County Considers New Contract for Jail Phone Calls, Tablets

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will vote on a contract with Legacy Long Distance Int’l to provide inmate telephone services in local jails.

If the deal gets approved, Legacy will replace in-custody phone vendor Global Tel-Link and drastically cut the price of domestic phone calls from 10 cents a minute to less than 8 cents a minute, and calls to Mexico or Canada from 60 cents to 12 cents a minute.

“We want to facilitate inmates to talk to their family and friends because eventually they will be getting out of jail and we want them to maintain those relationships,” County Executive Jeff Smith said in an interview about the referral.

As part of the county’s efforts to reduce the cost of phone calls for jail inmates, the board also recently approved an 18-month pilot program for inmates to receive seven free 15-minute phone calls a week.

Come Tuesday, the board will also consider authorizing Legacy to provide electronic tablet for inmates. Through the tablets, inmates would be able to access education materials, place commissary orders and submit grievances.

“By providing educational and well-being on-line content as well as other useful resources through the inmate tablet platform, recidivism could potentially be reduced,” according to a Sheriff’s Office memo about the referral.

Email, phone and messaging services on the tablets will be disabled at first, however. “At this point, they’re not confident the technology can protect the confidential communications adequately,” County Executive Jeff Smith explained.

Earlier this year, the Public Defender’s Office opposed an attempt to extend a contract with Global Tel-Link because of a provision that would have granted the District Attorney’s Office “unfettered access” to recorded jail calls.

“Direct unfettered eavesdropping by prosecutors invites abuse, such as listening to intimate discussions between clients and their families regarding their case and lawyer’s advice,” Assistant Public Defender Damon Silver said. “It also erodes the credibility of our criminal justice system by stripping privacy and dignity from people held in jail primarily because they are poor and unable to pay bail.”

The contract proposed now, however, would not give the DA that level of access.

The Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office demanded stricter language in the phone surveillance policy with Legacy to prevent that kind of illegal recording of inmates’ privileged conversations. The Sheriff’s Office ultimately obliged, amending its surveillance policy to prohibit jail officials and Legacy from eavesdropping or recording “communication known by the listener or recorder to be privileged.”

According to that same policy, jail officials and Legacy can record inmate’s conversations at intake booking and visiting phones. “Any inadvertent recording of a privileged communication shall be deleted upon discovery and if the recording has been copied, all copies shall be deleted immediately,” the guidelines state.

In addition, DA and Public Defender employees must submit a request form, subpoena or search warrant to obtain unprivileged recordings.

Also looming large over the decision to break up with Global Tel Link was a scandal that erupted in Orange County last year when the public learned that 1,000 private phone calls between inmates and their attorneys were improperly recorded by the company.

The Board of Supervisors meets at 9:30am Tuesday at the County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., in San Jose. Click here to read the full agenda.

Nicholas Chan is a journalist who covers politics, culture and current events in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholaschanhk.

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