The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Mail for High-Risk Inmates
Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-009
Office of the Inspector General
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted this review to evaluate how effectively the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) prevents terrorist and other high-risk inmates from using the mail to continue or encourage criminal behavior, threaten the public, or compromise national security. This issue received widespread public attention in March 2005 when media reports disclosed that three convicted terrorists incarcerated at the BOP’s Administrative Maximum (ADX) penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center wrote approximately 90 letters to Islamic extremists between 2002 and 2004.1 These extremists included Mohamed Achraf, alleged leader of a plot to blow up the National Justice Building in Madrid and other inmates who were members of a Spanish terror cell with links to other terrorists suspected in the March 11, 2004, attacks on commuter trains in Madrid.
The BOP monitors inmate mail to protect the public, BOP staff, and inmates from other inmates continuing their criminal activities from prison. Terrorist and other high-risk inmates are placed on mail monitoring lists, which require that all of their incoming and outgoing mail be read by BOP staff. The mail of inmates not on such monitoring lists is read on a random basis. When inmate mail is in a foreign language, the BOP may have it translated or reviewed by an individual fluent in that language. Because many of the BOP staff members who monitor mail also monitor inmates’ telephone calls, our review also examined the monitoring of inmates’ verbal communications over the telephone, as well as in visiting rooms and in the cellblock. To evaluate the BOP’s monitoring activities, the OIG visited 10 BOP institutions and interviewed staff responsible for the institutions’ security and inmate communications monitoring operations. In total, we interviewed 163 BOP employees and managers and 16 other persons in the Department of Justice (Department).
RESULTS IN BRIEF
We found that the BOP has not effectively monitored the mail of terrorist and other high-risk inmates. Our review determined that the BOP’s monitoring of inmate mail is deficient in several respects: The BOP does not read all the mail for terrorist and other high-risk inmates on its mail monitoring lists, does not have enough proficient translators to translate inmate mail written in foreign languages, and does not have sufficient staff trained in intelligence techniques to evaluate whether terrorists’ communications contain suspicious content.2 Similarly, we found that the BOP is unable to effectively monitor high-risk inmates’ verbal communications, which include telephone calls, visits with family and friends, and cellblock conversations. In addition, the Department does not require a review of all international terrorist inmates to identify those who should be subjected to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), the most restrictive conditions that can be placed on an inmate’s communications.3
During interviews with the OIG, BOP managers acknowledged the BOP’s responsibility to vigilantly monitor inmate communications. They stated that after the ADX Florence incident, the BOP initiated several corrective actions and plans to initiate others to improve its monitoring of international terrorist communications. For example, the BOP hired full-time staff to translate Arabic communications, started upgrading its intelligence analysis capabilities, and developed policies to limit high-risk inmates’ mail and telephone calls.
However, the Director and BOP managers stated that the BOP cannot fully implement the planned initiatives because of budget constraints and an increasing inmate population. Consequently, the threat remains that terrorist and other high-risk inmates can use mail and verbal communications to conduct terrorist or criminal activities while incarcerated.
We now provide a description of our main findings.
BOP does not read a sufficient amount of inmate mail.
At each of the 10 institutions we visited, staff members told us that their institution does not meet the BOP goal of reading all the mail of inmates on the institution’s mail monitoring list to detect terrorism or other criminal activity. Furthermore, the staff at those institutions reported wide variations in the amount of mail randomly read for inmates not on mail monitoring lists.4
Mail Monitoring Lists
Although the BOP has not stated it in written guidance, the BOP expects staff to read 100 percent of the mail for inmates on monitoring lists, according to the BOP Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division. However, according to Special Investigative Supervisor (SIS) staff at the 10 institutions that we visited, this goal has not been attained.5 In fact, at seven of the institutions we visited, SIS staff told us that their reading of mail for inmates on mail monitoring lists had decreased during the past year. The SIS staff attributed the decrease to the reallocation of positions assigned to the SIS office as part of BOP-wide streamlining initiatives. SIS staff members stated that with less staff, mail monitoring, when combined with other responsibilities such as monitoring inmate telephone calls and carrying out investigative duties, is overwhelming. They stated that their heavy workload leaves them less time to gather and analyze intelligence on inmate activities through reading mail.
At three institutions we visited, the amount of mail SIS staff monitored also was affected by the BOP’s rotational assignment policy. At these institutions, some of the mail monitoring was done by telephone monitors who assisted permanent SIS staff in performing both telephone and mail monitoring. Because the telephone monitor position was a 3-month rotational assignment, permanent SIS staff had to train a new telephone monitor each quarter, which they described as time-consuming.6 Unlike permanent SIS staff, the rotational staff members were not familiar with inmates on the mail monitoring list or with what might be unusual content in the inmates’ mail, such as suspicious language, codes, or signs that a letter was from another inmate. The steep learning curve for rotational SIS officers reduced the amount of communications monitored. At the other seven institutions we visited, the BOP’s rotation policy was not an issue because the institutions either did not have telephone monitor positions or the incumbents of the telephone monitor positions had sufficient seniority to retain the positions.
At two of the institutions we visited, the temporary assignments of SIS staff to cover vacant security posts elsewhere in the institution further reduced the level of mail monitoring and intelligence gathering that the SIS offices could accomplish. SIS staff stated that as a result, when they were able to read the mail it was done in a rushed manner that risked missing valuable intelligence.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agents assigned to the institutions we visited also expressed concern about the reduced level of monitoring and staffing in some SIS offices. Much of the agents’ knowledge about inmates and leads on potential terrorist and criminal activities came from the SIS offices’ monitoring of inmate mail and verbal communications. The FBI agents said vigorous monitoring on the part of the BOP is needed to obtain important intelligence information about subjects outside the prison as well as about inmates.
Random Reading of Mail
Although the BOP does not track the amount of incoming and outgoing mail for inmates who are not on monitoring lists, we found wide variations in the amount of mail randomly read at the institutions we visited. Random reading of inmate mail, which is done by mailroom staff (incoming mail) and Housing Unit Officers (outgoing mail) rather than SIS staff, is important to gather intelligence on potential criminal and terrorist activity, as well as to identify unusual inmate behavior. Random reading also can detect inmates on the mail monitoring list who are attempting to circumvent SIS monitoring by using unmonitored inmates to send and receive mail for them.
Despite the importance of random reading, the BOP’s policy for inmate correspondence and mail management does not require institutions to track the amount of incoming or outgoing mail, does not set targets for random reading by staff, and does not require each institution to measure the level of random reading achieved. When we asked the institutions we visited to track the volume of incoming mail and the amount randomly read for a short test period, the reported percentages of mail read varied from 0.3 percent to 75 percent.
At seven institutions, mailroom staff told us that the high volume of mail, short processing deadlines, and staff reductions have decreased the amount of random reading of inmate mail and the amount of suspicious content mailroom staff can identify and refer to the SIS office for follow-up. In contrast, outgoing inmate mail is more likely to get read than incoming mail. At each of the institutions we visited, Housing Unit Officers on the 12 a.m. – 8 a.m. shift, when inmate movement and activities are minimal, sort, search, and randomly read outgoing mail. These officers have less mail volume and more time than day-shift mailroom staff to review the mail for both contraband and content.
Capability to translate foreign language mail does not sufficiently support monitoring needs.
Although the BOP is largely responsible for translating inmates’ foreign language communications to detect terrorism and other criminal activities, its system for translating mail is inadequate.7 The BOP primarily uses staff members who volunteer to translate foreign language mail as a collateral duty, and it does not have a comprehensive policy that (1) provides standard procedures or requirements for staff translations, (2) requires staff acting as translators to have a certain level of language proficiency and be tested for proficiency, and (3) establishes a procedure to randomly review the accuracy of translations. As a result, according to SIS staff, BOP volunteer staff translations are inconsistent, translators have varying levels of language proficiency, and some translations have been faulty.
Moreover, the BOP does not have enough staff members fluent in foreign languages to provide all necessary translations, especially for inmate communications in Spanish, the most frequently spoken foreign language. The shortage of staff translators is aggravated by the BOP’s inconsistently applied and ineffective incentives to motivate staff with needed language skills to translate voluntarily, as well as by some supervisors’ lack of support for such collateral translation duties. In 2005, the BOP hired its first staff members dedicated to translating foreign language inmate communications – three full-time Arabic Language Specialists at ADX Florence. In late 2005, the BOP began providing intelligence training to these Language Specialists to enable them to provide analyses of what they translate.
In an earlier effort to expand its capabilities, the BOP established the Language Translation Services Project in 2003 to have international terrorist inmates’ foreign language communications translated by General Services Administration-approved contract translators. Services under the centrally funded contracts are expensive and limited to terrorism inmates’ communications in Middle Eastern and Asian languages. To translate other inmate communications, institutions must find and fund any non-BOP translation resources themselves. We found that the institutions do not always have the money to pay for external translation services, and federal agencies such as the FBI that do not require reimbursement for translations they provide often do not have enough translators to meet the institutions’ needs.
Intelligence capability to analyze the content of terrorist inmates’ mail is not well developed.
We found that the BOP lacks sufficient intelligence capability to adequately analyze information from inmate mail to detect terrorist activity. Although historically SIS staff members have analyzed intelligence to detect and deter traditional criminal activity, they have yet to develop the specialized capabilities needed to analyze potential terrorism communications. SIS staff members have implemented investigative techniques and established relationships with other law enforcement agencies that assist them in gathering and analyzing information about criminal activity such as the introduction of drugs and gang violence inside the prisons. But the methods BOP staff use to analyze intelligence for traditional criminal activity are often not sufficient for detecting terrorist activity, which entails analyzing communications in uncommon foreign languages, understanding extremist ideology and radicalization, understanding world-wide terrorism networks, performing link analysis, and overseeing the enforcement of SAMs.8
While the presence of international terrorist inmates in BOP institutions makes improving the SIS staff’s ability to detect terrorist activity essential, the BOP does not provide the intelligence training needed to adequately undertake that work. At the institutions we visited, BOP officials and staff told us that staff directly responsible for monitoring terrorist and high-risk inmates need additional intelligence training to adequately analyze inmate mail for terrorist inmates. We found that the BOP has provided only one 3-day course to SIS supervisors in September 2005, two classes that contained terrorism information during a mandatory 4-day introductory course on investigative practices for all newly appointed SIS Lieutenants, and 1 hour of training to all employees during their Annual Refresher Training.
We also found that the BOP has not taken full advantage of the greater access to intelligence, information sharing, and resources it can obtain through federal law enforcement task forces, particularly the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF). The BOP took a key step in that direction in 1999 when it established Intelligence Operations Officer (IO) positions at 12 of its Metropolitan Detention Centers (MDC) and Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MCC). The IOs were intended to act as the institutions’ link with all federal law enforcement task force operations, including the JTTFs. But we found that neither MCC New York nor MDC Brooklyn – which both house terrorist inmates – had their IOs serving on the local JTTF. The MDC Brooklyn IO was not currently serving as a member of the JTTF due to other workload demands and the MCC New York IO was only designated to be a liaison on the JTTF. Of five other BOP institutions we contacted, two had IOs who were full-time JTTF members; the IOs at the other three were part-time members or liaisons.9
Problems affecting the BOP’s monitoring of mail also affect monitoring of telephone calls and other verbal communications.
Similar to the deficiencies we found in the BOP’s mail monitoring, we found that the BOP is unable to effectively monitor inmates’ verbal communications, including telephone calls, visits with family and friends, and cellblock conversations. Because of staffing reductions and the limitations of the BOP’s foreign language translation capability, none of the institutions we visited consistently met the BOP goal of monitoring 100 percent of telephone calls for inmates on telephone monitoring lists.10 Institutions also did not consistently meet Regional Directors’ goals of randomly monitoring 10 to 15 percent of other inmates’ calls. For the calls that are monitored, many staff members were not adequately trained to recognize suspicious content in terrorist inmates’ conversations. We also found that because of these same limitations, the BOP did not monitor the cellblock conversations of SAMs inmates or the visiting room conversations of international terrorist and other high-risk inmates who were not under SAMs. In addition, a lack of audio recording equipment was a further barrier to recording cellblock and visiting room conversations at most institutions.
Telephone Monitoring Lists
According to BOP telephone records, 8 of the 10 BOP institutions we visited were not consistently meeting the BOP’s goal of monitoring 100 percent of the conversations of inmates on telephone Alert lists.11 Even the country’s highest security federal prison, ADX Florence, which houses the most dangerous high-risk inmates, monitored less than 50 percent of the calls of inmates on the Alert list in fiscal year (FY) 2005.
At seven of the institutions we visited, staff members told us that three factors reduced the amount of calls being monitored for inmates on the Alert and regular telephone monitoring lists along with the amount of intelligence gathering and analyses that could be conducted: the rotation of staff in the SIS telephone monitor position, the loss of those positions in some institutions, and the use of SIS staff to cover vacant security posts elsewhere in the institutions. Additionally, as with mail monitoring, telephone calls conducted in foreign languages were often not translated and therefore not monitored, including calls from inmates on the telephone Alert list. BOP staff who conducted telephone monitoring in 5 of the 10 institutions we visited stated that if the institution did not have a staff member readily available to translate a foreign language telephone call, it was unlikely to get translated, even though calls are recorded. As a result of the limited monitoring of Alert and foreign language telephone communications, important intelligence information can be missed.
Random Telephone Monitoring
In addition, we found only three institutions met or surpassed the monthly goals set by Regional Directors for randomly monitoring 10 to 15 percent of all other telephone calls placed by inmates. Random telephone monitoring can be conducted by any BOP staff member granted access to the telephone system, not just by SIS staff. Nonetheless, most of the institutions we visited did not consistently meet their monthly goals. Also, according to BOP staff who monitor inmate telephone calls, translation of foreign language calls remains a problem during random monitoring.
Audio Recording of Cellblock Conversations and Visits
Only one of the four institutions we visited that house SAMs inmates recorded those inmates’ cellblock conversations as authorized under federal regulations and SAMs procedures. SIS and other management staff at the other three institutions stated that while they wanted to monitor such cellblock conversations, they were constrained by a lack of equipment, staff, and translators. ADX Florence was able to record SAMs inmates’ cellblock conversations because the prison already had recording equipment available as part of the cellblock construction.
We also found that the BOP has no guidelines specifying when cellblock conversations of SAMs inmates are to be recorded. In addition, neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices (USAO) for the sites we visited had ever requested that the BOP record cellblock conversations of SAMs inmates.
Inmates under SAMs are permitted to have only non-contact visits that are recorded and monitored live by the FBI.12 However, terrorist and high-risk inmates not under SAMs are permitted contact visits, and none of the 10 institutions we visited had the capability to make audio recordings of conversations in the institutions’ large contact visiting rooms.13 BOP staff stated that inmates realize that their telephone conversations and mail are monitored and consequently direct their family and friends to visit because they know that audio monitoring is not conducted in the visiting rooms. Therefore, BOP staff told us that they want the capability to listen to visiting room conversations of selected inmates not under SAMs to detect planned terrorist and criminal activities or other inappropriate behavior.
However, the BOP does not have a policy addressing the recording of social visits for non-SAMs terrorist and high-risk inmates to guide institutions on when and how to carry out this type of monitoring. Further, recording visiting room conversations would be difficult because the rooms are often noisy and, without specialized equipment, specific conversations would be inaudible among the many other ongoing conversations. In addition, the institutions’ limited SIS, visiting room, and translator staff members would be further stretched by the additional responsibility of recording and listening to contact visit conversations.
The Department’s coordination and information sharing for international terrorist inmates are inadequate.
The Department does not have a policy requiring that all inmates arrested for international terrorism-related crimes be reviewed to determine whether they should be placed under SAMs. Without a requirement for a SAMs review, there is no guarantee that international terrorist inmates will be considered for SAMs. Consequently, terrorist inmates who pose a risk of continuing their terrorist activities may not receive the heightened security and communications monitoring they require during pretrial and post-conviction incarceration.
We also found that the FBI’s intelligence gathering and information sharing on incarcerated terrorists vary widely among FBI field offices. At two of the five FBI offices at the sites we visited, FBI agents conducted little to no proactive intelligence gathering regarding the activities of the terrorist inmates or inmates described as terrorist associates. For example, the FBI agent assigned to ADX Florence did not closely monitor terrorist inmates housed at that facility until August 2004 – when Spanish authorities told the FBI that the three 1993 World Trade Center bombers housed at the ADX had been corresponding with Islamic extremists in Spanish prisons and elsewhere. The ADX Florence SIS staff told us that the FBI showed little to no interest in the international terrorist inmates prior to that time. We believe that better information gathering and intelligence sharing between the BOP and the FBI could have identified the need to place those three ADX inmates under SAMs.
Officials at institutions housing SAMs inmates also told us in January 2006 that they were experiencing backlogs of FBI mail and telephone translations for these inmates. SAMs provisions require the FBI to complete translations of inmate communications within 60 days. Staff members in at least three of the institutions we visited reported delays of 6 to 18 months in obtaining Arabic translations of SAMs inmate letters from the FBI. An FBI official said the FBI does not have enough Arabic translators to meet the demand for translations for all the FBI’s ongoing counterterrorism efforts. Consequently, the official said the FBI must prioritize the translation workload, which leads to delays in obtaining translations. These delays in translations for SAMs inmates pose a security risk because plans for terrorist and criminal activities could be communicated to or by inmates through the mail or telephone and implemented by outside contacts before translations are completed and the intelligence gleaned from them shared.
Further, staff at MCC New York told us that law enforcement agencies and USAOs do not provide adequate information about newly incarcerated terrorist inmates to allow the staff to determine the level of mail monitoring and other security measures required. The BOP depends on the arresting agency and the USAO to provide information on the inmates’ background, criminal history, and security threat. However, staff at MCC New York reported that they routinely receive pretrial terrorist inmates with little background information other than the charges under which the inmates are being held. The staff told us that the lack of information about inmates puts the security of staff and the institution at risk.
The BOP has several ongoing and proposed initiatives to improve the monitoring of communications for terrorist and other high-risk inmates. The initiatives include building stronger foreign language translation and intelligence analysis capabilities within the BOP, consolidating all terrorist inmates in a few institutions in order to concentrate the resources required to monitor them, limiting the volume of mail and other types of communication available to terrorists or other high-risk inmates, and eliminating unsolicited (junk) mail for all inmates.
Arabic Translators - In 2005 the BOP hired three full-time Arabic Language Specialists at ADX Florence. These Language Specialists also are available to translate for other institutions. The Language Specialists are required to have Top Secret security clearances and be certified proficient in Arabic by the FBI.
Language Translation Software - The BOP is exploring the use of language translation software. BOP officials said that although such language software is promising, it does not yet meet BOP standards for accuracy. Therefore, the BOP plans to use language translation software only to initially assess inmate communications in the absence of a qualified translator.
Counterterrorism Unit - The BOP is developing a headquarters-level Counterterrorism Unit where four additional full-time Arabic Language Specialists will be co-located with BOP Intelligence Analysts. The BOP believes that co-locating the Language Specialists will improve the accuracy and timeliness of translations of inmate communications. The goals of the unit are to consolidate counterterrorism intelligence, produce intelligence products for BOP institutions, improve information sharing on terrorism matters with the FBI and other federal and state law enforcement agencies, and manage BOP translation services.
Counterterrorism Training - The BOP said it is collaborating with the FBI to develop training targeted to the BOP’s specific needs of managing high-risk inmates. BOP officials said they are assessing various counterterrorism and intelligence training to determine which topics would be most applicable to the correctional setting.
Link Analysis Database - In June 2004, the Intelligence Section at BOP headquarters created a terrorist inmate database to conduct link analyses. The database includes information on inmate correspondence, telephone calls, and financial transactions. The BOP is seeking to enhance its link analysis capabilities to include all existing data systems that contain inmate information.
Consolidation of International Terrorist Inmates - The BOP is planning to consolidate all international terrorist inmates in approximately six institutions for enhanced management and monitoring. The BOP believes that this consolidation will allow it to achieve better counterterrorism coverage with its limited intelligence, counterterrorism, and translation resources, while allowing the remaining institutions to concentrate on gang-related activity and other prison-based issues.
Limiting Mail and Verbal Communications - The BOP is developing a new policy that would permit it to limit the communications of inmates detained or charged with any terrorist-related activity upon request from the FBI or other law enforcement agency, or if BOP identifies a need to impose such restrictions. Under this policy, the BOP could limit an inmate to communicating only with immediate family members, courts, the inmate’s attorney, members of Congress, law enforcement agencies, and other specified entities. In addition, the BOP is considering other limits on such inmates’ communications. As of July 2006, the BOP was coordinating the final policy with the Department.
The BOP also is developing a policy to limit or eliminate unsolicited junk inmate mail. This limitation would reduce the overall volume of mail so that institutions could better focus their efforts on inspecting the mail for contraband and reading it for evidence of criminal activity. The BOP anticipated sending this proposed policy to the Department for review in August 2006.
The FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism told us that during FY 2005 the FBI sought to identify more systematically where terrorists are incarcerated, as well as better monitor their activities and identify who they are communicating with. Toward that end, the FBI directed all field offices to open case files on all incarcerated international terrorist inmates within their jurisdictions. Before this change in policy, the FBI case agent who had arrested an inmate was responsible for monitoring that inmate, no matter where the inmate was eventually incarcerated. The FBI expected this policy change to increase communication between the FBI and the BOP because the jurisdiction and responsibility for monitoring international terrorist inmates now resides with the FBI office closest to where the prison is located. Additionally, the FBI has agreed to assist in training BOP staff in counterterrorism issues.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Our review found that the BOP has not ensured that mail for terrorist and other high-risk inmates on its monitoring lists is consistently read and analyzed to detect terrorism, criminal activities, or other inappropriate behavior. Although the BOP expects 100-percent monitoring of inmate communications for inmates on monitoring lists, we found that BOP institutions do not read all the mail for these inmates. The BOP also does not have enough trained staff to translate foreign language mail or adequate staff trained in terrorism and intelligence techniques to analyze the content of mail to and from inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses.
The problems that we found with mail monitoring also have implications for the BOP’s monitoring of verbal communications. For example, BOP institutions do not always monitor the telephone calls of inmates on telephone monitoring lists, and as with mail monitoring, the foreign language translations and intelligence analyses of inmate telephone calls and other communications are not consistently performed.
Our report contains 15 recommendations to help the BOP improve its monitoring capabilities for inmate mail and verbal communications, among them:
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