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Florida prisons use artificial intelligence to surveil calls

A contract with a tech company provides prison officials with up to 50 million minutes of monitored conversations over the next year.
 
The entrance to Florida State Prison in Starke is shown Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. All Florida prisons are now subject to artificial surveillance of phone calls.
The entrance to Florida State Prison in Starke is shown Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. All Florida prisons are now subject to artificial surveillance of phone calls. [ CURT ANDERSON | AP ]
Published Sept. 19, 2023

Florida is now using artificial intelligence to monitor and transcribe the phone conversations of the state’s 80,000-plus inmates.

The Florida Department of Corrections paid $2.5 million to California-based Leo Technologies to begin using its surveillance program called Verus beginning in August. The program scans incoming and outgoing calls, including to inmates’ friends and family, and does automatic searches for keywords selected by prison officials and the technology company’s employees. It uses speech-to-text technology powered by Amazon to transcribe the content of conversations that include those keywords.

The contract, which lasts until June 30 of next year, allows prisons to record and scan up to 50 million minutes of conversations. The only calls that the company says are excluded from monitoring are communications with lawyers, doctors and spiritual advisers.

The company said the technology will help officials get notifications “in near real-time about past or potential criminal events.” Content gathered by the company is shared with local, state and federal law enforcement, along with prosecutors.

Correctional institutions have for decades had staff listen to incoming and outgoing phone calls that they suspected might discuss criminal activity, and inmates and callers are told they may be monitored.

A number of states in recent years have begun using artificial intelligence to monitor those conversations, with prison officials saying the use of the technology has helped deter violent crimes and drug smuggling and helped prevent suicides. But questions are being raised about how law enforcement officials use the program.

A 2021 Reuters news story examining the use of the technology in eight other states found that Verus was programmed to record conversations that included words like “abogado” and “abogada,” Spanish words for lawyer. In Alabama, the technology listened for keywords that could potentially help a sheriff fight off lawsuits from incarcerated people and civil rights activists regarding prison safety and sanitation, the report found.

In Suffolk County, New York, the technology flagged and transcribed a conversation in which an incarcerated man told his father that there was a COVID-19 outbreak and alleged that prison officials were covering it up, Reuters reported. The conversation was shared with several prison officials and Leo Technologies employees.

In Florida’s contract, wardens are listed as the main point of contact with the technology provider. Employees of Leo Technologies work together with state employees to monitor the prisons 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company’s employees will have access to the prison communications but promised in the contract to protect the information.

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Leo Technologies declined to comment or answer questions for this story. The Florida Department of Corrections said in a statement that its commitment to public safety “includes taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our staff and all inmates in custody.”

The state declined to give details on how the technology is being used and how many minutes of conversations have been recorded, citing a state law that exempts information about surveillance techniques from public record.

A news release on Leo Technology’s website that details the use of Verus in Georgia sheds light on how extensively and rapidly Verus can monitor activity inside prisons.

In March 2020, the Georgia Department of Corrections began using the program. By April of the next year, more than 7.5 million calls had been monitored and “delivered actionable evidence of criminal activity in 1,612 calls,” according to the news release. The criminal activity was identified both inside and outside of prisons, the company said.

Scott Kernan, CEO of Leo Technologies, wrote on the company’s website in 2022 that his company provides insight into prisons that can prevent gang-related crime.

“We know gang confederates discuss, plan, and direct crimes from behind bars. The use of intelligence from inmate phones can be a uniquely effective tool for investigators,” Kernan wrote.

Last year, Leo Technologies Chief Operating Officer James Sexton told Sheriff and Deputy Magazine that the technology is helpful to law enforcement because of how quickly calls can be scanned and information gathered.

“Speed is our game,” Sexton said.

The ways that the technology has been used in other states concerns Denise Rock, executive director and founder of Florida Cares, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of incarcerated people.

“Saying the Spanish word for lawyer shouldn’t trigger a transcript of a call and the public deserves to know which words activate the technology,” Rock said. “This is a waste of money that could be better utilized inside prisons on rehabilitation instead of filling the pockets of another private corporation.”