Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney for The Legal Aid Society, talks with CBSN New York's Dana Tyler about how some families have had to approach legal aid for help.
By Felipe De La Hoz
February 9, 2019
Immigration courts are often chaotic. On Wednesday, the detained docket of New York City Immigration Judge Charles Conroy took things to the next level, as ICE personnel were unable to explain to an increasingly frustrated Conroy and a cadre of immigration lawyers where the detainees were.
Conroy had an extraordinarily heavy docket of about 40 detained cases scheduled for the day, partly because of rescheduling after unexpected dockets at the facility—which usually only sees cases for immigrants who are not detained—left several detainees without legal representation. Immigrants were supposed to start showing up at 8:30 am sharp, and they did. Except their orange jumpsuits indicated that they had been brought from the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, N.J., while most of the attorneys were waiting for clients brought from the Hudson County Jail, in Kearny, N.J.
As Conroy started calling cases, attorneys jumped up to say that their clients were not in attendance. “Wait, your client isn’t here either?” Conroy said after seeing one attorney seated at the respondents’ table by himself. The judge then looked out at the handful of attorneys waiting on the courtroom benches and asked “Do any of you attorneys have a client sitting here, right now?” After a moment of silence, he looked exasperated. “No? Okay.”
Some lawyers speculated that because ICE stopped taking detainees from Hudson County Jail to the 201 Varick Street courtroom last year and had instead been beaming them into the courtrooms via video link , agents had assumed that this docket at 26 Federal Plaza would work the same way and didn’t bother to bring the detainees in person.
Hearings can’t move forward
After several lawyers informed Conroy that they would have to leave for other commitments, Conroy offered to postpone the cases further. Then, a man who announced himself as a supervisor in the Office of the Chief Counsel, ICE’s prosecutorial division, stepped up and apologized to the judge, saying that there was “no excuse for what happened,” and claimed that the detainees were on their way on a bus. Conroy responded that he doubted he could get through all the cases now.
The courtroom not only had attorneys without clients, but immigrants without attorneys. Several detainees who had their cases re-calendared appeared not to have been able to secure lawyers in the time since their first hearing. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), a city-funded immigration public defense project composed of three of the city’s largest public defender organizations, is intended to guarantee defense in all removal proceedings. The NYIFUP providers — the Bronx Defenders, the Legal Aid Society, and the Bronx Defenders — have said that they do not have the operational capability to represent all clients at the 26 Federal Plaza facility in addition to those appearing at the immigration court at Varick Street, which is where detained dockets are normally heard.
Consequently, some immigrants present were unsure whether they had lawyers or not, as they’d had consultations but didn’t know if their families had ultimately hired anyone. One man said that his family had asked the Bronx Defenders to take his case, but it had been unable to, and he could not afford a private attorney.
Instead, he ended up representing himself. He agreed to be deported as opposed to seeking voluntary departure because the judge mentioned that the government would cover the cost of the deportation and not the departure, without seeming to understand any of the collateral legal consequences.
After repeated extensions of the Hudson detainees’ estimated arrival time (once they actually arrived at the building, the ICE supervisor declared that the elevator was broken and the detainees were headed up to the twelfth floor on foot, presumably in shackles), the detainees were finally brought outside the courtroom at about 12:30pm, four hours after the initial docket had been scheduled. Then, to the dismay of the still-assembled attorneys, word started trickling in that ICE had still not brought all of the right detainees, and many of their clients remained at the jail in New Jersey.
At this point, two lawyers elected to move ahead with the hearings and waived their clients’ right to be present. Both were denied bond. Others had to reschedule their clients’ cases for a later time, after having waited all day.
More time waiting in jail
For detainees who had custody hearings, this meant waiting in jail for a couple more weeks before they could plead their cases for release. One such case was that of Cristian Marín, who was arrested on Jan. 17 and who had already had his case re-calendared because he didn’t have an attorney during his first appearance. His wife, Ingrid Flores, had been waiting outside the courtroom with the couple’s four-month-old son all day for a hearing that never happened.
“Now I have a job, because my husband is detained,” she said as she cooed at the infant. His case had been reset for Feb. 22 at Varick Street, and she anticipated having to miss a third day of work. “I’m not getting paid. I have a 12-year-old at home… It is terrible, traveling here by train with the baby.”
Marín’s attorney, Leena Khandwala of the Legal Aid Society, said she was concerned that a lot of the cases that were reset on Wednesday had been set for Feb. 22. The pro bono NYIFUP attorneys are typically not there on Fridays, and Conroy repeatedly made clear that any detainees who again appeared without counsel would just have to proceed unrepresented. “If these detainees are unable to get private counsel, and NYIFUP is not going to be present on their reset date of February 22nd, they are going to have to proceed on their own,” Khandwala said.
Throughout the day, Conroy’s legal assistant tried to use the teleconferencing system that was set up to one side of the courtroom in efforts to reach the detainees still stuck at Hudson, but couldn’t get through. At some point, she said that all the lines were busy. At about 2:45pm, over six hours after the first detainees were supposed to have their cases heard, Conroy got through to Hudson, and some of the remaining attorneys were finally able to proceed with the hearings. At least one was seeing her client for the first time through the video link.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is planning to open up new courtrooms at the Varick Street facility, including for detained dockets, and shuffle judges around. The odd dockets may be part of efforts to phase in the changes and respond to claims that they are taking too long to produce detained immigrants for their first hearings, an argument that forms the basis of a lawsuit filed by Bronx Defenders against the government.
Clearly, there are significant kinks in the coordination between EOIR, which is part of the Justice Department, and ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. An EOIR spokesman referred questions about the failed appearances to ICE. ICE had not responded to questions about the incident by publication time.
This past December, the New York Civil Liberties Union lost a lawsuit against New York City in which it argued that the public has a right to the disclosure of disciplinary recommendations by the Deputy Commissioner of Trials – the administrative law judge who oversees the Civilian Complaint Review Board prosecutorial process.
The suit forced New York’s highest state court to weigh in on the meaning of Civil Rights Law 50-a, a controversial law long treated as an exemption to New York’s Freedom of Information laws (also known as “FOIL”). While 50-a was initially enacted to protect police officers against “unverified and unsubstantiated” allegations by blocking the release of police personnel records “used to evaluate performance towards continued employment or promotion,” the NYPD has since successfully fought to broaden the scope of the law. And while the de Blasio administration has long promised increased transparency, it is in part responsible for the extensive interpretation of the law we are forced to grapple with today.
50-a is the law that prevented Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, from knowing whether the officers who killed her son had prior histories of misconduct. It is the law that the Police Benevolent Association believes should prevent body camera footage from being publicly accessible and aggregate statistics on force from being reported. It’s what shields police officers from public scrutiny at the expense of accountability, transparency and safety.
The recent Court of Appeals decision reframed 50-a from being an exemption to FOIL – tethered to historical deference in favor of open records disclosure in the public interest – to framing 50-a on a pedestal of blanket police privacy rights with protections exceeding those of all other state employees. The consequence of this decision is that it cemented the NYPD’s recent strict fidelity to making virtually all information about the prior misconduct of police officers – whether caught on video, violent, criminal or otherwise squarely in the public interest – unattainable for members of the public. It made clear there is only one way for New Yorkers to redefine what information is in the public interest, and that’s through full legislative repeal of 50-a.
Repealing 50-a does not mean that officers’ residential, medical or Social Security information will be accessible, as existing FOIL exemptions already prevent public employees’ personal information from being disclosed. It would under no circumstance allow anyone to FOIL the home address or Social Security number of an officer. It would not allow anyone with a personal vendetta against an officer to have more access to their biographical history or private life. Repealing 50-a would simply restore police, court and correction officers to the same level of privacy protection that other public employees, like teachers, and other state-licensed professionals expect regarding their disciplinary records.
Many licensed professionals whom the public must trust the state to oversee, like doctors, lawyers and architects, are all subject to discipline that is reported online. This transparency supports accountability systems and public trust in the state’s ability to regulate these professionals. Police should be no different. Law enforcement is entrusted with vast power, including discretion to use force and weapons, to detain people, and the ability to access sensitive databases and powerful surveillance technology. When officers appear in court to testify in uniform, there is a tacit understanding that their shields symbolize the state’s confidence in them, acting as an endorsement of her good standing. Withholding disciplinary information about officers’ misconduct sows distrust in that system and the state’s ability to hold officers accountable.
The court’s recent ruling on 50-a affords little weight to the public interest. Its interpretation not only undermines our collective ability to analyze, understand and participate in police reform measures that improve our trust in the police accountability and justice systems, it perpetuates ongoing trauma and fear in communities experiencing frequent police abuses and witnessing the failure of government to take accountability measures to prevent future harms. 50-a deprives communities of the most basic information related to government workers who are empowered to use lethal force, as well as the public’s ability to function as a check on governmental proceedings and engage in informed discourse over the reform of broken systems.
There is an independent oversight agency tasked with investigating complaints against the NYPD: the Civilian Complaint Review Board. But while the agency has access to undisclosed police personnel records and holds hearings open to the public, under 50-a even it is barred from publishing judicial opinions that decide and detail trial outcomes. This is what the NYCLU’s lawsuit sought to undo.
Now, one would think that an agency founded to foster greater transparency and accountability would find common ground with the NYCLU. Yet, the CCRB never got a chance. Though the NYPD and the CCRB’s goals are distinct and separate, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his corporation counsel, Zachary Carter, prepared a joint defense, thereby co-opting the CCRB into a pro-50-a argument that’s entirely antithetical to its mandate.
With the mayor’s interpretation of 50-a fueling distrust in law enforcement, there is but one clear solution.
In her dissent, Justice Jenny Rivera noted that “government is the public’s business.” This expectation is at the heart of a First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings and, through enactment of the Freedom of Information laws in 1974, that expectation of public access was extended to legislative and executive functions as well. In order to restore New Yorkers’ ability to engage in reform of police disciplinary systems and to restore police privacy protections to those of other public employees, the New York state legislature should repeal 50-a.
Defense attorneys are demanding the warden of the Metropolitan Detention Center take them on a tour of the Brooklyn jail that became a frigid house of horrors last week with prisoners forced to wrap themselves in blankets and sheets to keep warm.
The lawyers — affiliated with the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and the Bronx Defenders, among other groups — sent MDC Warden Herman Quay a letter Wednesday requesting he and his staff give them access to the jail’s housing units, medical facilities and mess hall.
Legal Aid’s Attorney-in-Charge Tina Luongo, who signed the letter, said a tour is needed because Quay has consistently provided misleading information about conditions inside the Sunset Park lock-up.
“I don’t trust that the warden is being truthful, and it’s been a systemic issue,” she said.
Luongo recounted how Legal Aide inquired with MDC about conditions there as early as Jan. 22, but did not get a response.
When Quay has spoken about what’s going on inside, she said, he’s given “contrary information … ie lies.”
“They lost the right to say that they can manage this,” she said. “They lost all credibility.”
Defense attorney Natali Todd’s client Miguel Cruz was released on Jan .30, three days after conditions at MDC began to severely deteriorate. He cried when he got out because plummeting temperatures forced him to wrap himself in jail-issued bedding to stay warm.
“He was wrapped in it all the time,” she said. “That place needs to be looked at top to bottom. It really is outrageous. It shows a complete lack of humanity.”
The federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the jail, did not immediately return a call.
By Ginia Bellafante
Feb. 7, 2019
Late Monday afternoon, the day after electricity had been restored to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and heat had returned, protesters kept at it outside the jail, holding banners and banging on pots and chanting and questioning.
They shouted that they loved those inside as they loved themselves, and while some were the actual loved ones of the people detained, most were young activists bonded in outrage over the fact that a federal jail allowed 1,600 detainees to freeze, in darkness and lockdown, while temperatures outside were in the single digits.
Elsewhere, many other vulnerable people were very cold last week. But they failed to capture the same kind of attention. At one point, the Legal Aid Society reported that nearly 12,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority, dispersed among several developments in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, had been without heat or hot water during the previous 24 hours.
But perhaps because we are so accustomed to hearing about how badly public housing is managed, the crowds and viral videos and expressions of disgust from morning-news anchors and presidential candidates did not materialize.
What was the difference? The conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center suggested a culture of cruelty over inefficiency, of hostility over neglect. There were heartless guards and overlords, presumably, doing nothing to alleviate agonizing conditions endured by accused drug dealers and gang members and mob bosses who did not command sympathy.
The heating failure followed an electrical fire that erupted in the jail on Jan. 27, the latest in a series of infrastructural problems in the building. Little had been done, it appeared, to fix things quickly. On Wednesday, the Justice Department said it would have its ombudsman conduct an investigation into how the crisis was handled. While some institutional failings can be easily laid at the feet of inscrutable bureaucracies; in this case it seems that individual human beings plagued by huge deficits of compassion were to blame.
When visitors were finally allowed in, to see their husbands and partners, brothers and sons, late in the day on Monday, stories emerged that confirmed this view. One woman, a lawyer, told me that her boyfriend said that a guard had opened a window to bring in more cold air as a means of extending the pain. The inmates had been banging on windows to communicate with the world outside, and this was a form of retaliation.
The man, who was being held on an immigration charge, also told his girlfriend that he never got one of the blankets the city had sent over when news of the heat crisis broke. To what extent they had been distributed was unclear.
The jail also seemed to do a poor job of letting families know what was going on. Another woman, Isabel Vega, said she had grown worried about her husband in the middle of last week because she hadn’t heard from him. When she emailed the jail to voice a concern, she heard nothing back. It was through a post on Instagram that she was alerted to the prisoners’ miseries.
Others held at the detention center wondered why they were not moved to another building on the same block that was part of the facility. According to Arthur Aidala, a lawyer who was visiting one of several clients at the jail, this building had heat and power. It houses mostly female inmates on two floors but is otherwise empty, he said, and while it would have been logistically challenging to move so many inmates at once, the jail moves them back and forth to court all the time.
Why the building did not resort to generator power was also left unexplained. “Can you imagine if this were an apartment building on the Upper East Side?’’ Mr. Aidala said. “But here, you have to consider who the tenant is and who the landlord is.”
The landlord, of course, is the federal government, led by a president who, two years ago at a speech on Long Island, suggested that police officers should not bother to protect the heads of suspects as they put them in police cars. He was speaking to law enforcement officials, and he told them they could “take the hand off,” a comment that elicited cheers from the audience.
Without a big push on social media from influential activists — Tamika Mallory, co-president of the Women’s March, was one of the organizers of the protest that began over the weekend — it is hard to say how much emotion the power failure and heating issues at the jail would have unleashed. How much is ignored because it can’t be distilled to one and a half minutes of haunting footage? The images of inmates banging on windows had supplied that — the sense of something dark and medieval.
The same jail had, in fact, been hit with a series of sexual assault cases in recent years — female inmates had accused guards of molesting them — but there was no similar outcry. Hunger is a big problem in this country, but hunger isn’t visual; there is no clear path to Instagram.
The Metropolitan Detention Center also finds itself in a place that can no longer be considered remote. Gentrification has changed that.
In recent years, an entire world of makers and designers and microbrewers, craft boutiques, ramen stands, artisanal chocolatiers, high-end furniture retailers and Citi Bikes has evolved around the jail in the form of Industry City, a work-life-retail experience on the waterfront in Sunset Park. If you were to occupy a cell in the back of the complex, for instance, you might have the bizarre fate of looking out at the ABC Carpet outlet down Second Avenue, which sits below the training facility of the Brooklyn Nets.
The obvious effect of all this is an influx of people into a part of the city that had for so long felt vacant. Last summer, the de Blasio administration released plans for a new network of neighborhood jails, four in total, spread across the city, as part of the effort to close Rikers Island. Nimbyism is sure to intervene, but one of the unspoken benefits of the proposed system is that the jails will sit in actual communities where people will see them on their way to work, to the gym, to the grocery store. And all secrets, in the end, are harder to keep in the daylight.
By Elizabeth Kim
Feb 5, 2019
When do inhumane living conditions in government-funded housing rise to the level of an emergency crisis?
That was the question some New Yorkers were asking this weekend after angry protests and demands for intervention erupted over freezing conditions at a federal jail in Brooklyn, even as thousands of New York City Housing Authority residents were also suffering without heat and hot water.
Even before outrage mounted on Friday over the conditions that arose from what officials said was a partial power outage at Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Sunset Park, the plight of NYCHA residents had been making headlines throughout last week’s cold snap. On Wednesday, the Daily News reported that NYCHA tenants were so frustrated that talks of a rent strike had begun. “It’s a disaster,” said Bertha Spivey, 76, a resident of NYCHA’s Soundview Houses in the Bronx, told the Daily News. “You can’t take showers or do dishes. We have no heat or hot water. If one goes, both go. It happens every winter for last four years.”
On Thursday, media attention on the public housing complexes peaked as a polar vortex sent temperatures plunging into the single digits. According to the New York Post, the number of NYCHA residents without hot water and heat rose to more than 14,000 at one point.
Similarly, the Legal Aid Society, which regularly tracks conditions at NYCHA, reported on Thursday that over 12,000 residents were impacted by heat and hot water interruptions.
But by late Friday, conditions at NYCHA began to take a backseat to reports of desperate conditions at MDC. Family members of inmates showed up to protest and elected officials demanded to be allowed to tour the prison, all while the inmates themselves made themselves heard through screaming and banging on the windows.
On Saturday evening, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the city was sending hundreds of blankets and handwarmers to the 1,600 inmates at MDC.
The next day, the New York Times issued an editorial on Brooklyn prison's conditions that acknowledged the outrage by elected officials as justly deserved, but also included a parenthetical dig at the city's hypocrisy: "(Though one is forced to wonder whether the mayor also plans to send blankets to the 10,000 residents of public housing in the city without heat.)"
By Monday morning, a lawsuit filed by a group of public defenders against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the jail's warden declared “a humanitarian crisis taking place" at the Brooklyn jail.
But if anything, NYCHA’s crisis goes back much farther. A recent New York Times story found one NYCHA complex in the South Bronx that has gone largely without heat for 10 years.
The city's public housing has also suffered from persistent and widespread problems with mold, lead paint, and rodents that resulted in the city agreeing to a $2.2 billion lawsuit settlement last year for its role in the mismanagement of NYCHA.
Last week, the city avoided the possibility of a federal takeover initiated by the lawsuit and reached an agreement with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment to allow a federally-appointed monitor to oversee NYCHA.
Several elected officials have been raising the alarm about NYCHA. On Monday, during the Brian Lehrer Show, New York City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, criticized the city’s deal for failing to require HUD to commit more funding. “NYCHA is in a state of emergency and yet the agreement contains no new emergency funding from the government,” he said. He added that the lack of court supervision over the city’s $2.2 billion repair plan meant that there would “no clear mechanism for enforcement.”
Noting the 5,000 residents in the Castle Hill Houses, a public housing complex in the Bronx, that went without heat this past week, he added: “There continues to be a humanitarian crisis in public housing.”
Lewis Flores, a Queens resident who recently helped form an activist organization called Fight for NYCHA, said the events surrounding MDC showed what could happen when people quickly mobilize around the issue. “They are organized,” he said, of the MDC protestors. The same could not be said of NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants, he added.
To change that, Flores's group, which was created to oppose the authority's privatization efforts, is staging its own protest against NYCHA this Sunday at 1 p.m. on the steps of City Hall.
Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who is representing Fight For NYCHA, said that the protests at MDC are an example of what can happen when activism takes shape and grips a city. Public housing has been a difficult issue to rally people around, he argued, because many people believe "they can't change the status quo." Yet he said he believed people would be energized once they began to learn more about what was happening to the city's public housing.
"There are moments when a spark is lit. People can move quickly and they did this weekend," he said. "Hopefully on Sunday we’ll have lots of people and we’ll get that spirit going."
By George Joseph & Debbie Nathan, The Appeal
February 5, 2019
Roughly six months ago at New York’s Sing Sing prison, John Dukes says he was brought out with cellmates to meet a corrections counselor. He recalls her giving him a paper with some phrases, and offering him a strange choice: He could go up to the phone and utter the phrases that an automated voice would ask him to read, or he could choose not to and lose his phone access altogether.
Dukes did not know why he was being asked to make this decision, but he felt troubled as he heard other men ahead of him speaking into the phone and repeating certain phrases from the sheets the counselors had given them.
“I was contemplating, ‘Should I do it? I don’t want my voice to be on this machine,’” he recalls. “But I still had to contact my family, even though I only had a few months left.”
So, when it was his turn, he walked up to the phone, picked up the receiver, and followed a series of automated instructions. “It said, ‘Say this phrase, blah, blah, blah,’ and if you didn’t say it clearly, they would say, ‘Say this phrase again,’ like ‘Cat’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the United States of America.’” Dukes said he repeated such phrases for a minute or two. The voice then told him the process was complete.
“Here’s another part of myself that I had to give away again in this prison system,” he remembers thinking as he walked back to the cell.
Dukes, who was released in October, says he was never told about what that procedure was meant to do. But contracting documents for New York’s new prison phone system, obtained by The Appeal in partnership with The Intercept, and follow-up interviews with prison authorities, indicate that Dukes was right to be suspicious: His audio sample was being “enrolled” into a new voice surveillance system.
In New York and other states across the country, authorities are acquiring technology to extract and digitize the voices of incarcerated people into unique biometric signatures, known as voice prints. Prison authorities have quietly enrolled hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people’s voice prints into large-scale biometric databases. Computer algorithms then draw on these databases to identify the voices taking part in a call, and to search for other calls where the voices of interest are detected. Some programs, like New York’s, even analyze the voices of call recipients outside prisons to track which outsiders speak to multiple prisoners regularly.
Corrections officials representing the states of Texas, Florida, and Arkansas, along with Arizona’s Yavapai and Pinal counties; Alachua County, Florida; and Travis County, Texas, also confirmed that they are actively using voice recognition technology today. And a review of contracting documents identified other jurisdictions that have acquired similar voice print capture capabilities: Connecticut and Georgia state corrections officials have signed contracts for the technology (Connecticut did not respond to repeated interview requests; Georgia declined to answer questions on the matter).
Authorities and prison technology companies say this mass biometric surveillance supports prison security and fraud prevention efforts. But civil liberties advocates argue that the biometric buildup has been neither transparent nor consensual. Some jurisdictions, for example, limit incarcerated people’s phone access if they refuse to enroll in the voice recognition system, while others enroll incarcerated people without their knowledge. Once the data exists, they note, it could potentially be used by other agencies, without any say from the public.
It’s particularly alarming, they add, that the technology’s use in prisons can ensnare people beyond their walls. “Why am I giving up my rights because I’m receiving a call from somebody who has been convicted of a crime?” asks Jerome Greco, a digital forensics attorney at New York’s Legal Aid Society. Greco argues that the mining of outside parties’ voice prints should require a warrant. “If you have a family member convicted of a crime, yet you haven’t been, why are you now having your information being used for government investigations?”
The Spread of Voice Recognition Technology
Voice print technology works by dissecting physical features that distinguish individuals’ voices, such as their pitch. With this data, the program’s algorithm generates a computer model of their vocal signatures, known as “voice prints,” which can be stored in a database for comparisons with utterances recorded in the future.
In recent years, voice recognition technology has come to be associated with consumer offerings, like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, but the technology was originally developed for military and intelligence applications. Over a decade ago, as The Intercept reported, US intelligence agencies were using voice recognition programs to identify the voices of top Al Qaeda officials in their online audio postings.
Similarly, the algorithms and structure behind the prison telecommunications firm Securus Technologies’ particular voice software, known as Investigator Pro, were developed in part through a $50 million grant from the Department of Defense. The software was licensed to JLG Technologies, a company that Securus acquired in 2014. According to Securus’s 2017 proposal for New York, the technology was developed because “DOD needed to identify terrorist calls out of the millions of calls made to and from the United States every day.”
But it wasn’t long before major prison technology firms, such as Securus and Global Tel Link, began marketing the technology to US jurisdictions that were seeking to extract and store voice prints associated with incarcerated people in their systems. “IPRO [Investigator Pro] has a 10-year track record of providing pinpoint voice accuracy capability country-wide in 243 states, county, and local correctional agencies,” notes Securus in the Pinal County contract.
The enrollment of incarcerated people’s voice prints allows corrections authorities to biometrically identify all prisoners’ voices on prison calls, and find past prison calls where the same voice prints are detected. Such systems can also automatically flag “suspicious” calls, enabling investigators to review discrepancies between the incarcerated person’s ID for the call and the voice print detected. Securus did not respond to a request for comment on how it defined “suspicious.” The company’s Investigator Pro also provides a voice probability score, rating the likelihood that an incarcerated person’s voice was heard on a call.
Michael Lynch, an intelligence coordinator for the Alachua County Jail in northern Florida, confirmed that his county recently agreed to purchase Securus’s voice recognition program. Lynch said that the voice prints produced by the program will be permanently archived at Securus’s facility in Texas. He said the jail hopes the technology will address the problem of incarcerated people using each others’ personal identification numbers, or PINs. “The problem is inmates that are committing other criminal acts or contacting victims or witnesses and using other inmates’ PIN to do that,” he said in a phone call. “Voice [biometrics] will tell us who’s making the calls.”
Image of Securus's Investigator Pro VoiceSearch tool from a 2017 approved contract proposal with Pinal County, Arizona. Image of Securus’s Investigator Pro VoiceSearch tool from a 2017 approved contract proposal with Pinal County, Arizona. Securus’s voice recognition program can also identify the voices of people outside prisons, both former prisoners and those who have never been incarcerated but communicate with people inside.
New York and Texas state corrections officials confirmed that their agencies retain the voice prints of formerly incarcerated people, like Dukes, allowing them to identify them by name if currently incarcerated people call them in the future.
And New York and Pinal County, Arizona, confirmed that their voice recognition programs can identify the voices of outside callers.
New York’s contract proposal with Securus states that outsiders’ voice samples can be used to “search for all other calls” in their recorded call database to find where those voices occur. In an email, New York prison officials confirmed that this program will give investigators the ability to extract a voice print from an outside caller and use it to “identify that a call recipient has participated in multiple phone calls.” They added that the program will not have names associated with outsiders’ voice prints.
In a statement, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Navideh Forghani also confirmed this outsider voice tracking capability, noting that while their software does not identify non-incarcerated people by name, it can track “suspicious activities” such as “multiple inmates speaking to one person on the outside on a reoccurring basis.”
With this technology, a press release for Investigator Pro notes, an investigator can now answer questions like, “What other inmates are talking to this particular called party?” and “Are any of my current inmates talking to this released inmate?”
Prisoners’ rights advocates worry that outsider voice surveillance technology could also be used to coordinate crackdowns against prison organizing campaigns.
“Using this technology to trace the voices of outside callers and flag those who speak with more than one person in a system, staff can use calls with outside organizers to quickly identify the incarcerated activist they support,” said Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project, which works to curb the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system. Tylek noted that during the 2018 national prison strike, corrections staff routinely retaliated against incarcerated activists by using tactics like solitary confinement, job termination, and facility reassignment.
The Pressure to Participate
Advocates assert that corrections agencies have been building up large-scale voice print databases with limited input from the public, or from incarcerated people and their families. While some state corrections agencies have put out public notices to families about payment options for new phone systems, they seldom mention the voice print databases, which are rarely discussed outside of industry conferences and internal talks with contractors.
“Every time there’s a new contract, there’s new surveillance, but they don’t say anything,” said Tylek. “I’ve never seen authorities post a public notice about new surveillance updates or tell families.”
Keeping their plans opaque has allowed authorities to quietly pressure incarcerated people into giving up their biometric data — or to enroll them without their knowledge. According to Securus’s 2019 Investigator Pro contract with Alachua County, Florida (which includes Gainesville), “Inmates will participate in a covert voice print enrollment process.”
In Texas, state prisoners must enroll in the voice recognition program if they want to make calls. According to Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Investigator Pro’s voice enrollment process is “the lock and key” to the Texas state prison phone system. Likewise, in Pinal County, Arizona, phone access is severely limited for prisoners who decline to enroll in the voice recognition program. “If inmates choose not to participate, they can still utilize the phone system but only to make phone calls to their attorneys,” said Forghani, the county sheriff’s office spokesperson.
In some cases, prisoners participate without even knowing, said Martin Garcia, a 33-year-old who is incarcerated at Sing Sing in New York.
“A lot of guys don’t know technology,” he said. “They’ve been in there so long, they’ve never heard of Google.” The voice enrollment procedure, he continued, is seen as “just another thing they follow to talk to their family.”
Garcia was upset to hear that Securus’s voice tracking capabilities, as described in its approved contract with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, could mine prison call databases to identify which other prisoners outside callers had contacted. “Are they criminals just because they’re talking to someone incarcerated?” he said. “To me, you’re criminalizing relationships. Some people may be hesitant to interact with me if they could be put in a database.”
After being briefed by The Appeal and The Intercept about the program, New York State Assembly member David Weprin publicly called on the state Department of Corrections to give incarcerated people more choice regarding the voice recognition program. At a Tuesday hearing, Weprin, chairperson of the Assembly’s Committee on Correction, asked the Department of Corrections’ acting commissioner, Anthony J. Annucci, to add a provision that allows incarcerated people with legitimate concerns about voice surveillance to “not be denied phone privileges.” Annucci did not immediately agree to the request, instead pointing out that people have the option to make unmonitored calls to their attorneys.
In a statement to The Appeal and The Intercept, Weprin said he is “concerned with the deployment and use of voice recognition software” in New York state prisons, and will be working with his colleagues to further investigate the technology.
Building the Databases
The rapid, secretive growth of voice print databases is “probably not a legal issue, not because it shouldn’t be, but because it’s something laws haven’t entertained yet,” noted Clare Garvie, a senior associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology. “It’s not surprising that we’re seeing this around prisons, just because it can be collected easily,” she continued, referring to biometric voice data. “We’re building these databases from the ground up.”
The scale of prisons’ emerging voice biometric databases has not been comprehensively documented nationwide, but, at minimum, they already hold more than 200,000 incarcerated people’s voice prints.
New York’s Department of Corrections, which incarcerates just under 50,000 people, confirmed that approximately 92 percent of its population had been enrolled in the voice recognition system. State corrections authorities for Florida, Texas, and Arkansas, which hold about 260,000 prisoners combined, also confirmed that they are using Investigator Pro’s voice recognition technology. Connecticut and Georgia’s state corrections systems, which incarcerate roughly 13,000 and roughly 52,000 people, have also purchased Securus’s voice print technology.
The databases of recorded calls from which prison authorities could search for outsiders’ voice samples could also potentially include millions of recorded calls for state and countywide systems. According to the design requirements New York’s Department of Corrections gave to Securus, for example, the company must be able to record every call, archive all call recordings for a year, and maintain any calls flagged for investigative purposes “indefinitely” through the life of the contract, which ends in 2021. (In the documents, Securus estimated that 7 percent of prison calls made per year would total 1.5 million calls, suggesting that the call database could retain over 20 million calls.)
Greco of the Legal Aid Society says he understands the value of such monitoring capabilities, pointing out that incarcerated people do sometimes have to deal with other prisoners taking their PINs or threatening their families for money. But the extension of this technology into the monitoring of people outside prisons, and the lack of transparency and regulation of these new databases concerns him. If voice prints were shared with police, for example, they could try to compare them with voices caught on a wiretap, he notes, despite scientists’ skepticism about the reliability of voice print matches for criminal prosecutions. New York State’s Department of Corrections declined to answer questions regarding whether it would share the data with other agencies.
Either way, Greco said, there’s cause for concern. “Once the data exists, and it becomes an accepted part of what’s happening, it’s very hard to protect it or limit its use in the future,” he said.
That has implications far beyond prisons, argues Garcia, the man incarcerated at Sing Sing. “First you use this on the people marginalized in society, criminalizing the families of those incarcerated,” he said. “But, especially in Trump’s America, the sky is the limit with this.”
By Shayna Jacobs Feb 05, 2019 Fewer than 800 people with criminal records successfully had their convictions sealed since a New York State law giving nonviolent offenders a second chance went into effect — less than 1% of eligible applicants, data shows.
At the launch of the program in October 2017, authorities estimated there were as many as 600,000 eligible prospects — an individual can only seal up to two misdemeanors or a misdemeanor and a low-level, nonviolent felony, and the convictions must be at least a decade old. In the months since the law went into effect, public defenders and private lawyers alike have hustled to submit applications to have their clients’ records sealed. But the numbers show they’ve barely been able to make a dent, which some blame on a lack of awareness.
“It’s shameful that out of the 600,000 individuals who could benefit from this law, less than 1% have taken advantage of it,” said Emma Goodman, who heads the Legal Aid Society’s Case Closed Sealing Project.
“There should be a full statewide publicity campaign and other efforts to raise awareness,” the lawyer added. “The reforms are meaningless unless Albany and others ensure that the word is reaching those impacted.”
Manhattan leads the state with the most granted applications — 159 — since the law was put on the books. Nassau is second with 109 and Suffolk had 91.
People who have gone through the process have described the second chance as life changing.
One of Goodman’s clients, who previously spoke to the Daily News, said his drug conviction was an aberration in his life that he regrets and has moved on from.
“The conviction does not represent who I am as a person and is a significant source of embarrassment in my life,” Richie, whose Brooklyn case was wiped, wrote in his application.
The 52-year-old married father of two daughters, a trained carpenter, admits he was “just being a knucklehead” when he got caught selling crack-cocaine in 1993.
After days of protests, a Brooklyn detention center has finally restored power — but there’s still no clear sign the heating is fixed.
Just after 6:00 p.m. Sunday night, the lights in the the Metropolitan Detention Center flickered back on and the crowd protesting outside cheered. Though the lights are now on, there are concerns that conditions inside the facility won’t necessarily improve and there are reports that parts of the prison still do not have heat.
Hundreds of protesters have rallied outside the Metropolitan Detention Center over the last week, demanding that power and heat be restored. On Sunday, police guards pepper sprayed protesters attempting to enter the facility, including family members and legal defenders. Many of the families attempting to enter the prison were at their wits’ end after a week of barred visits (a violation of the inmates’ Sixth Amendment rights) and alarming reports about the worsening conditions.
According to The New York Times, around 1,600 inmates were held in “freezing cells” that dipped below 34 degrees for more than a week. Inmates told legal defenders they had no power and no heat, and many of them were growing sick. Nearly all were worried that conditions would not improve since things had begun to go downhill early last month.
When initially pressed for a response, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) claimed no such thing was even happening. They said that a “partial power outage” at the prison was the fault of the local power company, and the prison was making up for it by relying on emergency power. The power company denied the claim and said it’s a maintenance issue the center’s own electricians need to address.
According to the president of the local chapter of the prison’s union, Anthony Sanon, the problem was twofold: Heating units that used water from boilers started having issues when those units froze. Meanwhile, the power outages were the result of an electrical panel that blew out last month and after being left unattended caught on fire last Sunday. The New York Fire Department confirmed that it responded to a fire in the jail’s control room last Sunday.
The warden’s spokesperson, and the BOP both claimed that the scene inside was not as being depicted by the prisoners. The disconnect in stories only increased the concern among families, legal defenders, and activists.
Over the weekend, lawmakers, politicians, and activists called for action and mass protests were held outside the center.
Despite reports that the Metropolitan Detention center are operating business as usual, organizers say otherwise.
Shahana Hanif, a Brooklyn native and community organizer, who has been on the scene since Friday told ThinkProgress that the heat still seems to be irregular throughout the facility. A contractor affiliated with the facility was there Sunday night, and it appeared to those gathered, including Hanif, that essential parts were missing.
Even though he didn’t provide amazing news, she says his presence still felt like a good sign.
“It seems like there’s a rush on this now, but that urgency is the result of the protesters who are on the ground. Otherwise it seems like the weekend would have just passed and this would have been something that was just on the back burner,” said Hanif.
Though the question remains, why did it take days of protests for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to maintain basic conditions at one of their facilities?
The truth is: this kind of thing happens far too often, and prisons generally refuse to meet inmates’ basic needs.
Last April, a prison riot in South Carolina left seven inmates dead and 17 injured. There weren’t enough guards at the initial time the riot broke out — two in fact — and to add to the devastation, they waited four hours before intervening. Which begs the questions: If guards are there to maintain the safety of the inmates, why aren’t they doing it?
As last summer winded down, prisoners across the nation went on strike to bring awareness to the poor conditions they face. During the strike — which lasted from August 21 to September 9 — prisoners refused to work, and many refused to eat. They were demanding better conditions but also shedding light on the increasingly exploitative labor practices. (See: prisoners being forced to fight wildfires in California.)
In 1971, the infamous Attica Prison Uprising left at least 43 people dead, including ten correctional officers and employees. At the time, one of the prisoners, L.D. Barkley, attempted to restore order and declared, “We are not beats, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) — who toured the Metropolitan Detention Center over the weekend — said on a press call Monday, “We have to make sure that the right of every citizen is protected even when you’re in detention.”
Velazquez also said that even elected officials were being provided with inaccurate information. She was not initially given total transparency on the status of inmate lockdowns.
Rep. Jerrod Nadler (D-NY) described the air coming in from the heating system as cool, despite the system being set to as high as 190 degrees. According to him, the warden claimed arranging for a new heating system was beyond him and that a formal request had not been made with the BOP.
While a full restoration of the heat remains to be seen, organizers on the ground say a police corridor is obstructing protesters and family from getting on the grounds. There were also reports of bomb threats earlier Monday morning — which could be a tactic to discourage protests. Although officials claimed family visitation would run as usual starting Monday, it has not yet been fully permitted due to the bomb threat. The Legal Aid Society has been monitoring interactions between families and prison officials and the NYPD. A representative from the Federal Defenders of New York said that he learned of an inmate receiving an emergency bail application due to an asthma related emergency.
Hanif did point out something important: This isn’t just any story of protesters and organizers working to create change, it’s also one of black and brown communities coming together for a larger cause. Hanif, a Muslim Brooklynite, emphasized that the prison’s population consists of black and brown community members of all walks of life and faiths.
“It’s important to realize for myself and for other Muslims in this community how much our community builds in solidarity with black communities and black Muslim communities. People of all faith backgrounds, diversities, multi-brown and black are in this facility, including women,” Hanif said.
Also on Monday, New York-based defense lawyers filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on behalf of the public defenders’ office calling what happened a “humanitarian crisis.”
A bomb threat at Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park Monday morning forced many to evacuate, including lawyers and visitors frustrated by other issues at the jail.
The bomb threat lasted a few hours before the NYPD determined the building was safe. But hours later, a large police presence remained with armed guards blocking the entrance.
News 12 spoke to a woman who came from Manhattan to visit her husband, only to be turned away with no word for when her visitation would happen.
Those advocating for fair treatment of the inmates say lawyers were also turned away from seeing clients.
This all comes after an intense three days of protests between the detention center, family members and advocates. The facility had been operating with limited heat, hot water, electricity, medication and hot meals for a week following an electrical fire.
Power and heat was restored Sunday evening, but now families want to make sure their loved ones are doing well.
Legal Aid Society has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the inmates at Metropolitan Detention Center. There will be a court hearing on the center's conditions Tuesday morning.