June 16, 2024

NYC: Lawmaker pushes to end eavesdropping on jail calls


In 2007, the administration of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted a controversial rule allowing jail officials to monitor and record detainees’ phone calls. Seventeen years later, this practice is facing renewed scrutiny as a city lawmaker aims to abolish it.

City Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Upper West Side), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, is spearheading new legislation to make it illegal to listen to and record calls made by incarcerated individuals.

Brewer’s proposal comes in the wake of allegations that jail officials have unlawfully listened to conversations between detainees and their attorneys, as well as maintained an unconstitutional database of recorded calls.

“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,” Brewer stated, emphasizing the need for transparency and privacy protections.

The proposed bill would prohibit the universal recording of communications made by people in jail. While district attorneys could still obtain a warrant from a judge to record specific calls if deemed absolutely necessary, the blanket surveillance would be banned. Additionally, the bill aims to prohibit the collection of voice recognition and location data, and would mandate the destruction of any such data already collected.

The legislation is set to be introduced at the City Council’s weekly stated hearing on Thursday.

However, the proposal is not without its detractors. Martin Horn, who served as the Department of Correction commissioner during Bloomberg’s administration, argues that recorded calls are essential for maintaining security and preventing ongoing criminal activities.

“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,” Horn told THE CITY.

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