Prisoners Speak Out About Their Communications with Lawyers Being Monitored

A report this week suggested inmate-lawyer phone calls are being recorded in large numbers, but prisoners aren't exactly stunned at the idea their civil liberties might get violated.

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Nov 13 2015, 4:45pm

Photo via Flickr user Andrew Bardwell

Earlier this week, the Intercept ran a story about how 70 million inmate phone calls were tracked by Securus, a company in Texas that provides phone service to 2.200 jails and prisons across the country. Of course, most prisoner phone calls are monitored—everybody inside knew that already. But this cache of calls, which may have been acquired by a hacker last year—the company is suggesting they were leaked—included thousands of recorded conversations between inmates and their lawyers. Those communications are supposed to be protected under attorney-client privilege, and while Secarus is insisting it only recorded calls with consent, if true, the allegations show how impossible it is for America's prisoners to enjoy protection before the law.

As the opaque veneer of America's prison-industrial complex is slowly stripped away, people in the media and in society are increasingly outraged at apparent civil liberties violations. But to convicts doing hard time in our nation's correctional facilities, this is nothing new.

As a former Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmate, I know.

The BOP Program Statement 5264.07 explicitly states that "inmates are afforded the opportunity to place an occasional unmonitored call to his or her attorney." But the Secarus leak reinforces my own sense, along with that of other former and current inmates, that this just isn't the reality. Worse yet, the Intercept points out that Securus regularly sells their phone records to law enforcement customers. (Congress is considering protecting inmate emails, which are often monitored by federal prosecutors.)

For now, it appears that talking to your lawyer confidentially from inside the belly of the beast remains something of a pipe dream.

"If this is the case, that means that there are no checks and balances and that every idea, conversation, strategy is being recorded," Walter Johnson, a prisoner serving life at FCI Otisville for a three strikes violation, tells VICE. "They can predict the outcome of your fate because they have the ability to undermine and manipulate any means or process that is being utilized to assist our liberation."

Prisoners generally feel like they're in a no-win situation when going up against the government. Not being able to talk to your lawyer in confidence compromises your chance of beating a bad case, and mail from attorneys routinely gets opened on the way in, according to inmates. Complaining about it often just results in your cell getting "hit," or searched. Even if you do file a formal grievance, it can take years before its gets in the courts.

Many prisoners have given up hope of anything even resembling fairness. Inside, you just develop an attitude of rolling with the punches. You can't fight the man, so why even try? The ACLU and other organizations that advocate for prisoners might cause a fuss in the media, but it's hard to envision the system changing in the near future. Certainly, prisoner confidentiality isn't featuring prominently in any of the criminal justice reform bills floating around Congress.

"Our chance of actually having a fair shot when we are going through our pretrial step has been stripped away yet again, giving the government even a bigger chance at getting a conviction over us," Angel Ocasio, who's doing time at FCI Danbury in Connecticut for a drug conspiracy, tells VICE.

Some lawyers in the know actually warn their clients to be careful what they say over the allegedly unmonitored attorney-client phone calls, suspecting foul play.

"My attorney David E. Vandercoy told me at the beginning of my direct appeal that he don't like talking on the phones because he don't trust them even though they say call through the counselor," Robert Booker, who's doing a life sentence for a drug conspiracy and is incarcerated at FCI Milan in Michigan, tells VICE. "Now I saw this, I believe every word of it. How can a man win if all the cards, the dealers, and the house is against him? The government cheats at everything it does and that's sad. But what can we do about it? No one cares about prisoners."

Out of sight and out of mind—that is the maxim in prison. Despite the recent push for reform by President Obama, much more needs to be done, whether the public is outraged or not.

"It's sad that there are millions of people out there right now that probably agree with the government's move to listen in on attorney-client calls, thinking that we have no rights simply because we find ourselves incarcerated," Ocasio tells VICE. "It will take generations to fix the mess that they have done to the federal justice system."

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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