Jail officials, defense attorneys at odds over monitoring phone calls

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Clovis criminal defense lawyer Randall Harris communicates with his clients face to face.

When he learned phone calls at detention centers were monitored by police departments and district attorneys several months ago, he shied away from having telephone conversations with his clients housed in detention centers.
“I do not think any person’s telephone conversations should be monitored. Everyone should have the right to communicate without fear,” Harris said.

The telephone conversations of inmates at the Curry County Adult Detention Center have been monitored for years, according to officials. In late March, an updated monitoring system was installed.

Curry County Adult Detention Center Administrator Leslie Johnson said the monitoring system — which kicks in with a pre-recorded voice informing telephone users their call is being monitored and can be used by law enforcement — is an invaluable security tool.

She said it protects those inside the jail, as well as the public.

“In general,” Johnson said, “prisons and jails have dodged a lot of issues that could be life threatening to another inmate or an employee. We’ve thwarted escape plans, drug smuggling and illegal business.

“Inmates retain plenty of their rights,” she said, “but we have the right to monitor their phone calls.”

A detention center guard, Damien Pardue, was arrested Tuesday after law enforcement officials listened to a call between inmate Byron Logan and his wife, Yvonne Logan, in which the couple referenced a plan to smuggle marijuana into the jail with the help of the guard, according to a police report.

Proponents of call monitoring at jails are many.

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler said his office does not monitor phone calls of inmates frequently, but if police officers, who rake through hours and hours of inmate phone conversations, discover something pertinent to an ongoing investigation, they generally inform his office. He and investigators within his department also have the capability to monitor inmate phone calls from the district attorney’s office, Chandler said.

“It is a very helpful tool used to prevent future acts of crime. There have been many, many times when an individual gets booked, and the first few phone calls made are to people on the outside to cover up their crimes,” Chandler said.

But critics of the monitoring system are also a dense group, comprised largely of lawyers such as Harris who defend men and women behind bars.

According to New Mexico statutes, calls between attorneys and their clients cannot be recorded. Calls from defense lawyers in New Mexico are not recorded at the Curry County Adult Detention Center, according to Chandler, who said those calls are automatically circumvented by the monitoring system.

Conversations between attorneys and their clients rarely “slip through the cracks” and are recorded, Chandler said. And if they are, everyone in his office understands it is taboo to review them, he said.

Nonetheless, many defense lawyers are vexed by the system.

“I don’t think people who are incarcerated should be at the mercy of a detention center. They should be able to express their feelings openly without worrying the government is listening,” said Tim Rose, a defense lawyer based in Ruidoso.

“It is a practical matter for attorneys to be able to protect their cases, especially if it is an attorney who lives some distance from the jail (where his client is housed). It is a professional issue, and it is an ethical issue,” he said.