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A Phone Call From Jail? Better Watch What You Say

A confession, a threat—it’s probably taped. And admissible.

Although people do things against their own interest all the time, even the police can be amazed. Moe Greenberg, a Baltimore County police detective, is the author of Detective’s Notebook, an advice column for fellow investigators. One time he wrote: “Most facilities that record inmate’s calls or visitations play a preliminary recorded message informing the inmate that their call or visitation will be recorded. One would think that this would eliminate any references to criminal acts, actions, knowledge, or involvement. Despite this very clear warning to the inmate, they still talk!”

Yes, they do. The latest example? An accused kidnapper, awaiting trial in California, used a jail phone to speak with a reporter. According to an article in WIRED, the conversation was recorded, and while the accused told the reporter to treat some of what he said as off the record, the authorities are under no obligation to honor that agreement. Now, thanks to that taped conversation, the FBI says it has a confession. When using a jail phone, “speak at your own peril,” an attorney in the case says.

Sound as that advice is, inmates around the country have ignored it, providing prosecutors with damning words to play in court. In jail or prison, rules governing privacy tend to be suspended. With rare exception—for example, inmate-attorney communications— conversations can be monitored. Nonetheless, here are some things some inmates have said after picking up the phone:

In Virginia, Neil William Lyness was charged two years ago with two counts of involuntary manslaughter, accused of causing a wrong-way crash in which a mother and daughter died. At the time of the crash, he had four kinds of medication in his system, including a pain reliever called Tramadol. While awaiting trial, Lyness was asked during a recorded jail call how much Tramadol he took. “Who knows,” he said. “I probably did like I did before and ate 50 … ” After that phone call became part of the prosecution’s case, Lyness pleaded guilty instead of going to trial. Then, before sentencing this year, he spoke on the phone with a woman who exhorted him to go into court and show remorse. Lyness laughed, according to The Virginian-Pilot, which wrote up the conversation like this:

“It's hard to talk to you about [expletive] like that because, I don't know, I don't really feel like that,” Lyness said.

The woman tried again: “Well, you don't feel the least bit terrible that there was a little girl and a mother that got killed, honey?”

“What the [expletive] am I supposed to feel?” Lyness responded. “There's nothing I can do about it.”

The prosecutors played that tape for the judge, who hammered Lyness, giving him a 20½-year sentence, twice again as long as the state’s recommended sentence.

Some prosecutors have found it particularly helpful to listen in on the conversations of inmates charged with domestic violence, given how victims and other family members can be pressured to not cooperate with law enforcement.

In Indiana, a man pleaded with his girlfriend not to testify, saying: “Please get me outta here. Please. Man, don’t go to court… Don’t come. Man, just don’t come. … I love you. I love you.” When she said she was coming to court, he told her: “They can’t keep me in here forever.”

In New York, a man accused of burning his girlfriend’s face with an iron got on the phone and told her: “You don’t want to cooperate.” He told one of his sons, a potential witness, “When Daddy come out, I'm going to buy you a PS3” – a PS3 being a PlayStation 3, the gaming console. To this, the son replied: “I love you more than the whole solar system.”

Some of the most chilling conversations were caught on tape in Washington, where Maurice Clemmons spent time in jail shortly before shooting four police officers to death in a coffee shop in 2009. In one conversation, Clemmons told his half brother: “Sometimes it burns me in my chest, man, I have so much hatred toward the police and stuff. Before I let them devils put me back behind some bar and railroad me, I will be carried by six. … As long as I got some company, I be all right.” Another time he said: “I’m gonna go the wild, wild west. Woe to the one that sees me first.”

Jails aren’t supposed to monitor inmate conversations with lawyers, because of the attorney-client privilege. But instances of it happening have been discovered in lots of states, including, California, Florida, Texas, Missouri and Pennsylvania. In Washington, taped attorney-client calls at the Walla Walla County Jail led to charges being dismissed against one man accused of two counts of assault.

The use of taped calls against inmates has become so prevalent that some defense lawyers post warning on their websites – for example, these Texas lawyers, who write: “DO NOT say anything at all that you do not want to hear played back to the Judge in the courtroom at your trial.” The recordings have also become the subject of online threads, where inmates’ friends and family exchange stories and advice.

One time, a wife of one inmate wrote, she gave her husband some football scores while on the telephone. That led to him being strip searched – and accused of gambling.

Another commenter wrote, “You don’t want to say anything about escape, even jokingly.”

Good advice – advice that someone, somewhere, will surely ignore.