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Statement of Glenn A Fine, Director, Special Investigations and Review Unit, Office of the Inspector General, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Oversight concerning “Use of Prison Telephones by Federal Inmates to Commit Crime”

Statement of

Glenn A. Fine
Director, Special Investigations and Review Unit
Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice

before the

Senate Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Oversight


Use of Prison Telephones by
Federal Inmates to Commit Crime

April 6, 2000

* * * * *

Mr. Chairman, Senator Schumer, and Members of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Oversight:

I. Introduction

I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee to discuss the work of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with respect to our oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Specifically, I appear before this panel today to discuss a special investigation conducted by the OIG and issued in August 1999 entitled, “Criminal Calls: A Review of The Bureau of Prisons’ Management of Inmate Telephone Privileges.” This special review sought to identify the scope of the problem of telephone abuse by BOP inmates, assess the BOP’s response to the problem, and offer recommendations to address this serious issue.

Telephone privileges for BOP inmates have increased dramatically since the 1970s when inmates were permitted one telephone call every three months and that call was placed by BOP staff. Now, most BOP inmates are allowed to make as many telephone calls as they are able to pay for or as many collect calls as people outside prison will accept. The BOP provides inmates access to telephones on the grounds that it furthers important correctional objectives, such as maintaining inmates’ ties to their families. However, BOP’s responsibilities extend beyond those objectives. Permitting inmates virtually unlimited access to telephones comes at the cost of allowing inmates the ability to commit serious criminal activity using prison telephones. Often those crimes extend beyond the prison. Even though the BOP records all inmate calls, except prearranged calls between inmates and their attorneys, we found that the BOP listens to few such calls - approximately 3.5 percent of the tens of thousands of calls made daily by federal inmates.

Our review found that federal inmates using prison telephones to commit serious crimes while incarcerated - including murder, drug trafficking, and fraud - is a significant problem. Although the BOP has been aware of the problem for many years, we concluded that it had taken insufficient steps to address the abuse of prison telephones by inmates. The BOP failed to respond adequately, partly because of the fear of litigation if it made changes to inmate telephone privileges, partly because of its misplaced reliance that new technology will provide solutions, and partly because of its apparent belief that inmates primarily use the telephone to maintain family relationships and community ties.

We concluded that the BOP needs to squarely address what appears to be significant inmate abuse of prison telephones and take immediate and meaningful actions to correct the problem. Technology alone will not solve the problem of inmate telephone abuse without aggressive intervention by BOP officials. We believe that unless the BOP places some meaningful restrictions on inmate telephone privileges, steps up its monitoring of inmate calls, disciplines telephone abuses more consistently, and devotes more effort to detecting and deterring prison telephone abuse, the significant problem of inmates using prison telephones to commit crimes will persist.

II. The OIG Review

At the outset of our review, we attempted to determine the scope of the problem of inmates’ abuse of prison telephones. However, we learned that the BOP had a paucity of information on this issue. Neither BOP headquarters in Washington, D.C., nor BOP facilities across the country keep statistics of cases in which inmates are accused of committing crimes from prison using the telephone. Although the BOP maintains statistics on violations of prison regulations, this data is not sufficiently specific to identify which cases involve the use of telephones. Several BOP officials acknowledged to us that their limited statistics do not represent the overall number of telephone violations because many violations are resolved informally or not pursued administratively when criminal charges are brought.

Given the limited information available from the BOP, we attempted to independently identify the scope of inmate telephone abuse through a questionnaire we sent to all 94 United States Attorneys’ Offices (USAOs). In the questionnaire, we asked the USAOs to identify any cases they prosecuted involving crimes committed by inmates using telephones in BOP facilities. We sent a similar questionnaire to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters, for distribution to all FBI and DEA field offices, asking them to identify investigations they conducted involving federal inmates’ use of prison telephones to commit crimes. In response to our requests, we received information from 72 USAOs, 16 FBI field offices, and 11 DEA field offices. Because these organizations do not index cases according to whether they took place in prison or involved the use of telephones, their responses to our questionnaires were based more on the recollection of the people who filled them out rather than on any comprehensive statistical review, and they undoubtedly do not represent the total universe of such cases.

We also sent a questionnaire to the 66 BOP facilities that use the Inmate Telephone System (ITS), a telephone system employed by the BOP that can store and analyze data about inmate telephone calls better than the older telephone system used in 27 other BOP facilities. In this survey, we sought information about the volume of inmate calls and each institution’s monitoring practices, staffing, equipment, and other policies related to the detection of telephone abuse by inmates.

We also visited nine BOP facilities to interview staff responsible for the institution’s security and inmate telephone monitoring operations. These nine facilities represent institutions with different security levels and different physical layouts, two factors that affect the methods of monitoring the use of prison telephones. We visited four penitentiaries, three medium-security facilities, and two low-security institutions.

In addition, we examined prosecutions of several high-profile inmates who were convicted of committing crimes from inside a BOP facility. We looked at these cases to determine what steps, if any, the BOP had taken to prevent these inmates from using the telephones to continue their criminal activities while they were incarcerated. We also interviewed one of these inmates, Rayful Edmond III, about his experience using prison telephones to commit crimes.

In total, we interviewed more than 70 BOP employees and approximately 20 other persons in the Department of Justice. We examined numerous documents, including BOP program statements on inmate telephone usage, the case law on inmate rights to telephone access, and the litigation and settlement agreement in a large class action lawsuit brought by inmates against BOP regarding the telephone system.

III. Findings

Our interviews, case examinations, data collection, and document review paint a troubling picture of the scope and seriousness of inmate use of prison telephones to engage in criminal activity. Our 122-page report, which has been provided to the Subcommittee and which is also available on the OIG’s website at “www.usdoj.gov/oig,” contains a detailed description of our findings. For purposes of this statement, I will summarize our major findings.

We determined that inmate abuse of prison telephones appears to be significant. For example, responses to our survey to the USAOs revealed more than 100 cases recently prosecuted by those offices involving inmates’ use of prison telephones to commit criminal acts. Eleven of these cases involved prosecutions for murder or attempted murder arranged by inmates over prison telephones. In one case, an inmate used prison telephones to attempt to arrange the murder of two witnesses and a judge and to pay for the execution with illegal firearms. One inmate directed a fraudulent employment matching service scheme using prison telephones that involved approximately $1.6 million. Another inmate used prison telephones to swindle trucking companies out of more than $100,000.

The FBI field offices that responded to our questionnaire reported that they conducted 44 investigations between 1996 and 1998 involving prison inmates using telephones to commit crimes. The DEA reported investigating 12 cases at BOP facilities in the recent past in which federal inmates had used prison telephones to commit crimes. In none of the DEA cases was the criminal activity detected by the BOP.

FBI agents who handled many cases of prison crimes told us that they believed that the BOP makes little effort to target inmate telephone calls and to refer evidence of criminal conduct to the FBI for investigation. Similarly, a federal prosecutor from the Los Angeles USAO, who works mostly on prosecutions involving crime in prisons, said that the use of prison telephones to commit crimes is rarely detected by the BOP.

Rayful Edmond, a notorious Washington D.C. drug dealer who used prison telephones at USP Lewisburg to run an international drug organization, told the OIG that he talked on the telephone “all day long” and made arrangements for drug deals on the telephone almost every day, including participating in conference calls to Colombia. He estimated that he arranged to have drugs brought into prison 50 or 60 times. He claimed that almost half of Lewisburg inmates were involved in bringing drugs into the institution and that most of these drug deals were arranged over prison telephones. Edmond said that he had little concern about conducting drug deals using prison telephones because he knew that most calls were not being monitored. He said he also believed that even if he were caught abusing his telephone privileges, at worst he would receive a light punishment or a restriction of his privileges for a short period of time.

Our survey determined that most inmate calls from prison are never listened to by BOP employees. Only 3.5 percent of the tens of thousands of calls made each day from BOP facilities were monitored. Our survey also found that even though inmate telephones were available an average of 18 hours per day, the institutions had staff assigned to listen to telephone calls an average of only 14 hours on weekdays and 12 hours on weekends. Our survey also indicated that 16 of the 66 BOP institutions using ITS assign staff to listen to inmate telephone calls less than 50 percent of the time that the telephones are operational. While all calls are recorded and can be listened to later, we found that this occurred rarely.

Some inmates use prison telephones excessively. Fifteen inmates at the nine institutions we visited spent more than 66 hours each on the telephone during a one-month period. This equates to more than two hours per day, on average, that these inmates spent talking on the telephone. However, none of the institutions had done anything about this excessive telephone use or was even aware of it.

During our visits to the nine institutions, we also found that the BOP staff responsible for monitoring inmate telephone calls were not sufficiently trained on the telephone monitoring equipment or monitoring procedures. For example, we did not talk to any telephone monitor who had received anything other than on-the-job training. We found no BOP telephone monitors who had received formal instruction on the best way to monitor inmate telephone calls; how to recognize suspicious activities or coded inmate language; which inmates should be monitored; or how to detect three-way calls, which are prohibited under BOP regulations. We also found that many BOP facilities make little or no effort to monitor telephone use by high-risk inmates. In addition, we saw that some correctional officers who are assigned collateral duties of monitoring inmate calls do so in a perfunctory way, often monitoring fewer calls than they are required by their post orders. During our site visits, we also saw that some of the equipment used to monitor calls was broken and no one had placed an order for it to be repaired.

In addition to our surveys and site visits, we examined several high-profile prosecutions of inmates who were convicted of conducting their crimes from inside a BOP facility. We looked at their cases to determine the response of the BOP in each case and what, if anything, it could have done differently to detect the criminal activity. These cases provided stark examples of the BOP’s failure to adequately monitor inmate telephone use. In addition to the case of Rayful Edmond, we reviewed the following cases:

  • Anthony Jones, a drug dealer in Baltimore, MD, was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and was incarcerated at a BOP facility in Allenwood, PA. While incarcerated, Jones became aware of an ongoing grand jury investigation into his drug activities and used prison telephones to order his associates outside prison to murder two witnesses he suspected had testified against him. One of the witnesses was killed and the other was shot several times. As a result, in May 1998 Jones was convicted of murder and attempted murder, and he received a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Yet, even after these convictions, Jones retained full telephone privileges and the BOP failed to take any measures to monitor his telephone calls. Only after the OIG questioned the BOP about Jones’ telephone access in connection with this review did the BOP move to restrict his telephone privileges in July 1998.
  • Jose Naranjo was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in 1979. While serving a 12-year sentence in Otisville, NY, he used the prison telephones to participate in a conspiracy to import cocaine from Colombia, South America to North Carolina. Even after his conviction for that crime, he continued to enjoy full telephone privileges. After being transferred to Petersburg, VA, he engaged in other conspiracies to distribute cocaine, and in 1995 was again convicted of drug distribution offenses that he had committed using prison telephones. After Naranjo’s sentencing, the federal prosecutor wrote to the BOP to urge it to prohibit Naranjo from using prison telephones. However, during our review in 1998, we were surprised to learn that Naranjo’s telephone privileges had been restored and that the BOP was making no special effort to monitor his calls.
  • Oreste Abbamonte was convicted of using prison telephones at Lewisburg, PA, to orchestrate the distribution of multiple kilograms of heroin. After this conviction, federal prosecutors wrote a letter to the BOP stating that Abbamonte’s access to prison telephones had enabled him to commit drug crimes while incarcerated. When Abbamonte was sentenced, the court specifically recommended that he be confined to the BOP’s highest security facility with limited telephone privileges. Despite these recommendations, the BOP placed no restrictions on Abbamonte’s telephone use, and his drug trafficking using prison telephones continued. While in a BOP facility in Leavenworth, KS, Abbamonte again used prison telephones to conspire to purchase cocaine, and he was convicted in 1992 for this offense. When we reviewed Abbamonte’s BOP files in 1998, we were again surprised to find that his telephone privileges were not limited in any way despite the prosecutor’s letter, the court’s specific request, and his repeated use of the prison telephones to commit crimes.

Several BOP officials told us they believed that a new generation of telephone equipment planned for installation in all BOP institutions during the next two years will detect many cases of inmate telephone abuse. However, no new technology - including ITS II, the BOP’s new inmate telephone system - will solve the problem of inmate telephone abuse without aggressive intervention by BOP officials. Implementation of a new inmate telephone system is not the “cure all” that some BOP officials apparently are counting on. In fact, given the lack of understanding and failure to use some of the security features that already exist in the BOP telephone system, the new system could have little impact on BOP’s efforts to detect telephone abuse by inmates unless the BOP makes a more sustained effort to use the new technology aggressively to detect and deter telephone abuse.

IV. Recommendations

Based on our review, we recommended that the BOP take steps to curb prison telephone abuse in four ways. First, the BOP must increase the percentage of inmate telephone calls it monitors if it expects to make any headway on the problem of inmate telephone abuse. While additional resources will be helpful in this regard, because of the high volume of inmate calls the only realistic solution is to reduce the number of calls so that BOP staff assigned to this task can monitor a greater percentage of calls. Towards this end, we made various recommendations, including that the BOP impose limits on all inmates’ telephone privileges, set a significantly higher goal for monitoring inmate calls and then calculate the resources needed to meet this goal, have telephone monitors on duty at all times that prison telephones are available to inmates, do a better job identifying inmates with a high probability of abusing their telephone privileges, and institute a plan to monitor these inmates’ calls proactively.

Second, the BOP must increase and more consistently discipline telephone abusers. During our review, we found various cases in which inmates retained full telephone privileges even after they were convicted of a crime involving use of prison telephones. We recommend that the BOP develop and enforce policies to ensure that administrative action is quickly taken against inmates who abuse their telephone privileges, particularly those inmates convicted of crimes stemming from their use of prison telephones. The BOP also should develop and implement policies that mandate restriction of telephone privileges as the preferred sanction for inmate telephone abuse. Subsequent violations of BOP telephone policies should result in increased sanctions that include loss of all telephone privileges. Inmates who commit crimes using prison telephones also should have their privileges revoked.

Third, the BOP should restrict telephone privileges proactively for inmates who have a history of telephone abuse or a likelihood of abuse. This would mean that some inmates simply would not have telephone privileges because of their previous behavior using the telephones in prison. As an additional safeguard to deter potential criminal conduct, the Department of Justice should educate prosecutors about the availability of court orders restricting an inmate’s telephone privileges in racketeering and drug cases. The Department also should consider seeking legislation to permit similar court orders in all cases in which the government can make a showing that the defendant should not be entitled to telephone privileges because of a prior history of telephone abuse.

Moreover, the Department should emphasize to USAOs the need to inform BOP of inmates who pose special risks of committing serious crimes while incarcerated, as outlined in a letter from the Attorney General on May 7, 1998. As of the fall of 1998, the BOP had received only two such notifications. These notifications are critical because they fill gaps in BOP’s knowledge about the inmate’s history and put the BOP on notice of the risk posed by certain inmates. In light of the BOP’s failure to properly monitor high-risk inmates after either court order or notice from prosecutors, we recommend that a reporting system be established to assure USAOs that the BOP has taken proper measures after such a notification.

Fourth, the BOP should emphasize the responsibility of its officers to detect and deter crimes by inmates using BOP phones. Our review found that Special Investigator Supervisor (SIS) officers at BOP institutions spend far too little time detecting and deterring criminal conduct committed by inmates using prison telephones. The SIS’s mission should be expanded to include a more substantial focus on the detection of crimes by inmates in BOP custody. This could be accomplished through additional training for SIS staff, greater communication between the SIS and other law enforcement agencies, and better intelligence-gathering on inmates. In addition, the BOP should revise its procedures to require SIS staff to ensure that the numbers listed on an inmate’s telephone calling list are investigated prior to approval of those lists, especially with high-risk inmates.

V. OIG Follow-up Review

In response to our report, the BOP acknowledged the shortcomings of its telephone monitoring efforts and stated that it has been working diligently to improve its monitoring program. However, the BOP contested whether there was widespread abuse of prison telephones by inmates, arguing that the 100-plus cases of inmates recently prosecuted for telephone abuse cited in the OIG report were only a small percentage of the total number of inmates in BOP custody. We found this argument unconvincing. Our surveys identified serious cases of criminal activities. In addition, our interviews of BOP correctional officers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and Rayful Edmond, as well as our case studies of how the BOP failed to monitor the telephone calls of inmates who had been convicted of committing serious crimes with prison telephones, indicate that the problem is significant. Moreover, we believe that the absence of reported cases is attributable, in large measure, to the fact that the BOP does not monitor prison calls adequately and does not even compile statistics on prison telephone abuse. As a result, the reported cases we collected in our survey appear to be, as one FBI agent who investigated such cases phrased it, “the tip of the iceberg.”

In its response the BOP concurred with many of the reform recommendations we made, including imposing limits on telephone privileges. It disagreed with several of the recommendations, however, such as whether the BOP should monitor a higher percentage of inmate calls, whether there should be a telephone monitor on duty at all times prison telephones are available to inmates, or whether SIS officers should focus more of their attention on the detection of crimes by inmates in BOP custody.

To determine whether the BOP’s procedures and proposed changes in response to our report adequately address these issues, the OIG plans to conduct a “year-later” follow-up review of the BOP’s management of inmate telephone privileges. We intend to use a variety of techniques, including surveys, interviews, site visits, data analysis, and document review, to assess whether BOP has made improvements in its efforts to curb inmates’ abuse of telephone privileges.

In conclusion, permitting inmates access to prison telephones and protecting the public against crimes facilitated through use of prison telephones present a complex balancing of interests. Our review highlighted the serious nature of inmate abuse of prison telephones, including murders and drug deals arranged using BOP telephones. Our review also led us to conclude that the current inmate call monitoring system is ineffective. Our interviews of telephone monitors left us with the impression that they are overwhelmed and not adequately trained. The low number of crimes or administrative violations detected and the high number of crimes likely being committed should indicate to the BOP that major changes are needed. We believe that, in light of our report, the BOP should aggressively implement changes to address the serious problem of inmate telephone abuse.