When a person accused of a crime communicates privately with their lawyer, whatever they say is required by law to remain private.
It makes no difference if they communicate in person, by an old-fashioned letter or electronically. But with Alaska’s remoteness and the vast distances between some correctional centers and most lawyers, much of the talking is done by phone.
“You have to be able to talk over the phone, and you have to be able to have confidence that the conversation is private,” said Rex Butler, an Anchorage defense lawyer.
That confidence is shaken by the recent revelation that some calls between Alaska inmates and their lawyers were recorded.
The Alaska Department of Corrections acknowledged to KTUU Tuesday that an unknown amount of calls—as few as 40, but possibly more—were recorded against departmental policy starting this fall. The problem is still carrying on.
Sherrie Daigle, deputy director of DOC, described the problem as technical and inadvertent. She said the problem is tied in one way or another to Texas-based Securus Technologies, which provides phone service to each of the state’s 13 correctional facilities.
“We're not really sure if it was an IT issue, if it was a training issue, if it was a company issue,” Daigle said.
An investigation that involves the state Law Department is under way, but for now there are more questions than answers: Were any of the recorded conversations accessed by prosecutors? What caused the problem, and how can it be fixed? At which facilities was there a problem?
Butler said those questions will linger unless there is an open, thorough investigation into the matter that includes notification for anyone whose phone call was recorded without their knowledge.
“Don't get me wrong, I'm sure that a number of prosecutors wouldn't use” the recorded phone calls, Butler said. “But that's not the point: I don't want you to know my conversation with my clients or how we communicate.”
Daigle said there could be “substantial progress” in the investigation by the end of the week.