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The Federal Bureau of Prisons' Drug Interdiction Activities

Report Number I-2003-002
January 2003



The BOP Program Statements 5266.09, Incoming Publications; 5265.11, Correspondence; and 5800.10, Mail Management Manual, provide guidance to institutions for screening mail for contraband, to include drugs. The BOP encourages correspondence that is directed towards socially useful goals and permits inmates to subscribe to or receive publications without prior approval. As a result, inmates enjoy access to a wide-range of mail privileges, including first-class mail, packages, books, magazines, newspapers, and unsolicited mail.

The ISOs inspect inmate mail for contraband (e.g., drugs and weapons) and deliver inmate mail to the housing units for distribution to inmates by unit management staff. Delivery of inmate mail ordinarily is to be accomplished within 24 hours of receipt.93 Generally, high security level mailrooms are staffed with at least three ISOs, while medium security level mailrooms are generally staffed with two ISOs.

When the mail initially arrives at the institution, the ISO(s) first x-ray the trays or bins containing inmate mail. This x-ray inspection occurs outside the institution's perimeter fence, typically in an institution's warehouse facility or at an institution's front entrance. The primary objective of this x-ray inspection is to detect weapons and explosive devices. Attempts to introduce drug contraband concealed within mail may be detected during this initial inspection if an x-ray scan produces a suspicious image triggering a further visual and manual inspection. However, most x-ray scanning technologies in use at the BOP's institutions are better suited to detect weapons and explosive devices rather than drugs.

Inside the institution's mailroom, the ISOs first compare each individually addressed mail item to a current SENTRY inmate roster to both confirm the inmate name and to ensure that they only open and inspect mail for inmates who are presently housed at that institution. The ISOs are required to open all incoming mail (except legal mail, which must be opened in the presence of the inmate), newspapers, magazines, books, and packages and inspect the material for contraband prior to distribution. Drug contraband finds typically occur during these visual and manual inspections. For example, Figure 8 on the next page shows an attempt by an inmate's outside contact to introduce black tar heroin into an institution by hiding the drug inside a greeting card mailed to the inmate. This attempted drug introduction was detected by the institution's mailroom staff.

Figure 8. Black Tar Heroin Hidden Inside a Greeting Card

Black Tar Heroin Hidden Inside a Greeting Card

In addition, Figure 9 shows an attempt (also successfully detected by mailroom staff) by an outside contact to introduce morphine into an institution by hiding the drug underneath a postage stamp affixed to a letter addressed to an inmate. Both Figure 8 and Figure 9 illustrate the need for thorough mail inspection procedures to detect drug introductions into BOP institutions.

Figure 9. Morphine Hidden Beneath Postage Stamp

Morphine Hidden Beneath Postage Stamp

Morphine Hidden Beneath Postage Stamp

After each mail item is inspected, all mail items are subject to random reading by the ISOs (except legal mail), or held for reading by intelligence officers if the inmate is flagged in SENTRY. The primary objective of an inspection is to detect contraband, while the objective of random reading is to gather intelligence information about inmates' criminal activities and other security concerns within an institution.

Outgoing mail from inmates from low and minimum security level institutions may be sealed by the inmates. Outgoing mail, except legal mail, from inmates in a medium or high security level institution must be left unsealed by the inmates and is subject to inspection and random reading. However, inmates' outgoing mail regardless of the institution's security level may be inspected and read upon approval of the warden, if there is evidence to suggest that criminal activity is occurring or there is a threat to the orderly running of the institution.


  1. According to the BOP Program Statement 5800.10, Mail Management Manual, "Delivery of letters may not be delayed and shall ordinarily be accomplished within 24 hours of receipt."