Prisons Launch “Absurd” Attempt to Detect Coronavirus in Inmate Phone Calls

Jails and prisons in at least three states are using software called Verus, financed by Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, to scan calls for Covid-19 keywords.

Illustration: Daniel Stolle for The Intercept

Jail and prison officials in at least three states are using software to scan inmate calls for mentions of the coronavirus, a move advocacy groups believe paves the way for abuse while raising stark questions about carceral health care.

The monitoring software was created by LEO Technologies, a Los Angeles company backed primarily by scandal-plagued Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy. Known as Verus, it was first deployed several years ago to forestall suicide attempts, mine calls for investigative tips, and for a range of other purposes. In recent weeks, it has been marketed as a system “that can mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic across our nation’s jail and prison facilities” by alerting prison authorities to sickness-related conversations between inmates and the outside world.

Document: LEO Technology

“It automatically downloads, analyzes, and transcribes all recorded inmate calls, proactively flagging them for review,” explains a Verus product brochure, which also claims this “near real-time intelligence” can be used to identify sick inmates, help allocate personnel in understaffed prisons, and even prevent “COVID-19 related murder.” The brochure touts Verus’s “advanced semantics” and “proactive analysis” and provides what it says are real-world examples of Verus already at work in undisclosed prison facilities. One shows a conversation flagged for the mention of a “disease in here,” while other inmate conversations are depicted as captured for merely mentioning a “cough” or “sneezing.” “It really is a tool for providing medical surveillance,” LEO Technologies CEO Scott Kernan said. In one example listed on the brochure, however, the software flags an exchange based exclusively on what a call recipient said, not the incarcerated person — suggesting that the system might serve to monitor public perceptions of prison management and not just the health of incarcerated people.

Coronavirus monitoring trials have begun at prisons in Georgia, in jails in at least seven Alabama counties, and at one or more facilities in or near San Bernardino, California, Kernan said, adding that there may be further deployments he could not immediately detail.

While monitoring prisoner calls for Covid-19 keywords could in theory be used to get help to sick inmates, it could also be just as easily wielded to suppress news of their sickness or to retaliate against those raising alarms about prison conditions. “This strikes me as nothing more than opportunistic branding of a problematic technology,” Shilpi Agarwal, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told The Intercept. “Obviously, people talking about COVID-19 on the phone does not necessarily mean they are infected with COVID-19. The whole world is talking about the virus right now.” Agarwal added that “it’s not at all clear that any of the monitoring and analysis would be accurate,” as “we know voice recognition technology is deeply biased. Moreover, we also know that this kind of recording technology has been misused in the past to financially exploit inmates and to spy on their conversations with attorneys.”

Advocates for incarcerated people said they feared the technology would be used against those discussing the virus with people outside.

“If somebody uses the word ‘coughing,’ will their entire dorm be put under lockdown?”

“We’ve been using words that would trigger the keywords that were advertised on that document,” said Sarah Hamid, an organizer with the Carceral Tech Resistance Network, whose volunteers work closely with incarcerated people. “And so we became concerned because we don’t know what the ramifications are of using those words. Like, if somebody uses the word ‘coughing,’ will their entire dorm be put under lockdown or something like that?”

“We don’t know what the retaliation is going to be for using those words on the phone so we’ve been having to scramble to figure out, do we need to use code words? Somebody suggested using a different language but we found out the software works in Spanish too.” Kernan confirmed that the program works on Spanish. “Even Spanglish,” he said.

How It Works — and Who Pays For It

According to LEO Technologies’ website, the Verus system operates in at least 26 facilities in 11 states, including uses not specific to the coronavirus. In an interview with The Intercept, Kernan said that prisons use Verus by telling their phone service provider to share call data with LEO Technologies; LEO then routes this data through Amazon’s cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services, to obtain call transcripts, which are then shared back to LEO for keyword analysis by its staff. The LEO Technologies website notes the company is part of the “AWS partner network,” an Amazon initiative that “helps companies build, market, and sell their AWS offerings by providing valuable business, technical, and marketing support,” per an Amazon web page. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Kernan, a former California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation secretary, also sits on the board of the GEO Group, one of the two largest private prison corporations and the largest operator of immigration detention facilities in the country.

LEO Technologies is funded by Elliott Broidy, a Trump insider and former national deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee whose office was raided in 2018 as part of a Justice Department investigation into money laundering and foreign influence peddling. The Intercept previously reported that another Broidy company made plans to peddle surveillance software to oppressive government customers worldwide. Broidy resigned from the RNC after reports of his $1.6 million settlement and nondisclosure agreement with a former Playboy model, negotiated by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, and related allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2009, Broidy pleaded guilty to a felony bribery charge in the New York State Supreme Court involving payments to staffers in the state comptroller’s office. Kernan said Broidy is not involved with LEO Technologies’ operations. “He’s truly just a financial backer for the company,” he told The Intercept. Broidy Capital, Broidy’s investment firm, did not respond to a request for comment.

Like with so many prison communications tools, the marketing of Verus tilts toward the benevolent, positioning the software as a way to keep inmates and prison staff safe. The nation’s leading providers of inmate calling systems, Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link, have long touted their phone systems as perfect tools for this. They record nearly every phone call made by inmates — which they insist are stored securely — and provide tools for analysis. The main selling point for Verus, it seems, is that it can accomplish this very quickly. But that may also be cause for additional concern.

While inmates — and by extension, their loved ones — generally lose their right to private communications while incarcerated, that is not absolute: Inmates retain the right to privileged communications with their attorneys. Attorney phone numbers are supposed to be noted within call monitoring systems so that they are not recorded, but there is ample evidence that is not always the case.

Indeed, a purloined trove of calls recorded and stored by Securus demonstrates that both promises — of security and privacy in privileged communications — aren’t necessarily to be trusted. In 2015, The Intercept received more than 70 million hacked records of phone calls, placed by prisoners to at least 37 states, along with links to those recordings. Within the cache, we found at least 14,000 recordings of calls to attorneys, a strong indication that privileged communications were also recorded.

Because the Verus system works with a prison facility’s current phone system, the possibility that privileged communications will also be transcribed is troubling. Moreover, the use of Verus adds in at least two more layers of access to inmate calls — by LEO Technologies and by Amazon — in turn increasing access to potentially private communications. According to Kernan, Verus has to date transcribed 84,068,940 minutes of calls: 159 years of transcribed speech.

“The history of this industry does not inspire confidence.”

“The history of this industry does not inspire confidence in terms of their ability to appropriately handle and protect confidential information,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “And any time you add an additional player into the mix, or an additional step into the process, that can only increase the risk of a privacy breach.”

There are also questions about who exactly will pay for this additional monitoring. Securus and GTL are notorious for the high cost of their services, a burden borne almost exclusively by inmate families, the very people least able to afford it. Kernan said that Verus costs 6-8 cents per minute, and that facilities pay for it in a variety of ways. Some are getting Covid-19-related grant funding, he said, while others are paying for it via the phone system. In other words, there’s every reason to think that inmate families may end up footing the bill.

Shifting Responsibility to Individual Prisons

And as with any AI-powered surveillance tool, there are crucial questions about Verus’s accuracy, fairness, and accountability. Kernan said the tool’s accuracy isn’t subject to any outside audit or evaluation, adding that he wouldn’t be opposed to that, nor is there any hard and fast rule about who handles inmate call data or for how long. Asked about the potential for abuse, Kernan said that how Verus is ultimately used is the business of each prison. “Our company points [prisons] to a point in the call where a word or phrase was said that they have concerns about,” he said. “What they do with that information is purely out of our control.” Kernan told The Intercept he was not aware of any instances of Verus call data being used to retaliate against inmates monitored by the service.

“What they do with that information is purely out of our control.”

Advocates warn that because the software isn’t audited, it is likely to be “rife with errors,” as Hamid, the Carceral Tech Resistance Network organizer, put it. Hamid said incarcerated people have no way to question the validity of the software’s findings or even know it exists or how it works. “There is no capacity for meaningful consent in a carceral condition,” she said. “And there’s a lot of experimentation with these technologies.”

Hamid also warned that while Verus is being marketed to respond to a temporary health crisis, it is indicative of a more enduring shift in the management of prison surveillance technology in which individual facilities have more leeway in how they use new tools.

“There just seems to be this move to create crisis management systems that are small enough that they’re able to package them within an institution, like early-warning systems and things like that,” said Hamid. “If your phone company is the one that’s doing your early-warning risk assessment for you, then that’s not actionable knowledge like when you in that facility are doing that. … And that kind of fragments what the data protocols are, and it’s going to be by institution, and many of these institutions are going to be private institutions, and they’re not going to care about anything.”

“This is a new trend, and we’re seeing the pivot through Covid.”

This devolution in control of prison tech is all the more alarming given how little accountability there is for the companies that make such systems. LEO Technologies’ own marketing document notes that it does not “necessarily have liability or ‘duty to act’” based on what is in the transcripts it provides. Instead, its software “Verus puts this critical capability into the hands of your facility’s personnel, resulting in swift responses to crises and immediately actionable intelligence.”

It’s not immediately clear how monitoring conversations about Covid-19 can prevent incarcerated people from becoming infected with it. The single safest way to safeguard the health of the incarcerated, public health experts agree, is to release as many of them as possible and drastically reduce density in correctional facilities. Kernan has called on state leaders to look at all possible options to reduce the number of people in prisons.

“While this may be well intentioned, it’s absurd to rely on eavesdropping on prisoners’ phone calls to identify those who may have Covid-19,” said Fathi. “If prisons and jails want sick prisoners to self-identify, they should stop charging them for medical care, and eliminate the many other barriers and disincentives to seeking care that currently exist.”

“To be clear, the way we can actually protect incarcerated folks from COVID-19 is to decarcerate the prisons and jails by, for example, releasing medically vulnerable, releasing folks accused of committing low-level offenses, releasing folks nearing the end of their sentence,” said Agarwal. “This is something that we have been sounding the alarm about for weeks — a criminal sentence is not a death sentence.”

Correction: April 24, 2020

A prior version of this story incorrectly referred to all Verus trials as occurring in prison systems. Some, including in Alabama, are in county jails.

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