Watchdog Q&A

Published — May 8, 2020

Q&A: Akela Lacy on how prisons scan calls for COVID-19 mentions

Inmates make calls inside their cell block at Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Stillwater. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Introduction

We’re continuing our series featuring journalists who have written powerful stories. This week, we spoke to Akela Lacy who investigated how jail and prison officials are monitoring inmates’ calls for mentions of the coronavirus. The program could be doing so as a way to help sick inmates — or to suppress news of their illness. Lacy and her colleagues of The Intercept dug into the program’s many moving parts — including Amazon’s involvement — to report. 

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

I worked on this story with three of my colleagues, Sam Biddle, Alice Speri and Jordan Smith. Sam had seen a tweet about the prison call surveillance software with screenshots from a handout advertising the program. Some of the keywords and phrases advertised were “coughing,” “disease in here” and “might have corona.”

We are interested in any sort of call monitoring within prisons, but the idea that this software was being repurposed and advertised as a way to address the spread of coronavirus was striking. Why would  prison facilities need to listen to phone calls as part of their public health response? How could this program actually help stop the spread of the disease? How could it leave incarcerated people more vulnerable to retaliation, as we’ve seen in some facilities when people seek medical attention?

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them? 

This story was difficult because we weren’t able to connect with individuals who had the service used to monitor their conversations. 

Figuring out how the program worked was something of a black box, so we triaged the players we could identify and pieced together a picture of how the program is operating. 

The questions that remain unanswered — the total number and type of facilities where the program is being used, if it’s being used to retaliate against people — shed light on the lack of oversight and little to no mechanisms for recourse for potential violations of civil rights within prisons.

Takeaway: Inspiration can strike from anywhere, even a tweet.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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