The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Mail for High-Risk Inmates
Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-009
Office of the Inspector General
In March 2005, news media reports revealed that three convicted terrorists, Mohammed Salameh, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Nidal Ayyad, incarcerated at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) Administrative Maximum facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, wrote over 90 letters to Islamic extremists outside the prison between 2002 and 2004.14 These extremists included inmates who are members of a Spanish terror cell with links to other terrorists suspected in the March 11, 2004, terrorist attacks on Madrid commuter trains. One of the letters from Salameh was found in the possession of Mohamed Achraf, described as the leader of a radical Muslim cell, who was charged in October 2004 in Spain for plotting to blow up the National Justice Building in Madrid, which is Spain ’s “nerve center” for investigating Islamic terror.15 Salameh also praised Osama bin Laden as a hero in a letter sent to Arabic newspapers. According to the March 2005 news reports, at least 14 letters were exchanged between the three terrorists in ADX Florence and the Spanish terror cell. In addition, 1 of the 17 people arrested in Spain for recruiting suicide operatives used these letters in his recruitment efforts. One of the news articles reported that a BOP employee who translated some high-profile terrorism communications warned in 2003 that many “Arabic letters and phone calls are unmonitored due to a lack of Arabic-speaking staff.”16
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted this review to evaluate how effectively the BOP prevents terrorist and other high-risk inmates from using the mail or the cover of a foreign language to continue or encourage criminal behavior, threaten the public, or compromise national security. Because many of the BOP staff members who monitor mail also monitor the inmates’ telephone calls, our review also examined the monitoring of inmates’ verbal communications.
The BOP’s Mission, Operations, and General Inmate Monitoring Procedures
The stated mission of the BOP is to protect society by confining offenders in safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure prisons and community-based facilities that provide self-improvement opportunities that assist them in becoming law-abiding citizens.17 As of July 2006, the BOP reported an inmate population of 191,224, an increase of 70 percent from 10 years ago when the population was at 112,289.18 The number of high-risk inmates who have been identified as needing heightened security monitoring, such as gang leaders, gang members, international and domestic terrorists, also has increased over the last 10 years by approximately 60 percent. As of July 2006, the BOP had identified 19,720 such inmates. During this same 10-year time period, the number of BOP staff grew at a more modest rate of 14 percent, from 30,212 to 34,655.19
The BOP has a sizable percentage of foreign-born inmates and inmates of Hispanic ethnicity. As of June 2006, 21.1 percent of inmates were foreign citizens of Spanish-speaking countries, 6.0 percent were listed as foreign citizens of other countries (non-Spanish-speaking) or unknown citizenship, and 31.5 percent of the inmate population was of Hispanic ethnicity (whether U.S. citizens or foreign citizens).20
Based on security and program needs, an inmate is assigned to a particular BOP institution with an appropriate security level. An institution’s security level is based on such features as the presence of external patrols, towers, security barriers, or detection devices; the type of housing within the institution; internal security features; and the staff-to-inmate ratio.21 As of June 2006, the breakdown of the BOP’s inmate population at each security level was: minimum, 18.7 percent; low, 39.6 percent; medium, 26.3 percent; high, 10.3 percent; and unclassified, 4.9 percent.22
While in BOP custody, inmates are granted certain communication privileges to maintain family and community ties. According to BOP policy,
The BOP has established rules governing use of communication privileges, and various staff members in the BOP institutions are responsible for monitoring these communications to ensure that inmates adhere to the rules and do not use any communication method to carry out criminal behavior or behavior that would be considered a threat to the security of the institution or the public. To monitor inmate communications, institutions develop mail and telephone monitoring lists of high-risk inmates, terrorists, and other inmates who are suspected of criminal or suspicious activity. According to the BOP Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division, the BOP’s goal is to monitor 100 percent of the mail and telephone communications for the inmates placed on these monitoring lists.
Mail. The BOP encourages correspondence that is directed to socially useful goals. Inmates are therefore permitted to send and receive, with minimal restrictions, correspondence to and from family, friends, or anyone in the community.24 Inmates also can receive a variety of publications such as newspapers, magazines, and periodicals. The BOP’s limited restrictions on inmate mail are consistent with American Correctional Association standards, which state:
Inmate correspondence, however, can be rejected by the BOP based on the content of the correspondence. Federal regulation 28 C.F.R. § 540.14d (2002) and BOP policy authorize prison officials to review and reject inmates’ incoming and outgoing correspondence “ if it is determined detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution, to the protection of the public, or if it might facilitate criminal activity.” See Appendix I for the BOP’s policy on rejecting inmate correspondence.
To protect the security of its institutions, the BOP has the authority to inspect and read all inmate mail. Inspection of mail is intended to detect drugs and other contraband while reading inmate mail is intended to reveal, for example, plans to commit criminal acts.26 According to BOP policy, staff are required to open and inspect all incoming mail prior to distributing it to the inmates. Additionally, all incoming general correspondence is subject to random reading by staff.27 Inmates are notified in writing upon arrival at an institution that the BOP has the authority to open all mail addressed to inmates. If the inmate does not agree to this requirement, any mail subsequently received for that inmate is returned to the post office. In addition, a BOP Warden may place an inmate on restricted general correspondence based on a misconduct or security needs.28
All outgoing mail in medium- and high-security and administrative institutions is subject to random reading by staff. Outgoing mail from inmates in minimum- or low-security institutions may be sealed by the inmate and not read by staff unless:
According to BOP policy, inmates are prohibited from corresponding with inmates in other correctional institutions, unless the proposed correspondent is a member of the inmate’s immediate family or is a party or witness in a legal action in which both inmates are involved. In each instance, the inmate’s Unit Manager must approve the correspondence, and the approval of the Wardens of both institutions is required if one of the inmates is housed at a non-federal institution.30
Telephone. The BOP extends telephone privileges to inmates as part of its overall correctional management. The BOP considers telephone communications “a supplemental means of maintaining community and family ties that contribute to the inmate’s personal development.”31 Inmates may submit up to 30 telephone numbers on their official Telephone Number Request Form.32 The numbers may be of immediate family members or anyone else they choose, with the understanding that these calls will be monitored. Inmates are issued an individual personal access number and are allowed up to 300 minutes of calls per month to the numbers listed on their forms, with each call generally limited to 15 minutes. Inmates are responsible for the expense of telephone use.
The BOP can impose limitations and conditions on an inmate’s telephone privileges to ensure the safety, security, and good order of the institution or to protect the public.33 Unit management staff are responsible for reviewing the inmate’s telephone list and verifying that the numbers belong to the individuals listed. The Associate Warden may deny placement of a telephone number on the inmate’s list if the Associate Warden determines that there is a threat to institution security or public safety. All inmate calls are recorded and subject to monitoring. The BOP may restrict telephone privileges for any inmate who violates its telephone policy, such as by using the telephone to engage in criminal activity.
Visits. Inmates are permitted visits by family, friends, and community groups. Inmates are required to submit a list of proposed visitors to their unit management staff. Although there are no limitations on the number of family members on the list, an inmate’s visiting list is generally limited to no more than 10 friends and associates.34
BOP staff are required to obtain background information on potential visitors who are not immediate family members before placing them on the inmate’s approved visitor list in medium- and high-security and administrative institutions. If insufficient background information is available, visiting may be denied. The BOP conducts National Crime Information Center (NCIC) checks as part of the background investigations on proposed visitors.35 Visits may be restricted or suspended for violation of the visiting guidelines or if an inmate’s behavior indicates that the inmate would be a threat to the security of the visiting room.
Foreign Language Translation Services
The BOP cannot identify how many of its inmates communicate in a foreign language. However, approximately 27 percent of the total BOP inmate population comprises non-U.S. citizens, and some portion of these inmates’ written and verbal communications requires translation for monitoring purposes. The BOP primarily uses three sources for translation services: volunteer staff members, three full-time staff Language Specialists, and outside contractors.
The BOP relies mainly on staff who volunteer to translate foreign language communications as a collateral duty.36 The names of these volunteers are listed in a BOP Directory of Translators, which is distributed to all institutions. The BOP also has three full-time Arabic Language Specialists at ADX Florence, hired in 2005, whose services are available to other BOP institutions as well. To procure translation services from outside contractors for what it deemed “exotic” languages, the BOP created the Language Translation Services Project in 2003.37 Intended to address the increase in the number of international terrorist inmates whose foreign language communications required translations, the project uses contractors approved by the General Services Administration (GSA). In addition, the BOP can use outside sources, such as universities or other law enforcement agencies, for translations.
Special Investigative Supervisor Office Monitoring Responsibilities
Every BOP institution has a Special Investigative Supervisor (SIS) office, which is responsible for advising executive staff on security matters, setting security policy, conducting inmate and staff investigations, and gathering intelligence through monitoring of inmate communications.
In each BOP institution, at least one lieutenant is assigned to carry out the SIS responsibilities. In most institutions the position is either a GS-12 Special Investigative Agent or a GS-11 Lieutenant (SIS Lieutenant) who has successfully completed Advanced Lieutenant’s training, SIS training, and a minimum of 6 months as a shift supervisor at the assigned institution. The Special Investigative Agent position is non-rotational, but SIS Lieutenants ordinarily rotate at 18-month intervals. The Warden has the authority to assign additional staff to the SIS office.38 SIS Technicians, Intelligence Research Specialists, or Inmate Telephone Monitors are assigned to the SIS office according to an individual institution’s staffing level. The duties of each SIS position are described in Appendix II.
To monitor inmate communications, SIS offices develop mail and telephone monitoring lists. The names of high-risk, terrorist, and other inmates who are suspected of criminal or suspicious activity within the institution are placed on the lists, and according to SIS staff, all their mail and telephone communications are to be monitored. The BOP Central Office, through various memorandums, requires 100-percent mail and telephone monitoring for the inmates on these lists. In addition, the BOP Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division stated in our interview with him that the BOP expects 100 percent monitoring of mail and telephone communications for these inmates.
Mail. The SIS office at each institution is responsible for reading all outgoing and incoming mail of inmates on the mail monitoring list, as well as reading mail identified as suspicious through random reading accomplished by mailroom staff and housing unit officers.
Telephone. SIS staff monitor inmate telephone calls through the following three methods:
Inmate Systems Management and Housing Unit Officers Mail Monitoring Responsibilities
The Inmate Systems Management (ISM) department in an institution supervises mailroom operations to ensure the timely processing and handling of inmate and official mail. Mail service is provided to inmates Monday through Friday. ISM staff are responsible for ensuring that all incoming and outgoing letter mail is ordinarily processed within 24 hours, and incoming and outgoing packages processed within 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. Staff are not required to keep records on the volume of outgoing and incoming mail processed. ISM staff are required to open and inspect all incoming mail for contraband (unauthorized material) prior to distribution. They open all incoming packages in an outside storeroom or warehouse (except at minimum-security institutions). Inspection of mail may include the use of x-ray machines, metal detectors, and manual or visual inspection. By BOP policy, all incoming correspondence is subject to random reading by ISM staff. The ISM staff also is responsible for separating the incoming mail of inmates on the mail monitoring list and forwarding that mail to the SIS office for reading and analysis, along with any other mail randomly read that contains suspicious content.
In addition to mailroom operations, the ISM department includes the inmate records management and the receiving and discharge (R&D) functions. The staff who work in the mailroom and R&D are called Inmate Systems Officers (ISO). The ISOs generally rotate between assignments in the mailroom or R&D functions for fixed periods of time.42 On heavy mail volume days, such as Mondays or around holidays, or when the mailroom is short-staffed, the mailroom enlists staff from the other ISM functions to help process the mail and ensure timely delivery.
Housing Unit Officers on the 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. “morning watch” shift inspect and randomly read outgoing inmate mail.43 They set aside and deliver letters from inmates on the mail monitoring list to the SIS staff for reading and analysis. If they find suspicious content while randomly reading other inmates’ letters, they deliver these letters to the SIS office as well.
Figure 1 outlines the mail processing procedures for outgoing and incoming inmate mail.
Monitoring Through Special Administrative Measures
Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), approved by the Attorney General, may be applied to inmates whose communications require more restrictive conditions. SAMs, developed in May 1996 and overseen by the Department’s Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO) within the Criminal Division, serve two purposes:
The Attorney General may authorize the BOP Director to implement SAMs upon written notification to the BOP,
The C.F.R. further states:
Inmates who are under SAMs are restricted to communications and visits with only immediate family members, and all such social communications are monitored by the FBI. The BOP forwards all mail to and from the SAMs inmates to the FBI for analysis and approval. The FBI is required to return the approved mail to the BOP for delivery to the inmate or addressee within 14 days. A period of 60 days is permitted if foreign language translation is required or if there is reasonable suspicion that a code was used and decoding is required. Telephone calls must be monitored contemporaneously by the FBI and recorded. All calls must be in English unless a fluent FBI translator is available to contemporaneously monitor the call. The FBI listens later to the recordings to analyze whether the communication includes messages that solicit or encourage acts of violence or other crimes or attempts to circumvent the SAMs.
Except for visits with their lawyers, SAMs inmates are limited to visits with one adult immediate family member. The visits are non-contact only and monitored contemporaneously by the FBI. All communications during the visit must be in English unless a fluent FBI-approved translator is available. SAMs also can be invoked to allow for monitoring of conversations of inmates and their attorneys and to screen inmates’ correspondence with their lawyers.47
SAMs may be recommended on a case-by-case basis by the FBI and prosecuting U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) independently or jointly through the OEO and are initiated during either the pretrial or post-trial period. The OEO reviews the initial SAMs requests, and after obtaining the necessary supporting documentation, prepares a memorandum to the Attorney General presenting the request and the measures to be implemented. The Attorney General approves all original impositions of SAMs, and the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division can approve SAMs extensions or modifications to existing SAMs. After the OEO drafts and submits an application for SAMs, it has no role in implementation or oversight, except during the renewal process. SAMs can be ordered for a year at a time and renewed at 1-year intervals indefinitely. The requesting agency must renew a SAMs application through the OEO, which reviews the request to determine the continued need for the special monitoring measures. Since March 2005, the BOP has worked with the FBI and OEO to standardize the conditions set forth in each SAMs to ensure consistency in application and monitoring of the SAMs inmates by the BOP and FBI. As of May 2006, there were 34 BOP inmates under SAMs.
The FBI’s specific responsibilities related to monitoring pretrial and post-conviction inmates with SAMs are summarized in Appendix III. The FBI also is responsible for conferring with the USAO when SAMs are initially proposed. The USAO’s primary role in monitoring communications is to work with the FBI to identify inmates who are appropriate for SAMs. On occasion, a USAO is involved in the actual monitoring of inmate communications. In those instances, the USAO receives copies of communications from the FBI, and both components review the communications and any translations.
Although the USAO ordinarily drafts SAMs requests to the OEO, on one occasion the Counterterrorism Section (CTS) in the Criminal Division has originated such requests.48 In March 2005, when the three World Trade Center bombers incarcerated at ADX Florence were discovered to be corresponding with other Islamic extremists in prisons abroad, the CTS drafted SAMs for these three inmates after requesting and receiving documentary justification from the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. Although there is no requirement for the USAO, FBI, or OEO to coordinate SAMs requests for terrorism inmates with the CTS, they are encouraged by the CTS to do so.49
The BOP Cost Savings Plan
In 2004, the BOP initiated a cost savings plan in response to budget cuts that has reduced institutions’ SIS and ISM staffing, including staff responsible for mail and telephone monitoring. During one phase of the plan, the BOP is centralizing key ISM functions – sentence computation and security classification – to a single facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, thereby eliminating 124 positions. In the nine institutions we visited with mailrooms, this centralization of ISM functions had decreased the number of ISM staff available to help sort, screen, and randomly monitor inmate mail when needed.50
During another phase of the cost savings plan, the BOP implemented the Mission-Critical Roster on March 27, 2005. The Mission-Critical Roster developed a standardized staffing roster of Correctional Officer posts based on the size and mission of an institution. BOP staff from the SIS office and other departments can be required to cover critical Correctional Officer posts when vacant. The BOP developed the Mission Critical Roster with three key objectives: (1) establish posts that would be vacated only under rare circumstances, (2) reduce the reliance on other departments to cover Correctional Services posts, and (3) reduce overtime costs.51 In 7 of the 10 institutions visited, the Mission-Critical Roster had resulted in a reduction of SIS positions that were used to monitor inmate mail and telephone calls. These SIS positions were reallocated to other security posts elsewhere in the institutions.
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