NYC Council bill would bar Correction Department from listening, recording jail calls without a warrant

NEW YORK — The New York City Correction Department would be barred from eavesdropping on and recording jail calls without a court-ordered warrant or the consent of at least one person on a given call under a bill being introduced Thursday in the City Council.

If passed, the bill would upend longstanding DOC practice dating to roughly 2008 of recording and retaining phone calls for extended periods under the basis that it assists in law enforcement investigations either of misconduct in the jails or threats to public safety outside the jails.

Prior to 2008, when the Board of Correction rewrote its rules to allow the practice, DOC was barred from blanket recording. Instead, the agency routinely obtained warrants to listen to calls.

The Board of Correction rule change allowed recording except for calls involving the Board of Correction, the Department of Investigation and other oversight agencies, doctors, lawyers and clergy. The policy requires “legally sufficient notice,” which includes signs posted in the jails and a recording at the start of calls.

The bill, introduced by Manhattan Council Member Gale Brewer and five co-sponsors, was spurred by a class action lawsuit filed by public defender groups in April challenging the department’s wholesale recording and retention policy through its phone vendor, Securus Technologies.

The filing of the lawsuit was first reported in the Daily News.

In 2014, the city hired Securus to manage its phone system. The technology then evolved to not only record and retain vast amounts of calls, but identify individual voices and store them in a searchable database and pick up a wide range of personal information which also could be stored in databases.

The lawsuit alleged the city has built a vast database of calls in violation of the civil rights of detainees and the relatives and friends they talk with on the phone.

It referred to a city disclosure which said from Jan. 1, 2020, through Jan. 1, 2022, the database contained just under 18 million recorded calls.

Though DOC insists there’s a broad public safety benefit to the recording and retention of calls, the lawsuit states investigators actually listened to just 1.7% of the recordings, or about 305,000 of the 18 million.

“We thank Council Member Brewer for introducing this significant legislation to ensure New Yorkers can talk to loved ones who are detained in city jails without fear that their private thoughts and intimacies will be spied on or their biometric, location, and financial information will be stolen,” said Elizabeth Daniel Vasquez, director of Brooklyn Defenders’ Science and Surveillance Project:

“We urge the Council to pass this legislation to end a decade of predatory surveillance and restore dignity and basic human rights for all who rely on the jails’ phone system to stay connected.”

In response to a News inquiry about the lawsuit in April, DOC spokesman Frank Dwyer said that recordings are deleted after 18 months unless there’s an ongoing investigation.

“Monitoring of phone calls is essential for the safety of all staff and every person in custody,” Dwyer said at the time.

According to a copy of the bill, DOC would either obtain a warrant or get the consent of one of the people on a call. Consent would have to be obtained for each call.

The department also would not be able to condition access to phones on an implied consent to listen or record without a warrant simply because someone is in jail, the bill states. Detainees would have the chance to consult a lawyer before giving their consent.

The bill also bars the department from recording and retaining voice biometric information, phone numbers and destroy any that was previously collected, the bill states.

Other sponsors of the bill include Sandy Nurse of Brooklyn, the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, Yusuf Salaam of Harlem, Shekar Krishnan of Queens, Carlina Rivera, who represents neighborhoods in lower Manhattan, and Diana Ayala of East Harlem.