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New Orleans Sheriff Debates High Cost of Jail Phone Calls

Phone calls in the New Orleans jail cost 21 cents per minute. Sheriff Gusman says the calls are a much-needed revenue source but opponents argue the price can be a burden on low-income families.

(TNS) — When people locked up in the New Orleans, La., jail call their loved ones, the costs add up fast. Phone calls are 21 cents a minute, according to the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office.

The jail's private phone provider sends most of the money back to the Sheriff's Office. As the city's annual budget process kicks off, the cost of phone calls has bubbled to the surface as an issue in Sheriff Marlin Gusman's reelection race.

Gusman defends the charges as a much-needed revenue source. But opponents are calling on the jail to slash or eliminate the fees placed on the jail's mostly poor residents and their loved ones, mirroring a national trend that's taken off in places like Dallas and New York City.

The jail draws about 1 percent of its revenue from phone call fees, a number that's been declining with the inmate population in recent years. In a campaign forum last month, Gusman said the calls "do not cost a fortune" and the jail desperately needs the money they generate.

Switching to free calls, Gusman said, would cost about $2 million a year. "It's about $2 million that would have to go into the jail at a time when we are strapped for cash, where we just took care of getting stable funding, doubling employee pay. So we would have to find that from somewhere," Gusman said.

The sheriff's comments came as the city's annual budget process heats up. Mayor LaToya Cantrell's proposed budget for 2022 includes $56 million for the Sheriff's Office, split between $37.4 million for the agency and $18.6 million for medical costs.

Covering the cost of inmate phone calls would mean a bigger hit to taxpayers, Gusman argues.

The sheriff was laying out the traditional argument from jail officials around the country who rely on commissions from private phone providers to help fill out budgets. In the case of the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, the agency has a contract with prison phone industry giant Securus. It's one of two companies that dominate the field, and both give widely to law enforcement officials' campaign accounts. Securus and its employees have donated at least $11,750 to Gusman's election war chest since 2011.

Under the terms of its contract with the Sheriff's Office, Securus sends an 86 percent commission on calls to the Sheriff's Office. In 2018, that amounted to $973,000, according to public records from the Sheriff's Office. As the jail's population declined during the pandemic last year, the revenue dropped to $773,000.

The jail's phone call rates are below national averages, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. But opponents say they're still a counterproductive burden on poor families. Opponents point to studies connecting family contact with reduced recidivism and they make a larger, moral argument about the value of connecting people to their families, especially during the pandemic.

"It's not rocket science. 95 percent of them are low-income, coming from low-income families, and they just can't afford it," Chris Williams, one of the sheriff's four opponents in the Saturday election, said at the forum hosted by New Orleans Saints player Demario Davis.

Susan Hutson, the former city police monitor who's also challenging Gusman, said she doubted the sheriff's $2 million estimate of switching to free calls.

"(B)ecause there's not really any transparency about how the Sheriff reached this amount, I challenge that figure," she said in a statement. "But whatever the cost is, we have to pay for that as taxpayers and include it in the budget and stop trying to balance the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it. That is a moral imperative."

Beyond dollars and cents, Gusman gave another reason for opposing free phone calls. He claimed the switch to free calls in New York City in 2019 led to a "ruckus" as inmates at Rikers Island squabbled over phones.

"You can check with Rikers in New York," Gusman said. "Found out, they didn't have enough phones. They didn't have enough phones, because more fights over who was going to be able to use the phone. And we have a limited number of phones."

Just like Gusman's lock-up, the jail in New York City has been plagued by violence. But officials in Gotham said they were puzzled by the sheriff's claim that phones were partially to blame.

"We are unaware of any such ruckus," said Bill Heinzen, a spokesman for the New York City Board of Correction. "Providing free telephone service to people in custody is a humane and positive way to connect people in custody with their families and communities. By contrast, not providing free calls may give rise to isolation, jealousy and abuse of access to telephone calls, all of which endanger people in custody and correctional staff."

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a non-profit group that pushed for the change, also said there was no spike in violence.

"That's not true at all," she said. "There was literally not a single report of an issue related to the implementation of phone calls."

Rather than a failed experiment, New York City's switch to free phone calls has been held up as a model for other jurisdictions, Tylek said. San Francisco followed suit after monitoring the change in New York City. Last year, Dallas dropped the cost of jail phone calls to 1 cent a minute.

Gusman also cited the need to record and monitor phone calls for discussion of smuggling contraband into the jail, or to stop inmates from coordinating crimes on the outside. However, New York City and other jurisdictions have continued to record phone calls after making them free to inmates.

(c)2021 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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