Photos: EBR Prison _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- The phone bank where people visit the incarcerated in the old building of the EBR Parish Prison.

The high-speed chase ended in his arrest in a man-made pond in Algiers, but Kidus Wodajo was sure he had outwitted the police. 

Wodajo was so proud of his ruse, in fact, that he placed a series of calls from the New Orleans jail bragging about his disposal of a firearm that, as a convicted felon, would have compounded the charges he faced for fleeing from authorities in a stolen vehicle.

During one monitored conversation, he revealed that he had pulled a handgun out of his waistband and left it "in the lake" before being taken into custody.  

"I'm too smart for those bitches," Wodajo crowed, referring to law enforcement.

It seems unlikely that Wodajo knew his calls — every word he spoke into the receiver — were being recorded and saved into a digital library for the perusal of prosecutors and police. So New Orleans police, after learning about the calls, drained the pond and recovered a loaded Taurus Millennium pistol — a discovery that landed Wodajo a nearly four-year sentence in federal prison.

That 2013 case highlights the investigative value of eavesdropping on jailhouse phone calls — a widely used technique that drew fresh criticism last week from a New Orleans watchdog group.

Law enforcement agencies monitor even the most innocuous phone conversations behind bars, listening for code words or less subtle tidbits that can help crack a case. 

The watchdog group, Court Watch NOLA, said the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office has taken it a step too far, recording not only inmates' discussions with friends and family but also calls they place to defense attorneys' cell phones. Attorneys in New Orleans may conduct unrecorded landline phone calls with their clients after signing an affidavit promising not to allow anyone else on the call. 

Court Watch NOLA blasted the practice of recording any calls to lawyers — a practice not unique to New Orleans — as an unconstitutional subversion of attorney-client privilege.

Report questions recording of New Orleans inmates' calls to their lawyers

Why do they do it?

But the criticism also raised a question that has confounded defense attorneys, detectives and corrections administrators since jails began tapping inmate phone banks decades ago: Why do so many defendants make incriminating statements over jailhouse phones, despite clear warnings that their conversations are being monitored?

"We've wondered that, too," said Burl Cain, the longtime former warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. "It's incredibly useful. If any kind of event occurs on the inside, you can track it back and figure out the players, or sometimes you even catch it on the front end and prevent some kind of violence." 

Correctional facilities warn inmates — and often the people on the receiving end of their calls — that their conversations are being recorded. The technology has become so sophisticated in some lockups that speech-recognition software flags certain "trigger words," alerting authorities of any mention of an escape, contraband smuggling and other security threats.    

And yet, prosecutors have built entire cases on admissions made during these calls. In New Orleans, Don Hancock, who long worked as the telephone supervisor at the Sheriff's Office, became known as "the closer" because of how frequently he was called upon to testify in criminal proceedings. 

"There's a sign on top of the phone saying you're being recorded, but you've still got guys setting up dope drop-offs," said Gregory Hartshorn, who served 10 years in prison for a carjacking conviction in Jefferson Parish. 

Hartshorn, who during his term became a "jailhouse lawyer" at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, recalled a case in which an inmate committed a shooting and then told his girlfriend — during a recorded call from behind bars — that he had hidden the gun in a dryer and that she should dispose of it.

"We're not talking about the highest education level here," said Hartshorn, who now works in home construction. "I think it's mostly out of desperation, and a lot of times it's just stupidity." 

But Prem Burns, a former longtime prosecutor in Baton Rouge, said the phenomenon involves more than an inmate's intellect, or lack thereof. She likened incriminating jailhouse calls to the psychological need that some criminals have to "return to the scene of the crime." 

"I think there is a natural human desire to unburden yourself, to talk to somebody about it, in the same way they often give a confession to a cellmate," Burns said. "They know they're being recorded, but there's still that natural desire to talk."  

Michael Tidwell, a corrections administrator who worked in several jails around the country, including two stints in New Orleans, described an "ingrained logic" in which many inmates do not believe their calls are actually being recorded — let alone listened to. He said they consider the warnings to be an intimidation tactic intended to dissuade inmates from communicating with people on the outside.   

"They figure, 'There aren't even enough deputies here to watch us. How could they possibly have somebody listening on the phone?' " Tidwell said. "And they'll say the damnedest things. You go back and listen to them and it's like, 'I can't believe this guy is admitting this on the phone.' "

Fair warning?

Longtime defense attorney Arthur "Buddy" Lemann III said jailhouse phone calls have become a "staple" of federal drug prosecutions, such as the recent racketeering case that dismantled the murderous 39'ers gang. That case involved nearly 8,000 jail calls. Lemann said he has begun advising clients not to use jail phones for any purpose — and if they do, not to discuss their cases under any circumstances. 

"I think recording the inmates is wrong and, in many cases, I don't think the warning they're receiving is sufficient," he said. "These people are in custody, and they really aren't being given the full Miranda warning — that anything you say, even to your lawyer, may be used against you." 

The Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office, in responding to Court Watch NOLA, said last week that prosecutors use recorded calls between inmates and their attorneys on an "exceedingly rare" basis.

It has happened, however, as in the case of Gerard Howard, a man who told his defense attorney over a jailhouse phone that he had gone through detox shortly before his arrest. Prosecutors introduced the call to help convict Howard of possessing drug paraphernalia in 2015.  

"It completely changed the way I dealt with clients," the defense attorney, Thomas Frampton, wrote in an email. "I effectively stopped taking clients' calls."

In Louisiana state prisons, calls between inmates and defense attorneys are recorded "but not monitored unless the warden determines a security need exists," said Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections.  

But authorities consider other jailhouse calls to be fair game and regularly mine them for investigative leads. Keith Foster, a New Orleans heroin trafficker, placed a call following his 2015 arrest in which he not only ordered the killing of a confidential informant — "I need you to take care of that" — but told the man on the other end of the phone where he could find the "piece" for the hit.  

"Don't nobody know where it's at but you," Foster said, according to federal court records. "Go get that bitch." 

Foster was sentenced to nearly 25 years in federal prison. The would-be hit man, Kermeric Johnson, of Chalmette, received an 18-year sentence. 

Jailhouse calls can be a honey pot for law enforcement, particularly in the days before a case goes to trial or is presented to a grand jury. One former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent said investigators frequently review the calls to corroborate information they receive from cooperating witnesses.     

"You don't even need a search warrant," said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We'd always use the calls on the federal side." 

Reality or pretense?

Burns, the former prosecutor, said the calls can be useful even when they do not contain an explicit confession. Criminal defendants often do not take the witness stand, but recorded calls offer a window into their mindset and demeanor. 

Authorities learned from jailhouse calls that William "Billy" Bates Colvin — a former East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk's Office employee who stole several kilograms of cocaine from an evidence vault — received preferential treatment while awaiting trial in the Pointe Coupee Parish Jail. Calls between Colvin and his mother, Kay Bates, then a state district court judge, revealed that Colvin was not being searched after meeting with visitors.

Colvin later pleaded guilty to malfeasance in office, possession of cocaine and obstruction of justice. He served five years in prison and was released last year. 

In New Orleans, prosecutors used recorded calls this year to rebut Travis Boys' claim that he was insane when he fatally shot veteran police officer Daryle Holloway in 2015. Boys' behavior had raised questions about his mental health, especially when he ate feces in front of potential jurors last year.

But prosecutors accused him of malingering, pointing in part to calls he placed to his girlfriend that suggested he indeed understood the gravity of the charges against him. Jurors ultimately rejected the insanity claim, and Boys was sentenced to life in prison.  

"You can put someone in a nice suit for a jury trial, and they can pretend they're not intellectually bright or that they have a mental disability," Burns said. "But if you really hear them on the phone, in their own setting, using their own language, it shows their ability to think and to plan. They're not the raving maniac they come into court claiming to be." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.