Jail phone telco Securus provided recordings of protected attorney-client conversations to cops and prosecutors, it is claimed, just three months after it settled a near-identical lawsuit.
The corporate giant controls all telecommunications between the outside world and prisoners in American jails that contract with it. It charges far above market rate, often more than 100 times, while doing so.
It has now been sued by three defense lawyers in Maine, who accuse the corporation of recording hundreds of conversations between them and their clients – something that is illegal in the US state. It then supplied those recordings to jail administrators and officers of the law, the attorneys allege.
Though police officers can request copies of convicts' calls to investigate crimes, the cops aren't supposed to get attorney-client-privileged conversations. In fact, these chats shouldn't be recorded in the first place. Yet, it is claimed, Securus not only made and retained copies of these sensitive calls, it handed them to investigators and prosecutors.
“Securus failed to screen out attorney-client privileged calls, and then illegally intercepted these calls and distributed them to jail administrators who are often law enforcers,” the lawsuit [PDF] alleged. “In some cases the recordings have been shared with district attorneys.”
The lawsuit claims that over 800 calls covering 150 inmates and 30 law firms have been illegally recorded in the past 12 months, and it provides a (redacted) spreadsheet of all relevant calls.
The recordings only came to light in May after a detective was listening to copies of recordings he had been provided, and recognized the voice of one of the lawyers, John Tebbetts, talking to his client. The detective alerted Maine’s Attorney General and the AG then informed the lawyers, providing them with copies of hundreds of calls made from jail and asked them to flag up any that were client-attorney protected so that they could be deleted. Tebbetts, plus Jeremy Pratt and Robert Ruffner, are the trio suing Securus this month.
It is possible that thousands of other phone calls between other lawyers and their clients inside jail have been recorded and distributed, so the three defense lawyers are seeking class-action status to get to the bottom of the issue. They intend the lawsuit to cover “all current and former inmates and attorneys, excluding attorneys for the plaintiff, whose calls were improperly intercepted, recorded, or disclosed.” They are looking for a jury trial.
Amazingly, this is not the first time Securus has been accused of this same sort of behavior. Just three months ago, in May this year, the company settled a similar class-action lawsuit this time covering jails in California.
That time, two former prisoners and a criminal defense attorney sued Securus after it recorded more than 14,000 legally protected conversations between inmates and their legal eagles. Those recordings only came to light after someone hacked the corp's network and found some 70 million stored conversations, which were subsequently leaked to journalists.
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Securus claimed the recordings were the result of a software glitch, rather than an intentional act, and stuck to that explanation as the case wound its way through the US legal system over four years.
The lawyers in that case wanted $5,000 per violation, which could have amounted to $70m, but dropped the demand after the courts decided that it was necessary to prove that Securus had intended to record the privileged calls. That decision was appealed to California’s Ninth Circuit though it refused to hear the case.
In the end, Securus settled the lawsuit by giving the three class representatives $20,000 apiece and paying the lawyers' bills of $840,000. It denied any wrongdoing.
Even though that lawsuit was started in 2016, Securus perhaps did not fix its apparent software bug because the recordings in this new lawsuit took place from September 2019 to May this year. As part of its settlement, Securus said it would create a new “private call” option for protected calls with attorneys and physicians and include additional warnings if the call is being recorded.
Securus has repeatedly come under fire for similar complaints of ethical and technological failings. It was at the center of a huge row over location data after it was revealed it was selling location data on people’s phones to the police through a web portal.
The telecoms giant was also criticized for charging huge rates for video calls, between $5.95 and $7.99 for a 20-minute call, at a jail where the warden banned in-person visits but still required relatives to travel to the jail and sit in a trailer in the prison’s parking lot to talk to their loved ones through a screen.
Securus is privately held so it doesn't make its financial figures public. A leak in 2014 revealed that it made a $115m profit on $405m in revenue for that year. ®