NEW YORK - This is being called an assault on attorney-client privilege for Rikers Island and possibly other city jail inmates: The New York City Department of Correction is facing some tough questions now about how more than 1,500 conversations supposed to be private between inmates and their attorneys ended up being recorded, with some even turned over to prosecutors.
City Council Member Keith Powers called this a clear violation of inmates' rights.
"We found out instead they were being recorded and in some cases being handed over to district attorneys," Powers, the chair of the council's Criminal Justice Committee, told FOX 5 NY. "It's a major violation of those individuals' privacy, and is just absolutely shocking."
Powers said he and his colleagues requested a DOC audit after being contacted by concerned attorneys from the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that represents clients in the justice system. The audit found hundreds of phone numbers that were supposed to be on the "do not record" list were actually recorded.
DOC Deputy Commissioner Peter Thorne blamed the breach in protocol on a "serious error" by Securus, a vendor that provides communications technology.
"Confidential communication between attorneys and clients is sacrosanct and we are providing any assistance we can in order to determine the extent of their error and remedy as soon as possible," Thorne said in a statement.
Phillip Hamilton, a criminal defense attorney formerly with the Bronx Defenders, said this could result in hundreds of criminal cases being thrown out altogether or defendants offered significantly better plea deals.
"It severely undercuts the ability to be able to fight the case," Hamilton said. "Even if the prosecutorial authorities aren't necessarily using the evidence in a court of law or in courtroom proceedings, they nevertheless now know your strategy."
Powers said this is just the latest in a series of incidents that are raising questions about the Correction Department's ability to manage the system, especially at Rikers Island.
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"On top of that, we had two recent deaths in city jails, we had two people mistakenly released," Powers said. "That's all in a few weeks' time. That really concerns us."
Powers said he is calling for a full investigation into how far back these recordings go and how many cases may have been affected.
The DOC will have to answer some tough questions before the City Council on Monday.
FOX 5 NY reached out to Securus Technologies for a comment but did not hear back by Sunday evening.