The sign at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta is pictured in this July 7, 2020, file photo. Credit: Michael Shepherd / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Gov. Janet Mills has instructed the Department of Corrections to work with legislators on a bill to ensure jails aren’t recording inmates’ conversations with their defense attorneys.

An investigation by the Maine Monitor found that jails routinely recorded attorney calls, and shared some with law enforcement.

The executive director of the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services proposed the bill that would penalize a person who “knowingly eavesdrops” on a conversation between an attorney and a person in custody.

Mills asked the bill’s sponsor “to ensure that the legislation properly protects these privileged communications without unduly hampering the department’s ability to protect its facility staff and other residents,” Lindsay Crete, spokesperson for the governor, told the Maine Monitor.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, who said that “doing nothing is not an option.”

“It is simply not acceptable to have the specter of attorney-client calls being recorded by the state, because one has no control over what happens to them after that occurs,” Harnett said.

Three murder suspects awaiting trial in Maine jails were recorded speaking to their attorneys, and state police heard parts of the recordings, the Maine Monitor reported. The detectives heard enough to recognize the attorneys but not the substance of the conversations, police and prosecutors said.

Assistant Attorney General Megan Elam, who’s assigned to all three of those cases, opposed parts of the bill during a recent meeting of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission that advises the Legislature.

“You’re criminalizing inadvertent behavior. You’re making it a crime when someone gets information that they had every reason to believe didn’t include confidential communications and the second they hear the confidential communication they stop listening,” she said.