This post has been updated to provide additional context about patents and patent applications, which are indications of an entity’s interest in a particular product but not proof that the product is currently in development or available for use. You can read more about the role of patents in this series in our post, “The Catalog of Carceral Surveillance: Patents Aren't Products (Yet)”
Prison phone companies have been profiting off the desire for human connection for as long as they’ve been in business. Historically, there’s been one primary instrument for that connection — voice — and only one way to milk it for revenue: by charging exorbitant rates for phone calls. It’s been a profitable business model for both the companies and their partners, the jails and prisons.
In recent years, though, prison reform advocates and the families of people who are incarcerated, sick of dumping their savings into the maws of these phone providers, have worked to tip this cash cow. They made enough noise that the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) set a cap on per-minute charges on interstate phone calls.
So two of the largest providers of prison communications have initiated new ways of mining inmates for income.
Prisoners know their calls while in-custody are generally being monitored. Prisoners may also be aware that they’re being recorded (both legally and not so legally). Still, it may shock prisoners that Securus and GTL are working to monetize their ability to eavesdrop on and catalogue thousands of voices traversing the phone lines of penal facilities in nearly every state every day.
In the name of security and fraud prevention, these two prison communications companies have developed ways to store and analyze the trove of voices they’ve recorded. The companies create voice prints of people speaking on a prison’s phone lines. The companies claim that, through multi-modal audio mining, these voice prints can be matched to their databases of voices to identify individuals across phone calls and facilities. These systems are already in place throughout the country, including in Arkansas, Florida, and Texas.
These companies are already notorious for expanding the expense of prison communications beyond the prison to the support networks and families outside. These companies are now working on expanding biometric surveillance to the greater carceral community too. The companies use the technology to identify and profile anyone who has a voice that crosses into a prison. This includes all the parents, children, lovers, and friends of incarcerated people.
In a patent published in January 2021, Securus described collecting audio samples of individuals’ voices both at the moment of intake and while inmates are communicating with people on the outside. Facilities often acquire voice samples by threatening a loss of privileges should an inmate refuse to bow to the surveillance state.
“Here’s another part of myself that I had to give away again in this prison system,” one inmate recalled in a 2019 article by The Intercept after he was told that failing to help train the system to recognize his voice would result in a loss of his ability to use the phone. As with other efforts to mass collect biometric and personal information, what happens to the data once it’s been collected and stored, including with whom it’s shared and who has access, is still an open question.
Securus and GTL have other ideas in the works for possible uses, particularly as these voiceprints can be connected to other databases and people, both in and out of prison.
Securus would like to see automated background checks based on their voice recognition technology. “[D]etainees with criminal records may be released at the end of a short term stay in a holding tank or may be bonded out without being detected," says Securus.
In another patent, GTL claims that it will be able to use voiceprint verification to identify “unauthorized” callers based on whether a second voice on one end of the phone line differs from an initial, authorized voice. So, if a prisoner’s girlfriend rings in and passes the phone to a child whose voiceprint weren’t vetted and approved, the phone system can boot the callers from the call altogether.
Both companies would like to be able to map networks of individuals calling inmates, generating profiles of those who call multiple inmates or who stay in contact with their fellow prisoners once released.
With these new patents and initiatives, Securus and Global Tel*Link seek to identify, and almost certainly misidentify, more inmates and their families than ever before, forging new frontiers in the ways America’s prison complex can scrutinize the vulnerable.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the owner of a patent claiming the ability to identify "unauthorized callers" via voice print verification as Securus, rather than GTL.