On Friday, January 29, U.S. Rep Hakeem Jeffries (D-Central Brooklyn, Queens) reintroduced his Effective Assistance of Counsel in the Digital Era Act, or H.R. 5546, which is a bipartisan piece of legislation meant to update prison policy and attorney-client privilege in regards to electronic communications. It marks a movement of outdated legal systems into the 21st century of technology.
“Most fair-minded individuals understand that our system of justice requires a dynamic where people have access to the effective assistance of counsel necessary to adequately defend themselves,” said Jeffries.
This bill is meant to protect all communications sent or received through the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) email system. In 2020, the bill passed the House with bipartisan support, and was also co-sponsored by U.S. Rep Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn).
Nadler pointed out that email communication for incarcerated persons has been available through the TRULINCS system since 2009 but is monitored. Eventually, BOP recognized that email communications were becoming the primary platform of people reaching out to their attorneys, and needed a system in place to protect prisoners.
“Generally speaking, out-of-custody defendants can go to their attorneys’ offices, speak with them freely on the phone, or write letters back-and-forth with their attorneys without fear of interference. To an extent, in-custody defendants also have these protections,” said Nadler about the bill last year when it passed.
“But these same protections do not apply to email communications for the nearly 150,000 individuals currently in BOP custody, many of whom are in pretrial detention and have not been convicted of any crime,” said Nadler.
Email is often the easiest and best method of communication available to incarcerated individuals and their attorneys, especially given that the COVID-19 crisis has all but secluded institutions from having visits that pose health risks. Confidential phone calls between an incarcerated person and their attorney can be limited in time, requires advanced notice, and cannot share legal documents.
Plus, attorneys can spend hours traveling to and waiting at a detention facility, even for simple conversations or updates.
“This is not just common sense—it is a constitutionally-protected right. The ability to send and receive confidential electronic communications has never been more important now that email has become the safest and most efficient way for attorneys and their incarcerated clients to communicate,” said Jeffries.