New Council Bill Would Ban Mass Recording of Rikers Calls by Jail Staff

New Council Bill Would Ban Mass Recording of Rikers Calls by Jail Staff

The entrance to Rikers Island on Hazen Street in Queens, Jan. 21, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Reuven Blau

In 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration pushed through a new rule allowing jail staff to eavesdrop on detainees’ phone calls. 

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Seventeen years later, a city lawmaker now wants to make it illegal again to listen to and tape calls made by incarcerated people — citing unlawful snooping on lawyer calls and recent allegations of an unconstitutional database of the recorded conversations. 

“This system exists with no oversight and largely without the knowledge — let alone the consent — of those being surveilled, including people who are not incarcerated,” said City Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations. 

If absolutely crucial, district attorneys could still get a warrant from a judge to record a specific phone call from jail under the new bill, she added.

But the proposed bill would prohibit universal recording of communications made by people in jail. It would also ban the collection of voice recognition and location data — and force the destruction of all that type of information already collected. 

The legislation is expected to be introduced during the Council’s weekly stated hearing on Thursday.

The measure will be co-sponsored by several Council members, including Yusef Salaam (D-Manhattan) — who in 2002 was exonerated with the rest of the Central Park Five.

“It’s absolutely critical that at this point, we challenge the like mass surveillance apparatus that DOC has installed in New York City, with sort of no oversight,” said Bianca Tylek, founder and executive director of Worth Rises, an organization dedicated to ending prison profiteering. 

Fighting Crime From the Inside

But not all people are in favor of scrapping the recorded calls. 

“We know from sad experience that incarcerated people do use these phones to intimidate witnesses, and to continue to engage in criminal activity on the street and also to engage in improper activities inside the jails,” Martin Horn, a Department of Correction commissioner during the Bloomberg administration, told THE CITY. 

While in charge, Horn pushed the new policy through the city’s Board of Correction, which oversees Department of Correction regulations, in 2007. 

The former jails chief contends the phone snooping helped reduce violence behind bars for several years after it was enacted. 

Detainee deaths, assaults and officer uses of force all decreased from 2007 until 2009, jail records show. Horn argues that’s because officers were able to curb contraband and break up plots before they happened based on intercepted phone calls. 

Violence steadily creeped up after that, however, and in 2015 a monitor was appointed by a federal judge to oversee the department. 

Jail investigators have also used the tapped calls to nab guards enmeshed in prohibited romantic relationships with incarcerated people, according to a Daily News report from last year. 

The city’s five district attorneys have all used taped jail conversations to bolster some of their cases. 

Still, city jail officials say they only listened to 1.7% of the calls — 305,000 talks — from Jan. 1, 2020, through Jan. 1, 2022, the News reported in April. 

Brewer said she hasn’t reached out to the boroughs’ top prosecutors yet. 

“We will be in touch,” she said, noting that she plans to encourage them to use some of their asset forfeiture money to fund additional programming in jail. 

“They do not have enough programs at Rikers,” she said. “That’s how you keep people safe: constant interaction with people who are trying to put you in the right direction.”

The phone recordings “present a huge invasion of privacy,” said Tylek. 

“And obviously disproportionately [affects] Black and brown low-income New Yorkers, who are those most likely to be incarcerated in our city jail,” she added.

In April, three major public defender organizations sued New York City, arguing that the phone recording policy — and collection of calls — violates federal and state free speech laws. 

Technical Glitches

The DOC has long used Securus Technologies, a Texas-based firm, to record calls made by detainees. 

Currently, incarcerated people and those on the other line are warned before each call that they are being taped. 

Securus is supposed to be blocked from taping any calls made to attorneys, under the regulations, with defense lawyers’ phone numbers added to a so-called “Do Not Record” roster. 

But that didn’t happen in 324 cases in late 2020 and early 2021, according to the city Department of Investigation

The scandal came to light in March 2021 after the Bronx Defenders notified authorities that some of their calls with clients in jail were turned over to prosecutors as pre-trial disclosure, DOI’s review said. 

As a result, Securus conducted an audit that showed the telephone numbers identified by Bronx Defenders were not properly placed on its Do Not Record list, DOI said.

Securus then adopted several reforms, like creating a new designation for lawyer calls, to prevent future breaches, according to DOI. 

But Brewer and others don’t think that goes far enough. 

“If you’re talking to your mother, to your sister, to your friends, it shouldn’t be public information,” Brewer said, noting that Securus collects all the recorded calls. 

She said she was inspired in part by remembering calls she has had with some of her 35 foster children who were behind bars in the 1980s and 1990s. 

“At that time you had to call collect,” she recalled. “I wouldn’t have wanted to have somebody recording. That had nothing to do with any gang activity whatsoever, you know — just son and mother.”


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