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Can Jailhouse Phone Calls Be Recorded?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

Life behind bars means giving up privileges, including the use of a telephone to make calls whenever you want. Though some jails and prisons (and even some state laws) give inmates specific phone-use privileges, many of those calls can legally be recorded and used against the inmate in court.

Case in point: George Zimmerman, accused of second-degree murder in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. Prosecutors used recorded jailhouse phone calls between Zimmerman and his wife to prove they misled the court about their finances. That led a judge to revoke Zimmerman's bail and order him back to jail.

So which types of jailhouse phone calls can legally be recorded, and which cannot?

In general, phone calls between an inmate and the inmate's lawyer cannot be recorded. That's because the legal doctrine of attorney-client privilege ensures all discussions between a lawyer and her client remain confidential.

Protecting the attorney-client privilege can get tricky with computerized jail and prison phone systems. An attorney often must register her phone number with the jail, so the automated system knows not to record any calls to the attorney's number.

But phone calls between an inmate and anyone who's not the inmate's attorney can be recorded. Inmates know this because in general, every outgoing phone call is preceded by a warning that the call may be recorded or monitored.

Inmates have challenged this in court, but have not been successful. Courts have upheld the monitoring of jail and prison phone calls as being reasonably related to preventing escapes, fraud, and other illegal activities.

Mistakes, however, are sometimes made. For example, in Galveston County, Texas, all jailhouse phone calls were being recorded, even those between inmates and their attorneys, until a judge's complaint. The jail is now programming attorney phone numbers into the computerized phone system to stop the practice, the Associated Press reports.

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