Taping inmate calls routine at many jails

The Baltimore Sun

The phone call from the Baltimore County Detention Center, like those from most local jails, begins with a notice that the recipient must accept the charges if the call from an inmate is to go through.

But these days, there's another warning: "This call is from the correctional institution and is subject to monitoring and recording."

Taping inmates' telephone calls is the latest in a series of precautions that local wardens have taken to prevent contraband from making its way into jails and to deal with the increasingly pressing problems of gang violence, witness intimidation and prisoners orchestrating crime from behind bars.

Baltimore County jail staff recently started opening mail on attorney stationery - but in the presence of the inmate to whom the letter is addressed - after discovering that drugs were being slipped into envelopes stolen from law offices. And they've been checking more closely the clothes that families deliver for defendants to wear in court after discovering drugs hidden in the hollowed-out cavities of shoes and sewn into the linings of coats and dresses, said James P. O'Neill, director of the county's Department of Corrections.

"It's like water seeking a path," he said. "If you leave any hole out there, inmates will find a way to take advantage."

In July, Baltimore County became the most recent of several area jurisdictions to record the phone calls of inmates. The county's decision has caused concern among some defense lawyers, who say it violates the legal privilege that protects communication between attorneys and their clients.

So this month, in an effort to balance inmates' rights with the security needs of the detention center, Baltimore County jail officials will begin registering the phone numbers of private lawyers who want calls to their offices exempted from the recordings - a provision that's already shielding calls from inmates to the county's public defenders.

"That's not what we're interested in," O'Neill said of conversations between inmates and their attorneys. "We're interested in the people who are trying to contact witnesses or trying to put hits out on other witnesses, and guys and gals who are running their criminal enterprises from beyond the walls," O'Neill said.

Of those facilities in the Baltimore area that tape calls, only Howard County does not exempt attorney calls from the recordings.

Jack Kavanagh, director of Howard County's department of corrections, pointed out that attorneys who don't want to be monitored are warned, and said: "That's why we have attorney visits."

But for some defense attorneys, that's a problem.

"It violates the attorney-client privilege," said T. Wray McCurdy, an Essex defense attorney. "And if you're just going to record all calls and make it so that the only way you can have a private conversation is to have it at the jail, you're denying people the right to counsel."

Others acknowledge that inmates relinquish many of their rights when they are incarcerated. And lawyers said they avoid discussing cases in detail over the phone with incarcerated clients for fear that inmates standing nearby will overhear something.

Carroll, Harford and Howard counties also tape inmate calls. And the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs Baltimore City's pre-trial detention centers and the state's 25 prison facilities, records inmate calls, as well.

Anne Arundel County does not record calls from inmates at either of its detention centers.

In Carroll County, jail staff also recently started recording and monitoring conversations in the jail's visitation area, where inmates and their friends or relatives on opposite sides of a window talk through a phone line, said Maj. Steve Reynolds, the facility's assistant warden.

"It is a component of security. ... We know there's a correlation oftentimes between criminal activity and information being passed back and forth between inmates and people on the outside," he said. "There are huge implications as far as intelligence gathering goes."

The recordings have been used there in court to convict defendants of telephone harassment and, in combination with the system's GPS capabilities, to locate prisoners who have wandered off from a court-ordered treatment center, Reynolds said.

The idea to record inmate calls came from Baltimore County's top prosecutor, Scott D. Shellenberger, who approached the county police chief and the jail's warden about it a year ago.

"We think we should be taking advantage of every effective law-enforcement technique we can find," he said.

Shellenberger said that the recordings so far have been used only to bolster cases rather than to catch prisoners in the midst of new crimes.

"We haven't heard any actual intimidation of witnesses yet," he said. "But we also hope that the fact that the calls are being recorded is having a chilling effect - to keep people who are locked up from committing more illegal acts."


Attorneys interested in having calls from the Baltimore County jail to their offices or cell phones exempted from the new routine recording must send a letter to the detention center on law firm letterhead confirming that they will accept inmate phone calls, that they are accepting those calls on behalf of current or prospective clients and that they will not forward the calls to nonattorneys.

Source: Baltimore County Detention Center

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