New Orleans sheriff desperate to keep predatory prison phone call rates for sake of budget

New Orleans sheriff desperate to keep predatory prison phone call rates for sake of budget

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman is facing his first major challenger in years. The sheriff, who’s been in power for 17 years and automatically won his 2017 re-election bid because no one challenged him, has found himself in a runoff with former police monitor Susan Hutson. The two could not be more different in their approach to running the office that oversees Orleans Parish Prison. This is especially obvious with Gusman’s desperate plea to keep predatory prison phone call rates in place in order to generate more revenue for his office.

Gusman made a fuss about this ahead of last Saturday’s election, claiming that the 21 cents per minute rate doesn’t “cost a fortune” and that his office desperately needs the alleged $2 million in revenue those calls bring in, though records show that the sheriff’s office made $773,000 from calls last year. That accounts for around 1% of the office’s budget, according to the Times-Picayune. “It’s about $2 million that would have to go into the jail at a time when we are strapped for cash,” Gusman maintained when reached by the paper, “where we just took care of getting stable funding, doubling employee pay. So we would have to find that from somewhere.”

If you think Gusman’s priorities are somewhat skewed, look no further than how his office’s proposed budget compares with New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s proposed budget. The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) offered up no money for long-term care or temporary housing for incarcerated people while the mayor proposed funding of $100,000 and $1.4 million, respectively. The budget that ultimately passed offers no itemized expenses but does show a $3 million deficit in funding for OPSO compared with last year’s budget. Even if Gusman secured the $2 million he claims is coming from prison phone calls, the sheriff’s office would still fall short of having funds equal to the budget for 2020.

Hutson correctly argued that the calls placed by incarcerated people quickly add up for their loved ones and that those costs quite frequently fall on Black women to pay. “If you look at the people who all the wealth is extracted from [by] the jail—like phone calls, money for commissary—it’s coming from Black women,” Hutson told New Orleans public radio station WWNO last week. “They’re doing without lights and water and food to stay in touch with loved ones, or to help loved ones in the jail.”

The provider who has monopolized the prison phone service in Orleans Parish and around the country hasn’t exactly been good to the people in prison it purports to serve. Securus allowed clients, like the nearby Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, to track cellphones illegally without obtaining a warrant. The technology caught the eye of OPSO, who “learned of the new feature and sought its inclusion in any subsequent agreement,” the office told The Appeal. OPSO had access to location tracking from April to May of 2018.

Securus has been sued for both its price-fixing and recording of attorney-client conversations—something Hutson wants to put a stop to in Orleans Parish Prison. Gusman has offered little insight into the agreement OPSO has with Securus. A spokesperson for his office claimed that the allegations that monitored attorney-client calls were “without merit” when reached by WWNO earlier this year. What Gusman has spoken up about is his unfounded claim that allowing free phone calls would plunge the prison into chaos.

Gusman cited Rikers Island in New York City for doing away with paid phone calls, erroneously claiming violent incidents related to phone availability skyrocketed. Officials at Rikers found no evidence indicating a rise in violence after the prison did away with paid phone calls. Allowing free phone calls in prison is something frequently touted by prison reform advocates and was recently adopted by Connecticut.

A runoff election between Gusman and Hutson is scheduled for Dec. 11. I certainly know who I’m voting for.

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