Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

How Activists Convinced New York City To Stop Profiting Off Prisoners’ Phone Calls

News of the victory is spreading rapidly to other cities.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

How Activists Convinced New York City To Stop Profiting Off Prisoners’ Phone Calls

News of the victory is spreading rapidly to other cities.

Being incarcerated for just over a year on Rikers Island, the New York City jail known for its violence and human rights violations, was hard on Dwayne Lee. “It was very traumatic for me,” he said. “Every day when I woke up, I woke up with tears.”

But one thing that eased his suffering was speaking with his six children. “Sometimes I would get on the phone at around 7 in the morning just to make sure they get up for school,” he recalled. “I felt like I was there with them until I got off the phone.” After hanging up, “I couldn’t wait to get on the phone again.”

It was also hard on his children when he couldn’t get in touch. “If I miss a day calling them, they worry about me and they think somebody hurt me,” he said. “They was really concerned about me.” It was also important for him to get on the phone to speak with his legal representatives.

But up until recently, the family and friends of people incarcerated in New York City jails were paying a collective $8 million a year just to speak on the phone with their loved ones. For Lee, that meant spending more than $2,500 to talk to his family while he was incarcerated. His children’s mother survives on a fixed income and food stamps, so finding $20 or $25 a week so they could call him was difficult.

“We go to any lengths to get any money to keep in contact with the outside world so we can tell them we still are alive,” he said. “I went through a lot of suffering.”

Later this year, other families in New York won’t have to endure the same suffering. Last week, the City Council passed a law that will make all calls in and out of city jails free.

Once signed into law by the mayor, the legislation will be the first of its kind in the country. The prison phone industry has grown to a $1.2 billion a year business, mostly run by private companies that can charge as much as $1.22 a minute. That doesn’t take into account the associated fees, which make up nearly 40 percent of the cost of calls to the country’s jails and prisons. The Federal Communications Commission capped the cost of prison and jail phone calls under President Barack Obama in 2015, but the agency reversed course after President Trump appointed a new chairperson who refused to defend the policy in court. It was later struck downleaving any potential regulation of prisoners’ phone calls in the hands of state and local governments.

In New York City, in-state calls cost 5 cents a minute and out-of-state calls—to any number with an area code from outside the state of New York, including cell phones—cost 21 cents a minute. Securus, the company that the city has contracted to provide phone services in its jails, allows someone to put only $50 on an account at a time, with a $3 charge each time, forcing families to keep paying the $3 fee every time they want to spend more. The city then takes a cut from every phone call.

“We view this as a wealth extraction from our communities that just isn’t just,” said Kristen Miller, criminal justice campaign manager at Color of Change, which also advocated free calls. The city “should just not be profiting off of people in jail.”

The costs are a huge burden for struggling families, said Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project. Tylek estimates that when fees and long distance charges are included, jail calls cost families nearly $10 million a year. “That means a lot for the communities that are already economically distressed,” Tylek pointed out. After all, 72 percent of the people in city jails are there because they can’t afford to post bail ahead of trial.

But compared with what the city spends on the Department of Correction — over $1 billion a year — this drop barely makes a ripple in the bucket. “It was actually described to me by a staff member of a City Council member as equivalent to a rounding error,” Tylek said. “It’s not a meaningful amount of money for the city, and a huge amount of money for these communities.”

This math came to light when Brooklyn Defender Services realized a couple of years ago that the city budget had a revenue stream from its own Department of Correction. So Jared Chausow, senior policy specialist at the organization, filed a Freedom of Information Law request to find out what was behind it. He discovered that the city was profiting from contracts for services in the Department of Correction. These contracts generated not just $5 million in revenue from phone calls, but also revenue from things like commissary and vending machines. Brooklyn Defender Services and other groups decided to lobby the city not just to stop making money from the contract with Securus, but to make calls free, as they were in the 1990s.

A number of factors combined to ensure their success. Lawmakers were eager to do something to appease the long-running campaign to reform Rikers Island that has gained traction in recent years. It also helped that Council Member Corey Johnson, who had taken in an interest in the issue of costly jail calls, became speaker of the council in January. “In cities where there is real criminal justice transformation taking place … there are wins to be had,” Tylek said. “Where there’s energy and excitement about criminal justice, there are opportunities.”

But it also took work to organize supporters and stand firm. “Passing this law would not have been possible without the strong coalition of survivors of Rikers and other advocates,” Chausow said. “Direct action by and with impacted people gets the goods.”

That action included people like Lawrence Bartley, now a program assistant at Corrections Accountability Project, whose family had to pay 4 cents a minute on calls to speak to him while he was incarcerated on top of the $3 fee each time they needed to refill their accounts. “They had other bills to pay,” he noted. His wife, who called herself “half a single parent” while he was incarcerated, struggled to afford the calls, but “she had to do it because it was essential that I would call.”

The advocates met with lawmakers one-on-one to get them on board with making calls free, starting with their own council members and then contacting others. They held actions at the public hearings over the bill, carrying signs inscribed with the questions they wanted City Council members to ask the Department of Correction. “We found that was actually very effective, many of the council members were sitting there reading our signs,” Tylek said. “Some of our questions did get posed.”

Miller agreed with Tylek’s assessment. “Our main thing was we just hopped on it at the beginning and stayed involved, even in … what can be seen as less important meetings like these small committee meetings,” she said. “Staying loud, going to every meeting.”

At first they were told that a vote was likely in the fall. But then the timeline was sped up to get a vote before the summer recess—except the advocates were told that the bill would only ensure that the city stopped profiting off jail calls, not make them free. In response, advocates went back to community members who have been impacted by high phone bills. “The consensus was it should be free,” Bartley said. “People shouldn’t have to pay anything because families are struggling to pay bills and to have another bill … would just be another added burden.”

So they pushed back on council members, armed with the argument that the community was rejecting its half-measure. “It was more than anything standing our ground with conviction … and saying, ‘No, we’re not going to support something that’s a compromise,’” Tylek said. Two days later, they heard back: A bill was getting introduced to make all calls free. It passed days later.

The concept has quickly spread after the victory in New York, especially given the speed of passage. “We’ve already started getting calls from advocates in other cities,” Tylek said, including Chicago and Philadelphia just days after the City Council’s vote on the bill, which was introduced in April. “First, asking how this happened, and secondly how we might bring this to their counties or cities or jurisdictions.”

Color of Change is particularly looking at other cities with large jail populations where they might be able to replicate what happened in New York City, such as Los Angeles. “The fact that it had pretty decent support in New York is a great sign,” Miller said. “Maybe it will do the same elsewhere.”

The work in New York isn’t done. It’s still not clear exactly how the city intends to make calls free. Liz Peters, a spokesperson for Council Member Keith Powers, a sponsor of the bill, wrote in an email, “[T]he city is picking up the cost, but the Department of Correction (DOC) will have to amend their contract.” Mitchell Abramson, press officer for the Department of Correction, responded when asked for further clarification, “We are exploring our options in order to comply with pending legislation.” The groups that advocated the legislation are also planning to ensure that as it gets implemented there aren’t tradeoffs, such as reducing prisoners’ access to calls.

It’s also one small victory in a larger fight. “This is definitely one step,” Miller said. City, county, and state governments “should not be making any money off of the jail or prison population. Anything we can do to pick away at that [is] a step forward toward ending mass incarceration.”

“We’re playing a game of Jenga and we just pulled out one block,” she added. “Hopefully it’ll all fall down.”

The Appeal Podcast Episode 9: The History––and Promise––of the Bail Abolition Movement

With journalist Bryce Covert.

Photo from Philly Bail Fund / Twitter

The Appeal Podcast Episode 9: The History––and Promise––of the Bail Abolition Movement

With journalist Bryce Covert.

One in five people incarcerated in this country have not been convicted of wrongdoing. Their crime? Being poor in a country that tethers pre-trial freedom to one’s wealth. In this episode we discuss with journalist Bryce Covert emerging efforts—from New York to New Orleans to Chicago—to bond people out of jail as both a temporary form of relief and as part of a long term strategy to get rid of cash bail. The Appeal is available on iTunesSoundcloud and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.


Adam Johnson: Hi welcome to The Appeal Podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember you can follow us on social media, Twitter @TheAppealPod, like us on Facebook and remember to subscribe on iTunes if you can. By now you’ve probably heard of the emerging bond abolition movement, which is a movement that aims to end the use of cash bail by bailing out those who are suffering the most egregious and obvious harm and undermining the fundamental logic of the cash bail system. A parallel movement born from necessity has reemerged after mostly going dormant for decades, and that’s that of court watching. As so called reformers make promises to ease up on the use of cash bail a sprawling network of court watchers has popped up in the last few months and years from Chicago to New York to New Orleans, exposing the gap between high minded promises from DAs and judges and the actual on the ground reality. Our guest today, journalist Bryce Covert has written about the court watch movement for The Appeal. What its tactics are, what its scope is, and what its ultimate ideological aims are.

[Begin Clip]

Bryce Covert: In New Orleans they have sort of a wider mission where they go in, they observe what’s going on and then they make, they talk to researchers and make best recommendations and try to really push officials and lawmakers to take up their recommendations. Again, court watching, it’s a tactic, it’s not supposed to be something that is in and of itself the end of the road.

[End Clip]

Adam: Thank you Bryce for coming on.

Bryce Covert: Thank you so much for having me on.

Adam: So, um, we have touched on the efforts to do court watching and the broader bond reform movement, or bond abolition movement I should say, on the show before but we’ve never really dived into it. And this is something that your article does very well. Can we start by giving a quick little primer for our listeners about what the court watch movement that’s emerged in places like New York, Chicago, and New Orleans, um, what it’s sort of broader objectives are and what its tactics are and how it dovetails with the parallel bond abolition or bond reform movement?

Bryce Covert: Absolutely. So I think it’s important first to note that while there’s this new sort of resurgence in court watching, it’s not actually a new phenomenon, um, it goes back at least to the 1970s when the League of Women Voters in Chicago decided to monitor misdemeanor courts and see what was happening there. Um, and Chicago has seen sort of fits and starts of court watching a number of times over the years. Um, but the resurgence right now is really a response to some of the success that the bond abolition movement has had. Um, you know, there’s been sort of a swell of attention to bail in this country, how it is set, whether or not people can afford it, what that means for justice and for low income people who are getting jailed because they don’t have enough money to make bail. That has led to a lot of reforms or at least promises from lawmakers and court officials that things are going to change.

Adam: Right.

Bryce Covert: Which I think is very gratifying for people in the movement. However, as everyone I talked to for this piece pointed out, you know, it’s one thing to say we’re going to change our policies and it’s another thing for that change to actually happen, particularly in the court system, you know, judges run their courtrooms as someone described it it’s sort of like they feel like they’re sort of king of the castle and they decide what happens in their courtroom. Prosecutors make decisions about whether and how much to ask for bail. Those things may not immediately change even after these policy announcements are made. So there’s sort of this push for court watching as the next step to make sure that if there are changes made or reforms promised that those actually take place in the courtroom and then if they don’t, that those actors who made the promises are held accountable. And most of the court watching programs that I talked to that are up and running really started in response to a specific change. Um, you know, in New York, the Brooklyn DA who was running for election early last year, Eric Gonzalez announced that his office wasn’t going to seek bail in most misdemeanor cases, although that included what he said, “certain exemptions.” And so Court Watch NYC launched mostly because the bail fund program that had already been up and running in Brooklyn still was receiving lots of requests. Basically the same number of requests as before that announcement was made. So they were saying, ‘Okay, well, so what’s going on? If he said he’s not going to seek bail as often and yet people are coming to us saying I need help with bail. Where’s the disconnect?’ And so they go into courtrooms in New York, the courts are open to the public, um, and they train people, give them sheets to fill out, it’s pretty standardized. People go into the courtroom, sit for the first arraignment where bail amounts are typically set and then make notes on a whole bunch of things to gather data and see what’s going on. And they also in New York, sort of report back what’s happening in real time to some extent on their Twitter account. And what was interesting there is that they started saying, you know, ‘There was bail set in this misdemeanor case,’ ‘There was bail sought in this misdemeanor case.’ And then the Brooklyn DAs office responded on Twitter to say, ‘Oh no, that falls into the exemptions that we talked about,’ which helps illuminate the way these policies are or are not doing what people might have thought from the initial announcements.

Adam: A real quick disclosure, our producer Florence and I, for our other podcast, um, Citations Needed did a fundraiser for NYC Court Watch in May. So I’m not exactly a totally neutral observer but just needed to point that out before we move on. So the, um, the Chicago Court Watch Movement started similarly, I believe it started after there was a court ruling that said that they could not set bail for what people can afford by the county courts. And then there was almost widespread just complete ignorance of this ruling. And then so the Court Watch, similar to New York kind of emerged organically because what district attorneys and what courts were saying they were going to do was wildly different from what they actually did, and this is something you note in your piece about how exhausting this is because this is not as if they’re being necessarily activists and saying they need to do X. They’re are simply saying, ‘You said you would do X and you haven’t done X.’ Which is the whole reason that this whole phenomenon emerged. To what extent is there no real mechanism or check because in theory the media ought to be doing a lot of this stuff right? But they’re not. To what extent have the institutions that are supposed to be monitoring these completely failed and provided the impetus for activists to kind of step in and play that role?

Bryce Covert: Well, I think one of the biggest motivations besides just wanting to be in there and see what’s happening and hold them accountable is also a collection of data which is to some extent the same thing, but there is a real lack of collection and publication of data of who’s going through the system, what’s happening to them, what are the charges, what are the charges really beyond, you know, the sort of, you know, larceny or something like that? And his bail asked? What is the bail amount? Is it lining up with these policies? The people I talked to pretty much uniformly said this data could easily be collected and published by these systems on their own. We don’t want to be the ones doing this. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not for the most part in most of these places. So they are going in, like I said, they in New York City where I was able to go in and watch someone actually have a Court Watch shift, they go in with standard forms that have them pay attention to a number of factors and those forms are then all collected and collated and analyzed and then Court Watch NYC looks for trends and publishes what it’s found. Um, and part of that data collection is to say, ‘Okay, so you said you weren’t going to be seeking bail in misdemeanor cases, what we found was, you know, X Y, Z when we went in,’ and they can make these reports again, the systems could be doing that on their own and that would serve as somewhat of a check because then anyone could get that data and sort of match it up against the promises and that’s not really happening. Um, certainly the media can also go into courtrooms. I mean, I went in and I went in with a court watcher, but as I just sort of describe it is a lot of work because the courts are not collecting and publishing this data, um, that they almost certainly have, um, it’s a lot of hours of man time and then analyzing. I mean, these forms are filled out by hand. That all has to be looked over by hand, entered into a database and then analyzed. It’s a lot of work. The media could do it as well, but court watchers have decided to take it upon themselves to be the ones to hold the systems accountable in this way.

Adam: One of the things, and I’m going to maybe ask you to play media critic a little bit here, but I think one of the things that Court Watch NYC and the Chicago court watchers have done is they’ve, they’ve decided that they’re going to sort of tell the story of the whole person and not just look at people as, you know, defendants as numbers, as criminals, as suspects. Um, and if you follow their Twitter feeds, as I recommend people do, they’ll tell the story about, you know, what they went through, how they got to their situation, what their financial situation is, whether or not they’re destitute or whether or not they have some issues and so much of court reporting in this country and so much criminal reporting is seen as crime reporting or this new thing called mayhem reporting. Um, and I think that there’s a kind of dehumanization and a reduction of people to these sort of, these widgets that kind of come through this criminal justice machine. And I’m curious from your discussions with both the Chicago, New York and even New Orleans, to what extent do court watchers feel like they want to, they also want to expand the kind of moral grammar of how we talk about people who end up in front of a judge?

Bryce Covert: I think they really are interested in trying to do sort of both at once, particularly in New York and Chicago and Massachusetts, the forms that they go in with in New York for example, so they have the one I’ve been talking about which is sort of the quantitative survey that’s, you know, you’re trying to check boxes in a sort of standard way for everyone to go through so that you can get that data on demographic and things like that. But they also have a form that’s more qualitative and it’s about what did you see? What happened with this person? What was the real story behind their charges? Um, did it seem fair? Did it seem like justice was carried out? And they don’t do that for every single case. I think that would be really difficult to do, but they are prompted to do that for the ones that stand out to them and then the Court Watch NYC group then, like you said, on their Twitter account for example, or in their newsletter will sort of highlight some of these cases as case studies and also to give people better understanding of what we really mean when we talk about these numbers and what we mean when we talk about these charges and I know for example, it’s been really powerful for the court watchers themselves. The one that I shadowed, her name is Louise. She goes by Ellie. She talked a lot about, you know, you hear something like “larceny” and you say, ‘Okay, well that sounds really bad. They clearly did something wrong’ and then you hear what the real charge is that they live in deep poverty and they stole a couple bars of soap and we’re talking about the exact same thing, but we’re talking about it in very different ways and it has a really different meaning. And even that day, you know, I witnessed a number of things like that. There was an elderly woman who was charged with assault and then when they discussed what actually happened, it became clear that the person who was assaulted was her. Someone had come up and taken her cane, assaulted her, she reported it to the police and then somehow she was the one that ended up being arrested. A similar thing with a young woman who was there again charged with assault and she was saying what happened was, ‘I was being domestically abused, um, my partner slapped me in the face and wouldn’t let me leave the apartment. And all the evidence being used against me to say that I assaulted him is coming from my abuser himself.’

Adam: Right.

Bryce Covert: So I think they are interested in gathering data. They also know that there are limits to that, you know, they’re not going to catch everything in the courtroom. The courtrooms are public, but they are not super accessible. It’s hard to hear, it is not designed to give the audience all of the information that’s being discussed among the prosecutor, the defender and the judge. Um, so they’re not going to get completely accurate data, although they will try, a lot of what they’re doing is again, holding it accountable, but also trying to get that more qualitative stuff that gives people an understanding of what really happens in a courtroom and who these people are who are getting caught up in the system.

Adam: Obviously you can’t really talk about criminal justice in this country, um, and I would say pretty much any settler colony without talking about racism and race. Um, what are the, what are the racial disparities in bail sentencing? By definition, it’s a way of just punishing the poor because you’re, you know, as Rachel Foran noted in one interview, there was the couple days after Harvey Weinstein had made bail, it was all prearranged a million dollars in and out. This is someone reported of, you know, multiple, multiple acts of sexual assault and violence, whereas one client that they had, or one person that they had a public defender, I think I, yeah, I think they stole like $500 worth of electronics and were held with a $3,000 bail. To what extent does, I mean obviously economic disparity matters, what extent do we have any numbers on the kind of racial disparity aspect of this and how much of that is animating these efforts for reform?

Bryce Covert: I think it’s very much front and center in both bail reform efforts and also court watching efforts to be paying attention to what’s going on with racial disparities. I mean we already know that the vast majority of people who are caught in the criminal justice system are people of color disproportionately so, um, and so Court Watch NYC for example, is tracking as best they can, that demographic information on their court watching sheets and have already found that the vast majority of cases that they’re watching involve people of color, particularly black people and Latino or Latina people. Um, so I don’t think that they have the data quite yet to be able to say, you know, black people are getting set disproportionately higher bail amounts, but like you said, judges are the ones who decide to set bail. Um, there was an analysis recently by FiveThirtyEight that found that the amount of bail you are set varies wildly with which judge you get put in front of, so that it is very subjective. When I was there that day, for example, there was no discussion of whether people could afford to pay the amounts being requested and many of them were in the tens of thousands of dollars. Poverty obviously plays a role in this, but I think it’s likely that race also plays a role as well. We don’t have that data, but given the demographics of who is going through and also given how many people of color tend to be low income I think it’s likely that a lot of them are being put in jail because they can’t afford the bail that they are set.

Adam: So I think one of the things with court watching, and I know the bond reform movement in general, is this idea that they want to be obsolete within a few years, that bailing people out of prison and court watching are actually, they’re just two tactics were broader goal of getting rid of a system of cash bail altogether, or getting rid of a system that puts people in cages before they’ve even seen a trial. I know that in some counties I know that in Cook County it’s upwards of ninety percent of people in county jails in this country have not been found guilty of a crime. And I know that, I know that nationwide is twenty to twenty five percent of people in this country that are currently behind behind bars have not been convicted of anything. Um, can we talk about the drive to make oneself obsolete and the idea that it’s a tactic? And perhaps if you could comment on maybe what could be in the future a kind of moral hazard of creating these bond funds where they kind of become a release valve as opposed to something that meaningfully abolishes a very core part of our carceral system.

Bryce Covert: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve spoken to bond funds, um, before more generally about just the work that they do and most of them are very clear that they want to avoid just what you described, that they are not an end, that they are a means toward highlighting disparities in bail and ultimately pushing to get rid of bail, usually is their goal. And that is not always the outcome. Sharlyn Grace, for example, who runs the bail fund in Chicago, described to me talking with a municipality that wanted to start its own bail fund. And she was like, ‘Or you could just stop asking for bail.’ You know.

Adam: Yeah. Right.

Bryce Covert: The point here is that we are trying to offer people relief and also by offering relief what bail funds are trying to demonstrate is people can be released and then be safe in their communities and return to court and there really is not a risk of letting people go home while their cases are moving forward and they have pretty good sort of proof of that to offer up at this point. That is sort of the end goal and that can they hope sort of help spur reform. If they are just the end of the road and it’s saying, ‘Okay, well we have bail, it is what it is, but at least we’re offering to help some people get out.’ That’s not what they want to be doing. Um, and court watching is very similar. Um, everyone I spoke to talked about it in the same way. We don’t want this to be an end in and of itself. It’s not about getting people into the courtroom so they can see what’s happening, sort of raising their awareness and moving on. You want to start a court watching program if you think that it is something that can help you pursue greater change. For example in most of these places it’s about, you know, there’s been a promise made to change practices and institute some kind of reform and we think that by going into courts we can either ensure that that is happening or keep up momentum so that doesn’t fade out because that can also occur. In New Orleans, they have sort of a wider mission where they go in, they observe what’s going on and then they make, they talk to researchers and make best recommendations and try to really push officials and lawmakers to take up their recommendations. Again, court watching, it’s a tactic. It’s not supposed to be something that is in and of itself the end of the road. And so I think that’s the way they are all talking now. I think there’s interest in starting court watching programs in other cities, particularly in the south, and all of them are talking to each other and trying to share best practices.

Adam: Right.

Bryce Covert: And it’s very clear to me that the people who are already running them are trying to pass that message on and say, ‘Look, only do this if you think it is a tactic toward a larger goal and it may not be the right tactic depending on what’s going on in your community and what your goals are.’

Adam: Um, I’m want to talk about this sort of rhetorical habit of delineating between kind of good and bad victims in the context of bail and bail reform. So there’s kind of the misdemeanor and the felony. There’s the violent/nonviolent. I know there’s an effort in certain abolitionist quarters to really avoid doing that because everyone is by definition innocent until proven guilty. So the actual nature of the crime is irrelevant. And I know this is something a lot of even so called reformist prosecutors have kind of exploited where there was always this little qualifier. There’s always this little caveat. Well, they’ll say ‘We’re ending bail for misdemeanors, with some exceptions,’ you know, the sort of fine print. ‘We’re ending bail reform for nonviolent offenders, with some exceptions.’ Because even things like, you know, allegedly having a gun possession is considered a violent offense. Is that really violent? I don’t know. Maybe not. Um, to what extent do you think that, uh, that reformers should either embrace or avoid this type of, this type of delineation? I’m, I’m sort of editorializing a little bit, but I’m curious what your thoughts are on that and what, what in your experience, um, bond reformer, bond abolitionist groups think about those kinds of concepts.

Bryce Covert: Well I think at the very least, the value here is that they are able to say, okay, you hear violent, you hear, for example, like you said, um, violent charge and what it really is, is they are accused of having a gun. Is that something that we feel rises to the same level of actually shooting a gun? Again, you know, you hear larceny, you know, do we feel as strongly about robbing a bank as we do as stealing a couple rolls of toilet paper? Trying to get more into the variations of what all these things mean, the differences in how people are charged. I mean, there’s a lot of discretion in what you charge people with when you’re a police officer.

Adam: Right.

Bryce Covert:  I think that’s one of the really big values that court watching can do. I don’t think the general public has much understanding of the gradations within charges. Um, and so for example, in New York City next they’re going to be focusing on drug charges specifically. I mean they’ll still be doing the overall court watching that they’re doing, but they’re going to have a supplemental form to really pay attention to drug charges. And what was interesting to me is one of the things that are going to focus on is the details of the charges. Is it about actually possessing drugs or is it about paraphernalia? Do they talk about residue? Was there an undercover cop involved? All these things that get papered over when you hear someone was charged with drug possession, it could be that they were sitting on pounds and pounds of cocaine. It could also be that they had a little bit of residue and there was some undercover cop involved who may have played a role that we may not think was quite fair in sort of getting them to enter into a drug sale or something like that. Um, a lot of that is not part of the story when we hear about these charges. And I think Court Watch NYC in particular is looking to pull that out and expose it to the public.

Adam: Let’s talk numbers here real quick vis-à-vis that the court watch groups in New York  have done since they launched in February, they’ve watched over two hundred court shifts, collected data on 544 cases, uh, in its first month alone and they’ve trained more than three hundred watchers. Um, I know that I’ve had people I know who sort of think that it’s a super useful direct way of helping and they volunteered. I didn’t know it was three hundred, three hundred actually seems like a lot. Um, to what extent is there, I know it’s not new, I know it’s been around for decades, but to what extent is this new resurgence, is there any sense of the scope in terms of how popular it’s become? A lot of activism there’s, there’s kind of a sense of feudalism that you sort of what’s the point, you can’t really do much? Um, it seems like the bond reform movement has had a lot of success, I would say success, but a lot of success really switching the narrative and changing the narrative pretty quickly. Can you give us a sense, and this will sort of end on this note, I want to try to end on a positive note, of how much this has kind of taken off and what the prospects are in your opinion in the next couple of years?

Bryce Covert:  Well, first of all, like you said, New York City alone has trained hundreds of watchers. I think that was as of May perhaps. So I’m sure that they have changed even more.

Adam: Okay. Right.

Bryce Covert:  Um, they told me that they have people watching first appearances six days a week in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. And that’s a lot, that’s a lot of, uh, courtrooms to be in that requires a lot of people. And remember also that it’s not just the watchers that you need to train, but you also need people to take in the sheets that they fill out, enter them into a database, go through the analysis. It’s a lot of people and it sounds like they have really been able to attract people to this cause. Um, I think one of the things drawing people towards it is, particularly in this moment when so much is happening, the news is pretty bleak, uh, something like court watching gives people a concrete thing to do that can be useful and potentially helpful. So there seems to be a lot of appetite for something like this. It’s also in your local community. Um, I will say that it seems pretty clear that it’s a lot easier to attract a lot of people in city centers than outside of them. Court Watch Massachusetts is not just in Boston but in other places as well. And um, the woman I spoke to was saying like, ‘Yes, we got a lot of people, but in some small counties it’s like ten people.’

Adam: Right.

Bryce Covert:  But maybe that’s okay also because there may not be as many hearings, you know, it’s all right. But certainly there’s going to be a lot more interest and just sheer numbers in a city than there are in some more suburban or rural places that have probably just as many issues to be paying attention to. The other thing I’ll say is that New Orleans has had this program going for ten years, so they’ve been on it for awhile, but the others are pretty recent phenomenon and there are other places across the country that are showing interest in starting their own court watching programs too. So I think it’s very likely we’ll see a whole bunch more of them in the near future and this could really spread even further if people have the interest and the time and resources to make it happen.

Adam: And, and I think the ideological commitment to making themselves irrelevant after a few years. And I think that’s kind of one of the interesting aspects of this. People are trying to start something for the purposes of eventually ending it. I think that’s interesting. Um, well that was really great. If you haven’t read it, you should go to and read Bryce’s article, “The Court Watch Movement Wants To Expose The ‘House of Cards:’ Prosecutors and judges across the country are starting to feel eyes on them.” At Then of course, there’s some other stuff written by her. Well, thank you so much. That was great.

Bryce Covert:  Thank you so much for having me on.

Adam: Thanks to Bryce Covert, journalist and writer at The Appeal for coming on. This has been The Appeal Podcast. Remember, you can follow us on social media @TheAppealPod or on Facebook at The Appeal or subscribe to us on iTunes. I’m your host Adam Johnson. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams, production assistant is Trentel Lightburn and executive producer is Sarah Leonard. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll see you next week.


More in Explainers

Drug Testing Organizations Save Lives, So Why Haven't Rave and Concert Organizers Embraced Them?

Groups like the Loop and DanceSafe test drugs like Ecstasy and warn users of high dosages and adulterants, but federal legislation from the early 2000s has live music promoters wary of their brand of harm reduction.

The Loop's tent at the Boomtown Fair in the UK
The Loop

Drug Testing Organizations Save Lives, So Why Haven't Rave and Concert Organizers Embraced Them?

Groups like the Loop and DanceSafe test drugs like Ecstasy and warn users of high dosages and adulterants, but federal legislation from the early 2000s has live music promoters wary of their brand of harm reduction.

On a humid summer night in August 2013, Shelley Goldsmith, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Virginia, hopped on a party bus bound to see the Swedish DJs Dada Life in Washington D.C. On the bus, Shelley and her friends took MDMA, otherwise known as Ecstasy.

At around 2 a.m., Shelley’s mom, Deirdre Goldsmith, received a call saying that her daughter was being taken to the hospital; Shelley’s body temperature had risen to lethal levels and she later died at the hospital from heat stroke. In the aftermath, doctors and the press blamed MDMA for Shelley’s sudden death.

But Goldsmith thought other factors surrounding her daughter’s death deserved much more attention, such as the environment in which the drug was taken. “I started doing research and realized there was maybe something more to it than MDMA itself,” Goldsmith told The Appeal. “If it’s used in the wrong environment … hot, overcrowded, limited access to water, inappropriately trained medical staff, the ‘cool down’ space is a frickin’ smoking lounge—it’s awful.”

Since then, Goldsmith has watched as illicit drugs such as cathinones (commonly known as “bath salts”) and a universe of new hallucinogens arrive on the electronic music scene, creating fresh threats to recreational consumers. The increased prevalence of drugs contaminated with illicit fentanyl, which killed nearly 20,000 Americans in 2016, has also sparked urgency among activists like Goldsmith, who has teamed up with public health and harm-reduction workers. Led by organizations like DanceSafe and The Loop, these nonprofits distribute ear plugs, condoms, and drug education literature, as well as conduct onsite drug testing so consumers know what’s really in their pills and powders.

These services are saving lives. In late May, The Loop, a United Kingdom-based drug harm reduction service, alerted thousands of consumers that blue “Punisher” Ecstasy pills had dangerously high amounts of MDMA.

Yet promoters and concert organizers have not embraced harm reduction, even though a recent study led by Canadian researchers from British Columbia and the University of Victoria found that 75 percent of all non-trauma festival deaths from 1999 to 2014 were drug-related.  Citing the risk of overdose deaths, a 2015 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse concluded that festival organizers should make onsite drug testing more widely available.

What’s stopping promoters and venues from creating a safer environment to prevent future deaths? A federal law from 2003 called the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (also known as the RAVE Act) which opened up concert venues and promoters to civil penalties and possible jail time for drug-related activities at their events.  

Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe, a Colorado-based nonprofit that promotes health and safety in the electronic music scene, told The Appeal that as a result of the law, “promoters have become very fearful of providing any harm-reduction services.”

Promoters and organizers say they would be in violation of the RAVE Act if they allowed drug testing organizations to do their work, Adam Auctor, founder of Bunk Police, which distributes drug testing kits at concerts and festivals, told The Appeal.  In June, Auctor and his crew were forced out of the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. Several security guards disguised as festival goers escorted Auctor and his team off the property for distributing testing kits. Bonnaroo is organized by Live Nation, a California-based events promoter and venue operator, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the incident.

The RAVE Act also puts rave and concert goers further at risk of encountering adulterated drugs like fentanyl-laced cocaine, which was prevalent at Electric Forest, a recent festival in Michigan organized by Insomniac, a group whose roots date back to ’90s-era warehouse raves in Los Angeles. “It is absolutely terrifying and it keeps me up at night,” Auctor said.

In 2014, Dede Goldsmith started a campaign to amend the RAVE Act. “Specifically, I am asking for language to be added to the law to make it clear that event organizers and venue owners can implement safety measures to reduce the risk of medical emergencies, including those associated with drug use, without fear of prosecution by federal authorities,” she says. She also began a dialogue about harms caused by the RAVE Act with Virginia senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. In 2016, on behalf of Goldsmith, Kaine and Warner asked former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to clarify which harm-reduction safety measures are allowed under the law.

“The DEA shares Mrs. Goldsmith’s concerns that venue owners not be discouraged from providing appropriate safety measures at entertainment venues,” Sean Mitchell, a section chief at the Drug Enforcement Administration, wrote to senators Kaine and Warner in January of this year. “Our review of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, codified at 21 U.S.C §856, did not identify any provision of the Act that would discourage law abiding venue owners from instituting safety measures for its patrons, including the provision of water.”

“I’m trying to make some hay in this administration,” Goldsmith said. “I want water, cool-down spaces, drug education, properly trained medical personnel, I want all those things.”

Stefanie Jones, director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Safer Partying Campaign, says that the presence of drugs adulterated with fentanyl has made reforming legislation that hinders drug testing, like the RAVE Act, a necessity.

“There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle,” she said. “At this point, the best harm reduction strategy is to making drug testing legal and as easily accessible as possible.”

More in Podcasts