At the Orange County jail, video visitations between family members and inmates are recorded. There is no "right to privacy" in jail. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).
There was something strange, almost surreal, about watching a judge revoke the bond for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who is being charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Prosecutors successfully filed a motion to revoke Zimmerman’s bond and send him back to the Seminole County Jail after he was accused of “deceiving” the court about his personal finances.
In April, Zimmerman launched a website asking for public support during the trial, and the site included a PayPal link for donations to his legal defense. Within days, the account had drawn in $250,000. But during Zimmerman’s bond hearing later that month, his attorney, Mark O’Mara, told the judge “As far as his financial abilities, unfortunately, this is a family of very short means.”
That later prompted the prosecutor, Bernie De La Rionda, to say “The court was led to believe that they didn’t have a single penny.”
Potentially even more damaging to Zimmerman’s cause were recordings between Zimmerman and his wife, Shelly, during jailhouse phone conversations, discussing their finances. In one phone call, Shelly Zimmerman was apparently at a credit union linked to the PayPal account, speaking to a teller.
Considering that George Zimmerman’s entire defense is that he’s man of his word, and his version of what happened that night – that Martin had assaulted him and he acted in self-defense – should be taken at face value, this doesn’t help his credibility much.
But what’s also bizarre is the sense of déjà vu about all this. Why is it that criminal defendants who are in jail awaiting trial fail, over and over again, to remember one simple fact: there’s no right of privacy behind bars. Once they end up in a cell, any sense of privacy they once took for granted is now long gone. As an inmate in either a county jail or a state or federal prison, everything they do gets monitored – their phone calls, video visitations, letters and correspondence, everything. And it can all be used against them by the state at their trial.
It’s not like we haven’t had some clear reminders of this. There have been some high profile examples of defendants who let their guard down on this count.
In 2008, the Orange County Sheriff’s office released 300 minutes of videos of Casey Anthony talking with her family during jailhouse video visitations, as she awaited trial on charges that she had murdered her daughter, 3-year-old Caylee Anthony. At the Orange County Corrections jail, inmates are not allowed to receive visitors in person. Instead, family and friends go to a video visitation center across the street from the jail, while inmates are taken to a video monitor area in their ward. Both sides communicate in separate buildings, courtesy of those video monitors.
Some of Casey Anthony’s conversations with her parents were later used by the prosecution, particularly when she told her father how much she loved him – even though at trial she would accuse him of having sexually abused her as a child.
At least Anthony was acquitted of the most serious charges. Not so lucky was Bob Ward, a wealthy developer charged with the second-degree murder of his wife, Diane Ward, who had died of a gunshot wound to the head. Video visitations with his daughter, where Ward was seen laughing and joking, probably didn’t help his claim that he had unsuccessfully tried to stop his wife from killing herself. He did get convicted.
A lot of Libertarian activists believe our privacy is being eroded by an ever-intrusive federal government, particularly through the phone-and-email monitoring aspects of the Patriot Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001. In May 2011, President Barack Obama signed a four-year extension of key provisions in the law, despite criticism by civil libertarians that it allows the FBI to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order.
But again, the general public has it easy compared to inmates and their family and friends.
I have my own experience with this. For months in 2010 and 2011, I drove to a state prison in Raiford, a small town near Gainesville, to visit a friend who was incarcerated and serving a two-year sentence. My friend, who now writes columns about that experience for Freeline Media under the pseudonym Alpha Male Ryan, was well aware that he had no privacy rights whatsoever.
If he called me from the phone in his dorm, those 15 minute calls got recorded — and monitored by corrections officers. If I sent him a letter, it was read by prison officials before he got it. We both knew this, and there were times when our phone conversations were as bland as cold mashed potatoes because we both knew someone was listing in. It’s a truly eerie feeling, to be helpless to that kind of invasion of privacy, but we both understood that inmates lose all of their rights when they become wards of the state.
The only time we could have a private conversation was during the visits this prison offered family and friends on weekends. There were corrections officers present at the Classification Office or the outdoor picnic area where inmates met their visitors, but they didn’t monitor your conversations. And that’s when Ryan would tell me about how a corrections officer had made comments to him about something I had said on the phone earlier that week, or about a line or two in one of my letters. It’s no wonder all the corrections officers seemed to know me so well when I’d show up for those visits.
That’s not how it was at the Orange County jail. There, I went to the video visitation center a few times. For 45 minutes, you can see your inmate on the video screen and talk to them by phone. Those were incredibly tense conversations.
Ryan had been arrested in April, 2010 and charged with violation of probation. He spent about a month in the Orange County jail, until a judge ruled that he would not get his probation reinstated, and would serve the two year sentence being recommended by the State Attorney’s office. Before that ruling, Ryan was still optimistic everything would work out. His attorney had assured him there was a good chance he’d get back on his probation. The actual sentence was a horrible shock to Ryan and his entire family, and he was devastated.
And for two years, his privacy was completely stripped away, no more so or less than the strip searches he was subjected to on a daily basis in the prison. But his case didn’t attract local or national media attention, so it didn’t much matter. Nobody requested copies of his video visitation recordings, or transcripts of his phone conversations. He was ignored.
In retrospect, you have to wonder what Zimmerman and Ward were thinking.
For Bob Ward, the trial is over. For Zimmerman, it hasn’t even started yet, and those recorded conversations could turn out to be a serious blow to his credibility at trial. What are his defense attorneys supposed to say now? You know, your honor, the guy simply had no clue that $250,000 in a Paypal account could be considered, you know, income and all? Boy, does that sound lame.
When you first get arrested, nobody bothers to teach you incarceration etiquette. But if there’s one true common sense rule, it should be that Big Brother is watching you – every second you’re behind bars.
Somewhere in the Orange County jail files are video recordings of me and Ryan, talking about his high hopes that he’ll get back out on probation, and will happily return home to his family. So, too, is the phone conversation that Ryan and I had on the day he got sentenced, when he was so traumatized that he told me “I can’t do two years,” and wanted to end it all that night.
Fortunately for us, no one is interested in seeing or hearing those recordings.
George Zimmerman should have been so lucky.

Contact Mike Freeman at

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