With over two million people behind bars at any given time, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. As one-third of federal correctional officer jobs stand vacant, US prisons are currently using cooks, teachers and nurses to guard inmates. Is there a more ‘effective’ way to keep track of inmates instead? Enter Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its flawed wings currently engulfing everything from TV shows to facial-recognition fooling deepfakes.
US prisons are now being asked to evaluate whether Artificial Intelligence could be used to analyse prisoners’ phone calls by Congress, in hopes of finding discussions that “may be of concern.” And it’s a persuasive argument—at least at first glance. Implementing such a system would save time, allowing officials to be allocated to other resources instead of having to monitor each call.
Verus, one of the many AI systems in consideration, has the ability to automatically transcribe each call, analysing them for flagged phrases or words. It’s developers have even gone as far as claiming that the system has helped prevent “at least a few” suicides. And yet, there are always two sides to a coin: privacy advocates stress how such measures could breach privacy and allow for inmates to be wrongfully flagged for suspicion due to mistakes made by the algorithm.
Let’s be real, people in incarnation have very little privacy as it is. Some on the more conservative end of the political spectrum may be inclined to argue that privacy is something a prisoner voluntarily sacrifices when committing a crime. However, it’s important to note that, regardless of the crime at hand, privacy is a fundamental human right—recognised in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Also keep in mind that calling from prison is a two-way street: involving the prisoner themselves and an individual on the outside. The new proposal has raised concerns that innocent people on the outside could feel that their own privacy is being violated, making them unable to talk about sensitive topics.
Although recent advancements of Artificial Intelligence have brought the technology into the mainstream—from Uber to your banking app— it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re not yet at the point of singularity. Actually, we’re far from it. AI has shown itself to be notorious for incorrectly identifying people of colour—not only in photographs but in audio too. It’s fair to say, as it stands, AI-led transcription is generally a C+ grade at best. Even more worryingly, a study by Stanford University and Georgetown University conducted in 2020 found that the tech is particularly flawed when transcribing the voices of black people. The high error rates in transcribing people of colour have been said to be attributed to a number of factors such as a lack of sufficient sample data used to train the algorithm itself.
Artificial Intelligence has been attributed to false arrests and high incarceration too. There have been several cases in which a black person was falsely arrested as a result of a facial recognition program incorrectly identifying them. Couple this with the fact that black men in the US are six times more likely to be behind bars, as well as how such surveillance technology is often deployed in places with predominantly large black populations—and you get the idea of why, in some cases, we definitely shouldn’t give the hammer of justice solely to a man-made algorithm.
The proposition of handing over the task of monitoring prisoner’s phone calls to Artificial Intelligence may be persuasive—but it’s not as simple as it seems in practice. For a system to be implemented into the justice system, it should be flawless—however, as previous cases have shown, AI is not exactly reliable. Such mistakes could land innocent people behind bars.
Likewise, implementing AI to monitor calls could be a breach of privacy for people outside of prison. Reuters reported the story of Heather Bollin, a woman who engaged regularly over the phone with a man who is currently incarcerated. Calls are regularly monitored, which is stressful enough, but the new AI system would require all calls to be subjected to checks. In the interview, Bollin said, “It’s very unsettling—what if I say something wrong on a call? It could be misconstrued by this technology, and then he could be punished?”
From privacy concerns to automatic racial profiling, the possibilities of bias are endless. And for people like Bollin, on the other end, conversations with her fiance now means forfeiting more of her privacy. “We are supposed to be free people, we are not incarcerated,” she added. “But it feels like my rights are constantly being violated.”
The first time Uzoma Orchingwa wrote a letter to a prison, he was in college, trying to reach an incarcerated childhood friend. The letter never arrived.
Communicating with inmates in America is notoriously difficult—physical addresses are different from mailing addresses, phone calls are exorbitantly expensive, and visiting a state facility requires a 100-mile trek, on average.
Orchingwa has successfully sent many letters since, and while writing his masters dissertation on criminology at Cambridge, he waded deep into research on prison reform—and concluded reforms alone won’t quickly solve the system’s many problems. Now he’s at Yale Law School building Ameelio, a digital platform that has already printed and shipped 22,000 letters to inmates and is preparing to launch a free video call system for jails and prisons. The Kickstarter campaign will help make it happen.
Ameelio is taking on a $1.2 billion communication service industry—mostly a duopoly between Securus and Global Tel Link. In all but 11 states, it’s legal for these companies to charge inmates punishingly high rates for phone calls, pocket margins of 50 per cent or more, and pay jails and prisons millions of dollars in kickbacks. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the industry “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”
America’s most vulnerable populations are paying for it. Families report spending up to $500 a month to stay connected, and one in three of these families is forced into debt paying for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who are not able to talk or visit regularly are much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration, and isolated inmates face increased challenges readjusting upon their release.
There has been new scrutiny on the issue in recent years, but with uneven progress. A phone call in a city-run Illinois jail, for example, costs 52 times more than a call from a state-run Illinois prison. “We don’t have one justice system,” Orchingwa explains, “we have 51 separate systems. Then underneath that we have counties that have their own stakeholders and incentives.” He hopes that his free communication platform will stop the cycle of overwhelmed administrators letting exploitative businesses into their facilities. “Basically our theory of change is establishing ourselves as a free alternative to the for-profit companies.”
To take on big businesses—and big technical requirements—Orchingwa started with a more straightforward product: a web and mobile app that lets users type letters and upload photos. Ameelio then prints, adds postage, and mails them at no cost. (The bootstrapped non-profit has gathered grants from Robin Hood, Mozilla Builders, and Fast Forward to cover expenses.)
“It made sense to start with letters because there’s very little barrier to entry and the vast majority of people who are incarcerated communicate through letters,” Orchingwa says. “We could bring it online, digitise it, and boost contact.”
As the team rolled out the initial app, interest spread quickly. Close to 50 per cent of Ameelio’s users come directly from referrals of people who are incarcerated—they’ll see letters others are receiving and call home to tell their community about the platform.
Criminal justice organisations soon learned about Ameelio as well. “We were building out this nationwide database because we want to make it easier for our users to find their loved ones and communicate with them. It hadn’t occurred to us that reentry organisations didn’t actually have much visibility either,” Orchingwa says. Even preeminent institutions like PEN America and Harvard’s legal clinics had very limited data and cumbersome mailing processes. The Ameelio team added new product features aimed at these types of users doing outreach and re-entry work.
Now, the fast-growing team is nearing their ultimate goal: a service for free video calls. Inmates will sign on with tablets that are either fixed in a supervised phone bank or available for checkout during visiting hours. The software will allow for scheduling, identity verification, and screenshots or video playback for security compliance. Orchingwa is finalising a pilot program with a mid-sized county jail and looking forward to future iterations that could add education programs and telehealth to the tablets and generate data supporting prison reform.
“We’re going to be able to provide metrics and be able to work with legislators to say, ‘Look, in Connecticut, we find that incarcerated people who have weekly access to their loved one fare much better.’ We should think a little more creatively about recidivism and sentencing,” Orchingwa says. “And we hope to be a technology service that can also do advocacy and accelerate legislative change.”