Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger had protection on his mind when he suggested taping phone calls made by inmates at the Baltimore County Detention Center (BCDC).
Implemented this past July, the plan monitors the Detention Center residents’ contact with the outside world, specifically an inmate serving their jail sentence threatening a legal official, or an inmate awaiting trial plotting a hit on a State’s witness.
“When a defendant knows it’s taped,” says Shellenberger, “he is less likely to target citizens. We have some gang members [in the detention center] and we’d like to make sure they aren’t targeting victims or witnesses.”
This new age operation – carried out by Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson, Baltimore County Department of Corrections Director James O’Neill, and Shellenberger – has gotten off to a strong start as information collected from one taped phone conversation already made its way into a case. But the creators were also steadfast in protecting an evidentiary rule whose roots dig back to ancient Rome.
The Attorney/Client privilege, adopted into English Common Law in the fourteenth century and established in American law in 1776, has been safeguarded in this plan, says Shellenberger. All inmate phone calls to the Public Defender’s office have been blocked from taping and, upon request, calls to private attorneys will be blocked as well. According to a memo released by the Baltimore County State’s Attorney Office on September 17, 2008, an attorney that would like to have his or her number blocked from the system must send a letter to the Warden of the BCDC announcing his or her intent to accept inmate phone calls as an attorney on behalf of current clients or prospective clients. Furthermore, the attorney must agree not to forward inmate phone calls to non-attorney third parties and provide a list of attorney-only numbers on which you will accept inmate phone calls.
Prior to making the phone calls, the 1,400 BCDC inmates are reminded about the phone taping procedure through posted signs and a recorded message that plays on each of the 200 phone lines.
“It’s huge in terms of witness protection,” Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly says of the phone taping program. His county has used the system for a number of years and culled numerous cases from the tapings. Cassilly acknowledges that many inmates at the Harford County Detention Center continually try to deal drugs or run criminal enterprises from behind bars, but this plan has firmly protected many citizens.
When Shellenberger became the Baltimore County State’s Attorney in January 2007, he was surprised the plan was not already in place. Cassilly shared that expression.
“I was surprised they hadn’t been doing it,” says Cassilly. “I told Scott [Shellenberger] that it has worked very well up here. We’ve never had any issues.”
Along with Harford County, departments in Baltimore City, Montgomery County and other areas all use an inmate phone taping system. So Shellenberger set out to get his region up to speed. He met with Johnson and O’Neill, and soon the plan was in place. “It took a while to get the kinks out, but we got it up and running,” says Shellenberger.
Despite the plan’s widespread use, few requests from private attorneys have made their way to the BCDC and other institutions.
“I’ve been surprised that the number has been so low,” says O’Neill, who has only blocked seven numbers for private attorneys. And, according to Harford County’s Warden, Elwood DeHaven, he’s received even fewer requests, though the attorney booths at his Detention Center are generally full throughout the day. “Each district is kind of different,” concedes O’Neill.