PORTLAND – At the Cumberland County Jail, recording inmates’ telephone conversations isn’t the problem.

It’s sifting through the hundreds of hours of recordings to find a snippet of conversation that can make or break a criminal investigation.

“The technology allows us to do it, and has for some time,” said Sheriff Kevin Joyce. “The unfortunate thing is, we haven’t had the manpower to convert the conversations to a CD so investigators could listen to it.”

Joyce now plans to hire a person to manage the volumes of recorded information that come from the jail. The one-year pilot program is being funded with a $52,000 grant from the Project Safe Neighborhoods program.

The person will be responsible for the inmate-recording systems in Cumberland County and in York County, which faces the same limitations.

Joyce said his facility is behind the curve in managing inmates’ phone recordings. Many jails, nationally and in Maine, have such systems, he said.

It’s a little remarkable that anything incriminating is said over the inmate telephone system, essentially pay phones in each of nine pods at the Cumberland County Jail, where 450 inmates are held.

Inmates are allowed to make only collect calls from the jail, at $2.50 per minute. The phones have written notices on them alerting inmates that their calls are recorded. An audio alert comes on the line whenever an inmate makes a call, so that the person on the other end knows the call is being recorded.

Still, inmates use the telephone system to arrange for drugs to be smuggled into the jail, to contact and sometimes intimidate witnesses like victims of domestic violence, and to facilitate crimes on the outside.

When police have an active investigation, they can monitor specific inmates’ use of the telephones to capture recordings as they happen. But reconstructing months of recordings is too labor-intensive.

When ordered recently by subpoena to produce recordings, Joyce’s security and operations captain, Steve Butts, had to spend 15 hours converting one inmate’s phone conversations — more than 400 calls — from the computer software onto compact discs so they could be catalogued for investigators to review.

In other cases, out-of-state homicide investigators have come seeking copies of suspects’ phone conversations, only to be told they aren’t available.

The new position, which is expected to be filled by August, will enable jail officials to bundle all calls made to a certain phone number onto a single CD for investigators.

The jail doesn’t record all conversations. Phone calls made to attorneys are automatically excluded, using a database of attorneys’ telephone numbers, Joyce said.

Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said the improvements are welcome.

“If it builds a stronger capacity for corrections and investigators to keep abusers accountable and help victim safety, that’s always a good thing,” Colpitts said.

Sarah Churchill, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she is concerned that the system could record privileged conversations, like those between inmates and their attorneys, doctors and counselors, and wants to be sure that any such conversations, if they are inadvertently recorded, are immediately destroyed. 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com