US Prisons Are Building Databases of Incarcerated People’s Voice Prints

Roughly six months ago at New York’s Sing Sing prison, John Dukes says he was brought out with cellmates to meet a corrections counselor. He recalls her giving him a paper with some phrases, and offering him a strange choice: He could go up to the phone and utter the phrases that an automated voice would ask him to read, or he could choose not to and lose his phone access altogether.

Dukes did not know why he was being asked to make this decision, but he felt troubled as he heard other men ahead of him speaking into the phone and repeating certain phrases from the sheets the counselors had given them.

I was contemplating, ‘Should I do it? I don’t want my voice to be on this machine,’” he recalls. “But I still had to contact my family, even though I only had a few months left.”

So, when it was his turn, he walked up to the phone, picked up the receiver, and followed a series of automated instructions. “It said, ‘Say this phrase, blah, blah, blah,’ and if you didn’t say it clearly, they would say, ‘Say this phrase again,’ like ‘Cat’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the United States of America.’” Dukes said he repeated such phrases for a minute or two. The voice then told him the process was complete.

“Here’s another part of myself that I had to give away again in this prison system,” he remembers thinking as he walked back to the cell.

Dukes, who was released in October, says he was never told about what that procedure was meant to do. But contracting documents for New York’s new prison phone system, obtained by The Appeal in partnership with The Intercept, and follow-up interviews with prison authorities, indicate that Dukes was right to be suspicious: His audio sample was being “enrolled” into a new voice surveillance system.

In New York and other states across the country, authorities are…

Read more