Prisons Leave Us In-Securus

The Intercept is a website dedicated to investigative journalism. It is best known for having Glenn Greenwald as one of its editors. Its long term goal is to provide “fearless journalism” that sheds much-needed light on privacy invasions. But even knowing all of that, some of its headlines still manage to take you by surprise: Massive Hack of 70 Million Prisoner Phone Calls Indicates Violations of Attorney-Client Privilege is probably up there.

This story involves a telecommunications company named Securus, which provides phone and video communications to prisoners. Before this leak, Securus was well known for gouging prisoners with their high call rates. These rates, according to Intercept, led to “more than $404 million in revenue.” Securus also has a “payback” program which gives its clients, including prisons, kickbacks when its technologies make Securus enough money.

The leak itself contained a disturbing amount of private information. “The database contained prisoners’ first and last names; the phone numbers they called; the date, time, and duration of the calls; the inmates’ Securus account numbers; as well as other information.” This leak shows not only the lack of security in Securus’s system, but also how easily private companies are able to spy on prisoners. Some have argued that this isn’t “really” spying because the prisoners do not have the same rights the rest of us do. But even if this were true, it’d have enormous consequences for non-criminals if companies’ security systems can so easily be accessed.

The idea that prisoners simply waive their privacy is incredibly harmful. It reduces prisoners to property that can be used and abused so long as it’s within certain arbitrary bounds. Prisoners are still people. Often they’re locked away for terms disproportionate to the harm they did, particularly in the case of victimless crimes.

Although the prisoners do acknowledge a waiver of privacy at the beginning of their calls, the ACLU’s David Fathi says, “waivers of rights are not meant to be all or nothing. Waivers are meant to be only as extensive as necessary to accomplish the goal underlying the waiver.” In other words, privacy waivers are instrumental means to aiding institutional security. But once their underlying purpose is served (that is, when the data doesn’t contain anything dangerous), Securus is no longer justified in keeping it.

This isn’t even taking into consideration lawyer-client conversations. These conversations are, supposedly, constitutionally protected. But Securus maintains the details surrounding lawyer-client telephone communications, which is in and of itself disturbing and arguably illegal. One need not have an active imagination to consider all of the unjust possibilities of how the call information is being used.

According to a lawsuit by the Austin Lawyers Guild, Securus is even tipping the scale in favor of some prosecutors who are able to “procure” these records. The prosecutors then choose to not disclose this knowledge to the defense attorney and end up winning the case. Structural accountability and the incentives to improve are abysmal, to say the least. The records can be held “forever, with no supervision” according to Adina Schwartz, a professor at John Jay College. And though Intercept laments the lack of regulation on companies, it seems unlikely that the government would stop the sweetheart deals and kickbacks it gets from prisons.

So what can be done?

For meaningful reform to happen, one would need to show systemic and regular wrongdoing on the part of Securus. The government’s own courts would then have to ensure the state’s flow of money from prisons ceases. All of this would have to be done by using the government’s own document, the Constitution, to show that Securus is doing wrong.

Right or wrong, there doesn’t seem to be many rational incentives for any of that to happen.

Moreover, all of this points to a continued growth of the surveillance state and its cronies in the capitalist system. A continued growth that the Constitution has been largely impotent in stopping. Given the failures of the courts, the Constitution and the government at large, let’s instead consider the practical alternative of abolishing prisons and state-capitalism.

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