
But prison reform advocates say that is exactly who is bearing the costs: the families of inmates.
"Predatory phone companies gouge already poor families, and it is disgraceful," said Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the nonprofit law firm that represented inmates in a class-action lawsuit that led to a federal consent decree at the Orleans Parish jail.
"Families have to choose between filling prescriptions, keeping the lights on, and being able to communicate with a loved one who is behind bars. In the end, we all lose because the person locked up is deprived of the benefit of community and family support in moving forward with his or her life."
A 15-minute call from Louisiana's prisons can cost as much as $4.50. A New Orleans family could expect to spend $126 a week on daily one-hour phone calls to a loved one in Orleans Justice Center jail. That same family would spend about $6 a week on similar phone calls to India via Skype.
Nationally, Louisiana is ranked 30th for inmate call affordability by the Florida-based nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center's Prison Phone Justice campaign. The organization calculated the cost of an average 15-minute call to prison systems in all 50 states and the federal prison system.
North Dakota comes in last, according to the campaign, at just over $6 for a 15-minute call. In 10 states, the average 15-minute call costs less than a dollar.
Inmate phone calls once cost the same as those made outside prison walls. That changed in the 1980s when the U.S. Justice Department broke up the Bell System's telephone monopoly. Smaller companies seized the opportunity to provide phone service to millions of inmates in prisons and jails. Revenue sources soared during the decade's ramped-up drug war.
"These companies invented this industry out of whole cloth," said Carrie Wilkinson, director of the Prison Phone Justice campaign. "They created these phone systems and sold them to correctional facilities. The big problem with this industry is it has for a long time been unregulated, and these companies have been able to charge whatever they want ... For the longest time, no one has cared."
A class-action lawsuit was filed in 2000, challenging telephone contracts between five phone companies and private prison operator Corrections Corporations of America, Inc. The named plaintiff, Martha Wright, was a Washington, D.C., grandmother who said the price of phone calls forced her to decide between paying for medication or talking to her grandson imprisoned in California.
Wright's lawsuit was eventually transferred to the Federal Communications Commission. In 2013, the agency capped telephone rates on calls made from one state to another. Telephone providers, arguing that the FCC's proposals left them unable to cover their costs, successfully fought off two subsequent regulatory attempts.
In Louisiana, the debate on prison phone regulations has been driven in large part by Foster Campbell, the Democratic Public Service Commissioner who lost a December runoff for the U.S. Senate.
Campbell said inmate phone service first came to his attention during his time in the Louisiana Senate, when a bill to seek bids for a lower-priced service provider to the state Department of Corrections mustered few votes.
"The best way to rehabilitate inmates is for them to talk to their families. You can't do people that way and expect that they try to rehabilitate themselves," Campbell said. "It's morally wrong to charge people these expensive calls when they're in prison and are trying to talk to their families outside. Inmate families didn't break the law."
After years of sometimes-heated debate, the Public Service Commission eventually passed new rate caps in April 2016: 30 cents a minute for collect calls and 25 cents a minute for prepaid/debit or credit calls. The commission also limited and capped fees and surcharges.
While Louisiana regulators have reined in phone rates and limited fees, neither they nor the FCC have addressed the commission system that some reform advocates say is the primary motivator for expensive inmate telephone calls.
As inmate phone providers sought to secure business, they offered to share a percentage of call revenue with prison and jail operators in the form of commissions. The more they offered, the more likely they were to get a contract.
A May 2013 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found examples of jail operators looking to commission payments, often called "kickbacks," as the driving factor in awarding phone contracts. The report also connected commission payments to the rise in fees, which go entirely to the phone company.
"Kickbacks artificially inflate rates," said Wilkinson with the Prison Phone Justice campaign. "That's all paid for by prisoners' families, and there's not much of an argument they are disproportionately poor. They need to stay in touch the most, but can't because of the cost of calls."
The Louisiana Department of Corrections receives 71 percent of gross telephone revenue as part of its contract with Securus Technologies, generating $4.9 million annually.
Commission fees are also paid to sheriff's offices and parish governments in all but two of the state's 64 parishes, The Times-Picayune found through a series of public records requests. The two exceptions, Jackson and Richland parishes, have privately run jails and do not receive commissions from phone service, officials there said in response to the paper's records request.
In Louisiana, 10 different companies have paid out commissions ranging from 34 percent to 87 percent, depositing more than $6 million into sheriff's office and parish government coffers in 2015.
Orleans Parish, with an 86 percent commission fee from Securus, received the largest commission at $1.2 million. A spokesman for Sheriff Marlin Gusman said commission payments are "consistent and in compliance with all federal laws and regulations."
Sheriffs and phone providers say commissions help cash-strapped agencies provide service to inmates, and afford the expense of administering phone service inside jails and monitoring those calls.
"I know that we provide a vital source of information to sheriff's offices," said Mitch Kalifeh, president of Ally Telecom Group. "All that comes at a certain cost. It's not free. But at the same time, I like to think I'm out there doing the right thing."
Based in Metairie, Ally provides phone service to jails in 15 Louisiana parishes, paying more than $2.7 million in commissions in 2015.
"There are a lot of sheriff's departments having a tough time economically trying to do their jobs, and this is important to them," Kalifeh said. "If we can operate at rates the FCC regulates and pay commissions, and they deemed it a fair and proper price, why shouldn't I pay something back to a sheriff's department?"
Though most of Louisiana's correctional facilities receive a majority of the money families spend on phone calls, the revenue represents tiny portions of their operating budgets.
The Department of Corrections' $4.9 million commission, for example, makes up 1 percent of its $500 million budget. At the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, which has a 67 percent commission with Securus, the $688,000 it received in fiscal year 2015-16 accounts for a half-percent of its total revenue.
"It's a small piece of the pie, but every chunk is valuable," said Franklin Parish Sheriff Kevin Cobb. The department contracts its jail phone services to Ruston-based Correct Solutions Group, getting about $217,000 in fiscal year 2015-16 off its 70 percent commission rate.
Cobb said commissions are probably 2 percent of the overall budget. The money goes into facility operations: staffing, medical treatment, offender programming. And while acknowledging the importance of phone calls as well as the expense, he said he could not support any effort to eliminate the commission system.
Webre, the sheriff in Lafourche Parish, agreed that phone commissions are an important funding source for jails, and call rates — if reasonable — should be borne by the families of inmates using the service.
"To believe it all should be completely free is not realistic," he said.
Webre's office also contracts jail phone service through Securus, receiving a 52 percent commission that yielded about $118,000 in fiscal year 2015-16. But with a new jail under construction, his office is seeking new service proposals that would lower phone costs and offer free calls to inmates "as incentives without safety compromise."
"The people who suffer greatly are the family members of the incarcerated," Webre said. "Someone they love and care about is away from them, and in some cases away many miles. That telephone call is the only connection they have. From a moral standpoint, I want to make sure that opportunity exists and is not dependent on whether you are rich or poor."
In the FCC's August 2016 proposed rates, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn urged state and local leaders to rein in commissions.
Any proposal to eliminate commissions in Louisiana would likely be met with strong opposition from sheriffs. Gov. John Bel Edwards, who won election with strong support from the Sheriffs' Association, did not address whether he would favor a ban on commissions, saying instead that inmate telephone service, though important for rehabilitation, comes at a cost.
Ten states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have eliminated commissions. The Prison Phone Justice campaign ranks eight of them among the top 20 for call affordability.
"Companies make more money because more people talk on the phone, so you can ask for more services," he said. "There is a happy medium here. People can have services and rates can be lowered."
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com
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