The Federal Bureau of Prisonsí Monitoring of Mail for High-Risk Inmates

Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-009
September 2006
Office of the Inspector General

Results of the Review

    The BOPís process for monitoring 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 inmate communications contain suspicious content.

The BOP does not read a sufficient amount of inmate mail.

We found that the BOP is unable to effectively monitor the mail of terrorist and other high-risk inmates in order to detect and prevent terrorism and criminal activities. Institutions did not read all the mail of inmates on mail monitoring lists as required, citing staffing shortages. Further, BOP staff said random reading of inmate mail is a lower priority than timely delivery of mail, and the amount of mail randomly monitored is not tracked. In addition, foreign language mail is less likely to get read because the BOP does not require translations of inmate mail for those on the mail monitoring lists or for randomly read mail and institutions do not always have ready access to proficient translators.

The BOP does not read all the mail of high-risk inmates on SIS mail monitoring lists.

Although the BOP Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division, told us that the BOP expects that 100 percent of the mail for terrorist and other high-risk inmates on the SIS mail monitoring lists will be read by the SIS office in each institution, our site visits showed that an unknown amount of mail was not being read. We sought information about the volume of incoming and outgoing mail for all inmates on the mail monitoring lists and the amount or percentage of mail that was read by BOP staff. However, the BOP does not require institutions to collect complete data on their mail monitoring and translation activities. In the absence of data, we relied on the statements of SIS staff responsible for mail monitoring at the institutions to characterize the level of reading that they perform. At each of the 10 institutions we visited, SIS staff stated the 100-percent target, which includes translating and reading foreign language mail was not being consistently met. Therefore, letters from high-risk inmates sometimes went unmonitored.52

Moreover, at 7 of the 10 institutions we visited, the SIS staff told us that reading mail for inmates on mail monitoring lists had decreased since FY 2005 because some positions assigned to the SIS offices had been reallocated as part of the BOP-wide streamlining initiatives. SIS staff at these institutions could not quantify how much reading had decreased, but said that two additional factors contributed to it. Remaining SIS staff at some institutions who were responsible for mail and telephone monitoring had been regularly detailed to cover vacant security posts elsewhere in the institutions, while other SIS staff had been reassigned because of the BOP’s quarterly rotation policy for certain positions. The effects of the reallocation, rotation, or detail of SIS staff are discussed below.

Reallocation. Because of the BOP’s cost savings plan (see Background Section) institutions have lost positions directly responsible for monitoring inmate mail and telephone calls. For example, SIS staff at one USP stated that they had approximately 175 names on the mail monitoring list and 1,162 other high-risk inmates who also must be monitored for criminal activities and misconduct. Previously, the SIS office had four full-time staff members responsible for monitoring these inmates’ communications. However, in 2006, the four positions were reallocated to other functions outside of the SIS office, and all the monitoring work had been divided among the remaining three SIS staff. These staff members stated that keeping up with monitoring mail and other high-risk inmates, in addition to their regular SIS investigative duties, was overwhelming and that the heavy workload left them less time to gather and analyze intelligence on inmate activities through the mail.

At 5 of the 10 institutions we visited, an SIS telephone monitor position that was also used to assist other SIS staff in monitoring mail had been reallocated elsewhere on the Correctional Officer roster. Overall, SIS staff in eight of the institutions identified reduced staffing as the greatest obstacle to effective inmate monitoring.53 Further, one Warden stated that he does not believe his institution has adequate resources to comply with BOP “mail and telephone monitoring goals.” At this institution, one of two telephone monitor positions as well as one intelligence officer position were reallocated from the SIS office. The Warden stated, “We still read the mail, but I can’t say it’s as thorough.”

Rotation. The telephone monitor positions are 3-month rotational assignments, which affect the level of monitoring performed. Unlike rotational staff, permanent SIS staff are familiar with all of the inmates on the mail monitoring list and are more likely to recognize suspicious content and gather intelligence on terrorist and other criminal activities. Additionally, time spent training new monitors, coupled with the new monitors’ learning curve, reduces the amount of mail read by the SIS staff overall and the amount of intelligence that can be gathered.

Two FBI Special Agents assigned to BOP institutions voiced concern about the reduced level of monitoring and staffing for SIS offices. One agent stated:

[T]he FBI is missing a whole lot of stuff, also inmate informant recruitment will be affected. I’m so dependent on them... it’s nightmarish to rotate SIS every quarter [after] I have them trained. I count on them to have institutional memory.

The other agent stated, “There has to be full-time intelligence staff. You need continuity and experience.”

Details to Vacant Posts. Temporary assignments frequently reduce inmate monitoring by SIS offices. For example, the Special Investigative Agent for ADX Florence reported that on three consecutive days during the week prior to our July 2005 visit to ADX Florence, two or three of the SIS’s seven SIS technicians were pulled from their SIS duties to fill vacant officer positions on the housing units. Further, the SIS Technician responsible for monitoring all communications of all terrorist inmates at ADX Florence stated that in the week prior to our October 2005 interview with her, she was pulled from her SIS duties for 4 of her 5 work days to fill a vacant post elsewhere in the institution. The ADX’s Special Investigative Agent stated that the temporary assignments happened frequently and reduced the level of monitoring and intelligence gathering that the SIS office could accomplish. As a result, SIS staff members at the ADX Florence told us that they cannot achieve 100-percent monitoring as required and that when they are able to monitor communications, they “speed up reading the mail or monitoring the telephones and maybe miss something by rushing through it.”

At ADX Florence, decreased reading of mail and intelligence gathering can have significant security consequences. The institution houses approximately 400 of the BOP’s most dangerous and violent inmates. SIS staff told us that one-half of the population comprises high-risk inmates and many of the inmates had either attempted to kill, or have killed, another inmate or a correctional officer. Additionally, the ADX houses the most terrorists – including the 1993 World Trade Center bombers – Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), convicted spy Robert Hanssen, and leaders of violent street gangs. Fifteen of these ADX Florence inmates are under SAMs, the largest number of SAMs inmates at any BOP facility. Approximately 70 percent of the ADX Florence inmate population is on the mail monitoring list as well. Therefore, the need to provide intensive monitoring of inmate mail is critical to ensure the safety and security of the institution and public.

The assignment of SIS staff to other posts at ADX Florence is not an anomaly. At MCC New York, we were told that two of the three SIS staff had been detailed from their monitoring duties to work other institution posts three to four times per week for the past year. MCC New York houses many high-profile, unsentenced terrorists, organized crime figures, and gang leaders. Because the MCC is a pretrial facility, the BOP receives little background information on the inmates it admits other than the crime with which they are charged. Mail monitoring of these inmates is important to determine if an inmate is continuing criminal or terrorist activity and to plan for the appropriate level of security.

The BOP does not adequately manage the amount of inmate mail that is randomly read.

We found that the BOP has not met its goal of reading 100 percent of mail of inmates on mail monitoring lists, but it also does not know the amount of mail randomly read for other inmates. The BOP does not require institutions to track the volume of mail sent and received by all inmates, set targets for random reading, or measure the level of random reading achieved. Random reading of inmate mail is important to gather intelligence on potential criminal activity as well as to monitor unusual inmate behavior. Additionally, inmates on the mail monitoring list may use unmonitored inmates to send and receive mail. At seven institutions we visited, ISM staff members who manage the mailroom told us that while random reading is not measured, they believed random reading of incoming inmate mail and the amount of suspicious content they can identify and refer to the SIS office have decreased since early 2005. They attributed the decrease to one or more of the following factors: the high volume of mail, short processing deadlines, and staff reductions in the ISM departments.

Outgoing Inmate Mail More Likely to Be Randomly Read

While outgoing inmate mail also must be processed within 24 hours, it has a much higher likelihood of being randomly read than incoming inmate mail. Outgoing mail is sorted, inspected for contraband, and randomly read by the “morning watch” Correctional Officer (12 a.m. – 8 a.m.) assigned to each housing unit. The morning watch officers are responsible for sorting and inspecting each piece of mail, as well as randomly reading some.

We interviewed morning watch Housing Unit Officers at all 10 institutions we visited. Because the morning watch is the shift with the least amount of inmate movement and activities, each Housing Unit Officer has more time to review the letters for both contraband and content. Four Housing Unit Officers in different institutions reported reading 20 to 50 letters per night.

With few exceptions, the bulk of BOP inmates can correspond with anyone, and the amount of incoming and outgoing letters is unrestricted. We found that incoming inmate mail is less likely to have adequate monitoring through random reading than outgoing mail. The large volume of daily incoming mail causes the BOP to focus primarily on inspection for contraband and timely delivery of mail rather than on random reading for potential criminal activity. An ISM staff member we interviewed at a correctional complex stated that the challenge for staff is timeliness, saying that with the high volume of mail and reductions in staff, getting mail processed in a timely manner was the overriding concern.

BOP policy states that “[d]elivery of letters may not be delayed and shall ordinarily be accomplished within 24 hours of receipt, excluding weekends and holidays.”54 One correctional complex’s local mail supplement stated, “It is imperative the scanning or spot-checking of both incoming and outgoing general correspondence not interfere with the prompt handling of all mail.” Consequently, because BOP staff are working to meet a strict mail delivery deadline, the amount of mail randomly read by ISM staff varies greatly by institution and overall may be less than what is advisable for security purposes.

One obstacle in managing the random reading of inmate mail is the volume of mail institutions receive. The BOP Director compared monitoring inmate communications to searching for “a needle in a haystack.” He stated that because of the large volume of mail and telephone calls generated by inmates, the challenge is in “overseeing and managing the massive amount of information.” The BOP Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division stated that the BOP’s biggest challenge in monitoring inmate mail is the “volume of mail and the current regulations [that] allow virtually unlimited correspondence.” Similarly, one Warden stated, “Our problem lies in the area where inmates can communicate with anyone in the country.” Another Warden recommended that the BOP “limit the number of letters [inmates send and receive] each week.”

Since the BOP does not track the volume of incoming mail and amount randomly read, we requested that the institutions we visited track their incoming mail and the number of pieces of mail they randomly read during a 1-week period. Although all incoming general correspondence and outgoing mail is subject to reading by staff, the BOP has no established target percentage of mail to be read.55

We found that the lack of BOP-wide guidance for random reading had resulted in wide variances in the amount of reading accomplished by institutions with similar workloads and staffing. For example, the percentage of incoming mail randomly read during the test week at the 10 institutions ranged from 0.3 percent (about 24 mail items) to 75 percent (about 3,000 mail items).56 Four of the institutions read less than 5 percent of the incoming inmate mail. Table 2 shows the volume of mail the institutions reported receiving and the amount of mail randomly read.

Table 2: Incoming Mail Processed and Randomly Read
by Mailroom Staff during November 21 – 25, 2005,
as Reported by Institutions

Institution Number of
Number of Mailroom Staff Pieces of Incoming Mail Processed Percentage of Mail Read Randomly by Mailroom Staff






Weekly Total

LSCI Allenwood









average of

FCI Allenwood










USP Allenwood










FCC Beaumont










ADX Florence









average of

USP Florence









average of

MCC New York










MDC Brooklyn

approx. 3,000








average of

FCI Sheridan









average of

Source: BOP institutions

Notes: All mail volume counts include first-class mail, legal mail, newspapers, magazines, and staff mail. Because the three institutions at FCC Beaumont share a central mail processing center, the numbers include counts from the low- and medium-security and USP facilities. At the time of this mail volume report, the inmate population at the Beaumont complex was reduced by 1,668 inmates due to a temporary evacuation during Hurricane Rita. The normal population at that time would have been 5,570 inmates and the amount of mail processed considerably higher. ADX Florence tracked mail volume the week of November 28 through December 2, 2005. MDC Brooklyn provided its mail volume data for the period September 19 through September 23, 2005, during our site visit.

During our site visits, mailroom staff stressed that random reading is not a priority when compared with screening mail for contraband and timely delivery of mail. The staff also provided us with general estimates of the volume of incoming mail and how much random reading they believed they achieved. For example, a t MDC Brooklyn where the mailroom staff told us they processed 1,400 pieces of mail per day, a mailroom supervisor stated that on a slow day staff were instructed to read 5 pieces of first-class mail each. At LSCI Allenwood, the 2 mailroom staff members stated that they might read 25 of the approximately 1,400 to 1,500 daily incoming letters. The ISO also stated that on Mondays, when mail volume was the heaviest, they only skimmed through the mail.57 At the FCI Allenwood, the ISO stated that while he had a pile of 40 to 50 letters on his desk daily to read, he might read only 8 or 9. At other times, he said he just scanned or read a paragraph in each letter. At FCI Sheridan, the 2 mailroom staff members stated that they could process 1,400 incoming letters or publications daily and might read approximately 65 letters. The 5 staff members at the Beaumont Correctional Complex processed mail in a shared services mailroom for approximately 5,600 inmates housed in three institutions. The mailroom staff stated that because of the high volume, they primarily inspected mail for contraband. They stated that they might read 10 percent of the mail, but they did not have a specific target for random reading because there were no national guidelines.

The elimination of certain ISM positions at BOP institutions and the attrition of some ISM staff have resulted in understaffed mailrooms and decreased random reading of incoming mail. Mailroom staff we interviewed generally said they had time only to inspect the mail for contraband rather than read the mail for suspicious or criminal activity. On high-volume days, mailroom staff at the institutions we visited stated that previously they had “borrowed” staff from other ISM functions such as inmate records and receiving and discharge (R&D). However, with the consolidation of key ISM functions, many of these staff positions had been eliminated, transferred to other departments or institutions, or transferred to a centralized facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, leaving fewer staff members available to assist in the mailroom. For example, Allenwood’s three institutions lost two ISMs and two Assistant ISMs, resulting in reduced random reading of mail. Beaumont ’s ISM department lost four positions, which, according to the ISM manager, has affected the unit’s ability to effectively conduct mailroom operations. The manager told us, “The workload has been increasing, but the staff is decreasing.” Of the nine mailrooms we visited, six were processing the mail with two staff members, two USPs had four staff members, and a correctional complex processing mail for three institutions had five staff members.

The BOP does not track the amount of incoming or outgoing foreign language mail or maintain data on the foreign languages that inmates use.

BOP institutions do not track the amount of foreign language mail for most inmates, but mailroom and SIS staff we interviewed said the amount is significant. BOP staff are required to translate and read all foreign language mail for inmates on mail monitoring lists, as well as translate and read foreign language mail randomly selected for reading.58 However, staff who monitor the mail at two institutions we visited told us that if they were reading outgoing mail and selected a letter in a foreign language, they would let the letter go out without having it translated because there was no requirement for translation. At six other institutions, staff said they forwarded randomly selected foreign language mail to the SIS office for it to translate and read. Yet, staff in the SIS offices said they were already having difficulty reading mail for inmates on mail monitoring lists, and random reading of other mail was unlikely.

The BOP also does not maintain information on the types of foreign languages that inmates use to communicate in writing or verbally. The BOP also does not track the languages translated or the number of hours spent translating. Therefore, the BOP has no baseline to plan the translation resources it needs for its monitoring responsibilities.

Developments and Future Plans

In a May 2006 interview, the BOP Director and the Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division both emphasized to us that mail monitoring was a priority for the BOP and that institutions should be reading 100 percent of the mail for inmates whose names are on the mail monitoring lists. They stated that they would review the standards for which inmates are placed on the mail monitoring lists to ensure that those listed are appropriate and that the resulting amount of inmate mail monitoring could be achieved. The Director and Assistant Director also said they planned to clarify their expectations for random reading of mail for inmates not on monitoring lists.

The BOP Director also told us that a shift was occurring in the BOP’s approach to communications for terrorist inmates not on SAMs. He stated that in the past, the BOP encouraged inmates – even inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses – to communicate and maintain links with families and friends with few limitations. However, the Director said that as a security measure the BOP was developing a policy that would reduce the communication privileges of international terrorist inmates not under SAMs. The new policy would 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 information indicated a strong need to impose such restrictions. Rather than allowing unlimited communications, under this proposal the BOP could limit the inmates to communicating only with immediate family members, U.S. Courts, the inmate’s attorney, members of Congress, law enforcement agencies, and other specified entities. In addition, communications with family members could be limited in frequency and volume as follows:

  • Correspondence could be limited to three pieces of paper, double-sided, once per week to a single recipient.

  • Telephone communications could be limited to a single completed telephone call up to 15 minutes in length per calendar month.

  • Visiting could be limited to 1 hour each calendar month.

By limiting the frequency and volume of specific communications for terrorist inmates not on SAMs, the proposed policy would reduce the amount of communications requiring monitoring and allow the BOP to better scrutinize the communications it monitors. As of July 2006, the BOP was coordinating the final policy with the Department.

The BOP also was developing a policy to limit or eliminate unsolicited (junk) mail. This policy would reduce the overall volume of mail for all inmates so that ISM staff could better focus their efforts on inspecting for contraband and randomly reading mail for evidence of terrorist or criminal activities. The BOP anticipated sending the proposed policy to the Department for review in August 2006.


  1. The BOP should ensure that all mail of inmates on its mail monitoring lists is read, including translating and reading foreign language mail, and that the institutions’ monitoring of this mail is tracked.

  2. The BOP should set minimum target percentages of incoming and outgoing mail for random reading, including translating and reading foreign language mail, and track the institutions’ efforts to comply with these goals.

The BOP’s capability to translate foreign language mail does not sufficiently support monitoring needs.

For translation of many inmate communications, the BOP primarily relies on staff who volunteer to translate as a collateral duty. The names of these volunteers are placed on a BOP Directory of Translators, which is distributed to all institutions. Because the BOP does not have enough volunteer staff for Arabic translations, particularly for its terrorist inmates, in 2005 the BOP hired three full-time Arabic Language Specialists at ADX Florence. These Language Specialists are the BOP’s first full-time staff translators. The Language Specialists translate mainly for ADX Florence, but other BOP institutions can request their assistance in translating Arabic. Additionally, in 2003 the BOP created the Language Translation Services Project to procure contractors to translate foreign language communications of international terrorist inmates. The BOP also can use outside sources such as universities or other law enforcement agencies for translations.

Despite these resources, we found deficiencies in the BOP’s ability to translate inmate mail:

  • For volunteer staff translators:

    • The BOP did not have agency-wide standard procedures for conducting in-house translations.

    • The BOP staff used to translate inmate communications were not subject to language proficiency requirements, and the BOP had no policy requiring translations be checked for accuracy.

    • The BOP did not have enough staff to translate inmate communications, especially inmate communications in Spanish.

    • The BOP did not offer effective incentives to motivate staff with needed language skills to translate voluntarily. In addition, some supervisors did not support translating as a collateral duty for their staff.

  • For full-time staff Language Specialists, the BOP did not offer sufficient intelligence training.

  • For contract translation services, the BOP’s Language Translation Services Project was a valuable but limited resource for institutions that house international terrorist inmates.

The sections below discuss these deficiencies more fully.

Volunteer Staff Translators

The BOP does not have agency-wide standard procedures for conducting in-house translations.

The BOP has no written standard procedures or requirements for staff translating inmate mail or telephone calls. We found a wide range of translation practices a t the 10 institutions we visited. Translations performed by staff were generally not word for word, but instead resulted in a brief summary of the contents or a handwritten note on a letter from the translator saying “OK” without any summary. According to the volunteer staff translators we interviewed, the SIS staff did not always provide adequate direction when requesting a translation. However, the SIS staff members said they did not receive adequate direction from BOP headquarters on translating foreign language inmate communications. While some translators we interviewed believed that effective monitoring of inmate communications required only simple “common sense,” others stated that they could provide better translations if they received better guidance.

National guidance is not clear and complete. The only guidance that the BOP has issued for translation services was a March 15, 2005, memorandum from the Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division.59 Staff at most institutions we visited stated that this memorandum was not specific enough and did not provide adequate guidance. For example, this memorandum did not provide detailed guidance on the amount of mail to be translated; whether staff translators should be asked first to translate terrorist inmates’ communications prior to seeking translation services with outside contractors; what type of translation product is acceptable; or the time frame for completing a translation. The memorandum stated in part:

Due to the continued increase in the number of incarcerated inmates speaking various exotic Middle-Eastern, Pacific Island, and South Asian languages, and the agency’s need to maintain security of its institutions through mail and telephone monitoring, it is necessary to procure translation services.... Translation services for inmates affiliated with international terrorist organizations or for any other inmate with special circumstances will be used for non-legal inmate mail and telephone calls.... Please note that every effort must be made to [ensure] BOP staff are utilized to translate common foreign languages, i.e., Spanish, Italian, etc. to promote cost containment.60

However, staff told us that they were not certain if they are required to obtain translations for all international terrorist inmates and that if they do seek exotic language translations whether they should do so first through volunteer staff translators rather than through General Services Administration (GSA) contracts. The staff said the memorandum was confusing because it stated that staff translators should be utilized to translate “common” foreign languages, which excludes Arabic. BOP staff also were unsure whether translations were required to be word for word or whether a summary or just an “OK” was adequate.

The March 2005 memorandum also failed to establish time frames for completion of requested translations. An SIS Lieutenant told us:

We don’t get adequate guidance from BOP on translations. We fend for ourselves trying to get stuff translated. I don’t think there’s any direction as to what to do with the things that have to be translated. Unless BOP has a translation department where SIS can funnel their referrals, using BOP staff that are currently working [full time] is not working.... [T]hey [staff translators] had their own jobs and we never got [the translations] back.

Further, because the March 2005 memorandum only addressed translations for international terrorist inmates, the BOP has no foreign language translation guidelines for any other group of inmates. As a result, the priority placed on obtaining translations for any inmates other than inmates convicted of terrorist-related offenses is left to the discretion of each institution’s staff, primarily the SIS staff.

Translation practices are not standard at every institution. At 7 of 10 institutions we visited, SIS staff and volunteer translators told us that SIS staff often gave inmate letters to the translators or asked them to listen to telephone calls without providing any background information on what they should be looking for or instructions on the type of translation to be performed (i.e., word for word, summary, or just an “OK”). The SIS staff in the other three institutions provided context, instructions on what to look for, and whether word-for-word translations or just a summary was required.

Because of the lack of guidance from SIS staff to translators, we found varied translation practices applied to the communications of terrorist and other high-risk inmates. These varied practices may not provide adequate translations for SIS staff to fully analyze the communications for suspicious content that was not recognized by translators. For example:

  • One volunteer staff Arabic translator told us he never received instructions from the SIS staff on how to perform translations and rarely communicated with SIS staff, even though translations took up 30 to 40 percent of his time. He said he did not read the letters, but rather scanned them. He never wrote summaries of translations, but wrote only “OK” on the communication. If something looked suspicious, he wrote a memorandum explaining why it was suspicious. When he recommended rejecting a letter, he said he cited the reason.

  • At one facility, the volunteer staff translator told us that she read 10 to 15 Spanish letters per day, but was not required to provide a written translation or summary for any of the letters. She stated that she read all the letters but only notified SIS staff verbally if she detected anything suspicious.

  • At one pretrial facility, a Special Investigative Agent told us that he used a volunteer staff translator from another institution to screen inmate mail written in Arabic, but did not provide instructions to the translator as to the expected product. Consequently, the translator wrote only “OK – general conversation” on the letters with no translation if he found nothing suspicious. If he thought something was suspicious, he wrote a summary of that content.

At other institutions, SIS staff provided some background information to translators and required complete or partial word-for-word translations:

  • At a medium-security institution, one staff member, a native Spanish speaker, translated mail and telephone calls from Spanish as a collateral duty. SIS staff usually told him what they were looking for in inmate letters. Normally, he wrote a summary of the letter, with a word-for-word translation of any suspicious sections.

  • At a low-security institution, a staff member who translated Spanish as a collateral duty for the SIS office told us that an SIS technician usually explained the context and what SIS was looking for in the correspondence. SIS required word-for-word translations, which she provided in handwritten form.

The BOP volunteer staff who translate inmate communications are not subject to language proficiency requirements, and the BOP has no policy requiring translations be checked for accuracy.

The BOP does not require staff who provide translations as a collateral duty to have a certain level of language proficiency, does not test staff for language proficiency, and does not have a procedure to randomly review the accuracy of communications that are translated. The lack of proficiency testing and quality controls could result in security vulnerabilities due to mistranslated or untranslated materials.

BOP staff volunteer annually to be listed in the BOP Directory of Translators and self-report their proficiency levels. The BOP Central Office distributes this directory to all institutions, which are directed to use staff listed in it before seeking outside translation assistance. Since t he BOP does not maintain minimum standards for collateral duty translators, the BOP staff who volunteered as translators at the institutions we visited had varying levels of proficiency. The examples below show some of the proficiency differences at these institutions:

  • At one medium-security institution, a staff member helped translate telephone calls and letters in French for the SIS staff. He considered himself to be at the “intermediate” level in reading and writing and at the “basic” level in speaking. He looked or listened for key words and phrases and provided summaries of the communications to the SIS office.

  • Another BOP employee who translated Japanese stated that while he was proficient in the language, it required considerable time and effort for him to translate, depending on the complexity of the writing, and he sometimes sought the assistance of his wife, a non-BOP employee.

  • At one institution, a staff member who is a native speaker of Arabic stated that he understood 90 percent of the Middle Eastern languages, but that he was not proficient in Pakistani and Afghan languages. He said these languages were totally distinct from Arabic and were best translated by native speakers rather than by him.

Staff at the institutions we visited commented that mail and telephone translations were often done by BOP staff who were not native speakers and therefore were unfamiliar with some phrases in the foreign language. The large number of regional dialects and colloquialisms in many languages increases the risk of inaccurate or unreliable translations from untested staff. For example, an Arabic translator (native speaker) recounted the time an inmate stated that he was waiting for some “green olives.” The translator said that another person translating may have interpreted this expression literally, but in his country this expression meant money.

In addition, the BOP does not have standard procedures for ensuring the accuracy of staff translations. SIS staff told us that they had little choice but to trust the volunteer staff who translated for them because they did not know the languages themselves. One SIS Lieutenant told us that he took a Spanish document that one staff member had translated to another Spanish-speaking staff member for verification and learned that the translation was inaccurate.

The BOP does not have enough staff to translate inmate communications, especially for inmate communications in Spanish.

In 5 of the 10 institutions we visited, Spanish language mail and telephone calls chosen for random monitoring are not always translated because of insufficient staff translators. Approximately 28 percent of the BOP’s inmates are from Spanish-speaking countries. However, we found that even institutions in parts of the country that have a large Hispanic population had a shortage of Spanish-speaking staff.61

We visited high- and medium-security facilities at two BOP complexes with substantial Hispanic inmate populations in different parts of the country: Beaumont, Texas, and Allenwood, Pennsylvania. Over a quarter (663 inmates) of Allenwood’s high- and medium-security population of 2,480 inmates was Hispanic.62 However, between the two Allenwood institutions, only 12 Spanish-speaking staff covered three shifts a day and helped with translations. Staff at Allenwood reported that the shortage of Spanish-speaking correctional staff was a major challenge. Almost one-third of Beaumont ’s inmate population (1,009 of 3,116 inmates) at its medium- and high-security institutions was Hispanic, which matched the percentage of Hispanics in Texas as a whole. 63 However, the BOP employed only 42 Spanish-speaking staff at the Beaumont complex (3 institutions, 3 shifts a day), which an Associate Warden said was not enough to translate the amount of Spanish communications that must be monitored.

The BOP periodically provided a Spanish language immersion course for BOP staff.64 However, the course was not offered to staff for over 2 years, from July 2003 until November 2005, because of budget constraints. According to some Correctional Officers and other staff we interviewed, they have repeatedly requested the course, but have never been enrolled. Prior to 2003, the BOP offered the Spanish immersion course six times in FY 2002, and five times in FY 2001. The BOP offered the course only once in FY 2006 with a class of 25 participants, and stated it is uncertain about this course offering in FY 2007.

The BOP has not regularly provided training for staff in languages other than Spanish. We interviewed one volunteer staff translator who maintained his proficiency in Arabic by speaking with inmates because there was no training available to him.

The BOP does not offer effective incentives to motivate staff with needed language skills to translate voluntarily, and some supervisors do not support translating as a collateral duty.

The BOP allows nominal monetary awards or written acknowledgements for staff who volunteer for collateral translation duties, but these incentives are applied inconsistently. Additionally, translating may affect the employee’s regular duties, and not all supervisors support this labor-intensive collateral duty. Because of these factors, employees often are discouraged from volunteering to translate inmate mail and other communications.

Each Warden determines how much of a priority translation services will be in his or her institution and what kind of recognition staff will receive for providing these additional services.65 Some staff translators we interviewed stated that supervisors promised that they would be considered for a bonus, but the translators never received it. However, according to staff translators we interviewed, monetary rewards are not the only successful incentives. One staff member proficient in Arabic cited lack of any recognition as the primary disincentive to taking on the added work of translating. Consequently, he said that he would only translate for fellow staff in his department, but not anyone else. At another institution, we found that the BOP was paying an outside vendor to translate inmate communications even though a full-time BOP employee fluent in the required language worked less than 30 minutes away at another BOP institution. This employee said he used to translate often, but told us that he stopped providing translation assistance because he received no recognition or other incentives.

Some staff said that their supervisors were not supportive of their conducting translations during regular work hours. One staff member who translated Arabic told us he received so many requests for assistance from the SIS offices in both his institution and others that during some weeks he spent 8 or more hours translating. At one point, the staff member said he was admonished by his supervisor, who told him that the BOP “hired you as an accounting technician, not a translator.” From that point on, the staff member required all external requests for his translation services be sent to his Associate Warden, who was more supportive of his collateral translation activities. Another staff person we interviewed said that he had the support of the Warden and received compensatory time in one facility when he translated inmate communications in Arabic as a collateral duty. However, the situation changed when he transferred to another institution where his name was left out of the BOP-wide Directory of Translators, even though he submitted his name for inclusion and is a native Arabic speaker. He said he still received many requests for translations, which affected his ability to carry out his duties, so he translated largely on his own time. Hence, he received no compensatory time or overtime pay for his translation services.

The staff members we interviewed who translated inmate communications as a collateral duty did not track the number of hours they devoted to translating because the BOP does not require or even recommend this. Without any type of tracking system to document the total number of hours staff spend translating as a collateral duty and the type of language translations provided, the BOP cannot accurately allocate resources or plan for hiring an appropriate number of full-time Language Specialists. Institutions also cannot properly carry out the incentive and rewards program without knowing how many hours individual staff are devoting to this collateral responsibility.

Full-time Arabic Language Specialists

The BOP does not offer sufficient intelligence training to full-time Language Specialists.

In 2005, the BOP hired its first full-time staff translators – three Arabic Language Specialists assigned to ADX Florence – and officials said they planned to hire four more Arabic Language Specialists for the BOP’s new Counterterrorism Unit (described later in this report). However, the BOP did not provide counterterrorism intelligence training to the full-time Language Specialists at ADX Florence in their first year that would assist them in analyzing what they were reading. One of these translators had translated all communications for Arabic-speaking international terrorist inmates at ADX Florence since 2001 without any intelligence training, first as a collateral duty and then full-time beginning in June 2005.66 A former Special Investigative Agent at ADX Florence told us that he tried to get the Arabic translator intelligence training when he was a volunteer translator, but the BOP’s response was “unless you were in the SIS shop, do not even bother nominating someone.”

The translators’ need for intelligence training was addressed in the BOP’s internal March 2005 After Action Report on Terrorist Issues. The report focused on the ADX Florence letter-writing incident and listed several recommendations related to terrorist inmate issues:

  • “[Foreign language communications] should be reviewed by suitably trained resources to identify potential intelligence from cultural contexts of communications.

  • “Institution linguistic staff should be given suitable training and security clearances to facilitate local review of [foreign language communications].

  • “Telephone communications by non-SAMs [international terrorists] should be live monitored by suitably trained staff (linguistically and intelligence background) rather than just recorded.

  • “Consider requiring [international terrorist inmates’] visits be contemporaneously monitored by suitably trained staff (linguistically and intelligence background).”

In November 2005, one of the three Language Specialists attended a 1-week SIS training course, which focused on crime scene procedures and general investigative topics and contained only minimal counterterrorism information. In February 2006, the other two translators attended the same training. However, as described later in this report, this training did not adequately train the Language Specialists (or SIS staff) to perform intelligence analysis on communications for terrorist inmates not on SAMs.

Language Translation Services Project

The BOP’s Language Translation Services Project is a valuable but limited resource for institutions that house international terrorist inmates.

In 2003, the BOP created the Language Translation Services Project under which institutions can obtain translations from GSA-approved contractors for “exotic” languages.67 Through this project, institutions can obtain complete word-for-word translations of non-SAMs international terrorist inmates’ mail and telephone calls that enable the SIS offices to monitor and analyze the communications. We found the project was viewed favorably by staff at all the institutions we visited, not only because the institutions can have certain non-SAMs international terrorist inmates’ communications translated by professionals, but also because the costs are funded out of the Central Office budget rather than the institutions’ budgets.

However, as we will discuss in more detail below, the project has some drawbacks. The services of contract translators are very expensive, the project does not cover non-terrorist inmates, and obtaining a contract translation involves a cumbersome approval process. Additionally, officials at o ne institution said they experienced several months’ delay in receiving translations from a GSA-approved vendor. Aside from the Language Translation Services Project contracts, however, BOP institutions have few options for obtaining external translation services.

The high cost of the Language Translation Services Project has limited its availability. The BOP Central Office, in a July 2003 memorandum, recognized the potential high costs associated with contracted translation services and stated that “every effort must be taken to ensure BOP staff translators are utilized to the greatest extent possible prior to utilizing the National Language Translation Services Project.”68 The BOP Central Office issued a second memorandum in March 2005, after the ADX Florence letter-writing incident, reminding institutions of the project and encouraging close coordination with the Central Office on its use. The memorandum stated in part:

In light of the recent events related to the monitoring of inmates that require special monitoring, I want to emphasize the availability and use of these services and encourage all BOP facilities to work closely with the Central Office Correctional Services section in making a determination when translation services need to be utilized. Note: When translator services are deemed necessary the cost will be funded via utilization of a Central Office National Fund Code.69

According to SIS staff, the wording of the 2003 memorandum led institutions to rely on BOP staff to translate Arabic and other languages for non-SAMs international terrorist inmates’ communications until the March 2005 memorandum was issued. (The BOP staff who provided these translations at the institutions we visited informed us that most translations were just summaries or a note to the SIS staff stating “OK.”) We found that after the March 2005 memorandum was issued the institutions began to actively make use of the contract translation services for non-SAMs international terrorist inmates, although they continued to use staff translators as well.

In FY 2005, 16 BOP institutions used outside translation contractors compared with 10 institutions in the previous year. The amount of money the BOP spent on contract translations increased from $47,289 in FY 2004, to $743,381 in FY 2005. For FY 2006, the BOP budgeted $2 million for contractor translation services. According to both the BOP Director and the Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division, the BOP planned to continue funding the project despite the cost because, in the absence of other options, it provided a needed service for the institutions housing non-SAMs international terrorist inmates.

The Language Translation Services Project is not available for all translation needs. The project can only be used to translate communications that took place after March 2005 in Middle Eastern, Pacific Islands, and South Asian languages for specific international terrorist inmates. At one institution, the SIS office had untranslated communications from an international terrorist inmate in Japanese but could not use Language Translation Services Project contracts because the letters were written before March 2005. The SIS office was relying on a BOP employee at another institution to translate the communications. A considerable backlog remained because of the collateral nature of the employee’s translation work and the lack of other Japanese-speaking staff.

For translation needs that do not qualify for funding by the project, the BOP encourages institutions to use local resources whenever possible. Some institutions reported using AT&T’s translation service in the past, but could no longer do so because of budget cuts.70 Other institutions have approached universities in their regions, but the universities expected payment for their services. Some institutions have sought non-traditional resources, such as electronic dictionaries and web sites, to look up words in Arabic. Some institutions also have asked the FBI for translation assistance, but according to the SIS staff we interviewed the FBI does not have enough translators to meet the demand in a timely manner.

The process for accessing the Language Translation Services Project is cumbersome. The request and approval process for using the Language Translation Services Project takes several weeks because the BOP Central Office requires institutions to submit paperwork for each separate request for translation. To avoid creating a purchase order for each letter or telephone call, institutions usually save several weeks’ worth of letters or compact discs of telephone call recordings and submit them as a single request. We found at the institutions we visited that the turnaround time from the initial request to sending the job to the translation contractor ranged from 15 to 60 days. This does not take into account the time needed to actually have a document or telephone call translated. Figure 2 illustrates the procedures for using the Language Translation Services Project contracts.

Figure 2: Procedure for Accessing the
Language Translation Services Project

Procedure for Accessing the Language Translation Services Project. 6 steps are outlined in detail.

Developments and Future Plans

Since the discovery in March 2005 that the three 1993 World Trade Center bombers incarcerated at ADX Florence were corresponding with Islamic extremists, the BOP Executive Staff has taken several steps toward addressing the increased security monitoring and translation needs posed by the international terrorist inmates. A summary of the steps related to the BOP translation capabilities follows.

  • Arabic Language Specialists. As discussed previously, three full-time Arabic Language Specialists were hired at ADX Florence in 2005, the BOP’s first full-time translators. The three employees translate communications primarily for ADX inmates and sometimes for other institutions. In addition, at the time of our review, the three Language Specialists were undergoing Top Secret security background clearances and obtaining language proficiency certification by the FBI. The three Language Specialists had passed some, but not all, segments of the proficiency test.

  • Language Translation Software. BOP officials said that language translation software was promising, but does not yet meet BOP standards for accuracy. A representative from the Interagency Language Roundtable told us that while technology to translate typed text is available, a program that can effectively translate oral communications will not be developed for many years. Therefore, the BOP plans to utilize language translation software to initially assess inmates’ foreign language communication in the absence of a qualified translator.

  • Counterterrorism Unit. The BOP is developing a headquarters-level Counterterrorism Unit at a field site where four new full-time Arabic Language Specialists will be co-located with BOP intelligence analysts. The BOP believes that co-locating the Language Specialists and intelligence analysts will produce “consistent and cost-effective” translation of inmate communications. Additionally, the BOP plans to have a centralized “traffic cop” at this unit to make decisions as to who (GSA translator, Language Specialist, or volunteer staff translator) should be translating particular terrorist inmates’ communications based on a risk assessment. The BOP will collect and disseminate counterterrorism information and intelligence at the Counterterrorism Unit to representatives from different agencies, such as the FBI. According to the BOP, the goals are to consolidate counterterrorism “intelligence, produce products for the field, enhance linkages to other agencies, and manage translation services.” As of June 2006, the BOP had half of the Counterterrorism Unit staff on-board and expected to have the unit fully staffed by October 2006. While we believe the unit is beneficial, the intelligence analysis capability of the SIS offices at institutions where terrorists are housed also needs to be increased. The SIS staff at institutions work firsthand with terrorist inmates and need the ability to analyze the activities of these inmates so that they can recognize and pass on the appropriate intelligence to the BOP Central Office Counterterrorism Unit.

  • Counterterrorism Training. The BOP informed us that the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working together to develop general and component-specific intelligence analyst training that will be available to all agencies in the Department. The training will address the needs of the BOP for managing high-risk inmates, and BOP staff will attend the training in phases.

  • National Virtual Translation Center. The BOP has used the center, an interagency entity established to provide translation of foreign language communication for Intelligence Community clients, to translate some terrorist inmate communications. The BOP entered into a memorandum of understanding with the center in May 2006 and plans to use its services as a potentially less expensive option to the Language Translation Services Project.

Additionally, during a May 2006 interview the BOP Director and the Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division told us that the BOP would provide further direction to the institutions concerning the use of contractors and volunteer staff to translate inmate communications.


  1. The BOP should develop a policy for in-house translation services that includes:

    1. Guidelines for when and how translations are to be conducted, (e.g., when word-for-word translation or a summary is required), including translations of communications to and from international terrorist inmates.

    2. Guidelines for the random verification of the accuracy of staff translations;

    3. Guidelines on the minimum proficiency levels for volunteer BOP staff who translate communications for terrorist inmates, inmates on mail or phone monitoring lists, or other high-risk inmates;

    4. Guidelines requiring supervisors to support collateral translation duties, and when work conflicts exist, to seek resolution with the Associate Warden or Warden;

    5. Guidelines that require BOP staff who volunteer as translators to track the number of hours and the languages for which they perform translation services as a collateral duty to allow future resource needs to be determined; and

    6. Guidelines that ensure institutions use the existing incentive awards program, especially cash awards, to encourage and recognize BOP volunteer staff translators. The BOP also should consider developing additional incentives and awards to encourage BOP staff to volunteer for collateral translation duties.

  2. The BOP should offer Spanish and other language training to staff, as dictated by translation needs.

The BOP’s intelligence capability to analyze the content of terrorist inmates’ mail is not well developed.

We found that the BOP lacks a sufficient intelligence capability to adequately analyze inmate mail to detect terrorist activity. The SIS offices in BOP institutions we visited have more experience with intelligence gathering to detect and deter traditional criminal activity than terrorism. The SIS staff have implemented investigative techniques and established relationships with other law enforcement agencies that assist SIS staff in gathering and analyzing information about criminal activity in BOP institutions, such as drug introduction and gang violence. However, we found that the methods used by SIS staff to analyze intelligence for traditional criminal activity are not sufficient for detecting terrorism activity.

The BOP incarcerates international terrorist inmates who require sophisticated monitoring and analysis of their mail, conversations, and activities. Adequate monitoring of these inmates requires SIS staff to develop specialized capabilities, such as the ability to analyze mail and telephone calls in uncommon foreign languages, understand extremist ideology and radicalization, understand world-wide terror networks, perform link analysis, and oversee the enforcement of SAMs. However, the BOP does not provide the SIS staff with the intelligence training needed to adequately undertake these tasks. Further, we found that t he BOP does not always take advantage of available intelligence resources, such as its Intelligence Operations Officers (IO) and the FBI.71

The BOP does not provide its SIS staff with the intelligence training needed to adequately monitor terrorist inmate mail.

SIS staff told us they do not receive sufficient training in intelligence analysis and counterterrorism issues so that they can identify suspicious content in the mail of terrorist inmates. The BOP has developed limited training on intelligence and counterterrorism and has not made training widely available to the SIS staff. BOP SIS Lieutenants attend a mandatory 4-day SIS course when first assigned to the SIS office, but this course is focused on crime scene procedures and general criminal investigative topics and contains only minimal counterterrorism information. No part of the training specifically examines intelligence analysis. Similarly, other BOP staff involved in monitoring inmate communications, particularly Correctional Officers, do not receive training in intelligence analysis and receive little training in counterterrorism.

In addition to classes on general criminal investigative issues, the BOP told us that the 4-day SIS training course contains six classes – a total of 8 hours of training – that cover issues and procedures related to counterterrorism and intelligence issues. When we requested the course content of these six classes, the BOP provided us with six slide presentations. We reviewed these presentations and found that only two (approximately 2 hours) of the six classes focused specifically on terrorism and provided little information that could be used to help assess the content of terrorist inmate communications. None of the presentations included information on how to conduct counterterrorism intelligence analysis for assessing inmate communications.

One of the presentations, “Terrorism,” provided a broad introduction to both domestic and international terrorism, the history of terrorism, and information on various terrorist groups. The presentation also included information on terrorist threats to corrections, recommended management strategies, how the BOP monitors terrorists, how to recognize radicalization, and pictures of all international terrorist inmates at ADX Florence. The other presentation, “Terrorism Awareness,” included information on the BOP’s management and monitoring of terrorist inmates, as well as pictures of some terrorist inmates.

Two of the other slide shows the BOP provided focused on use of two BOP automated database systems. Although the systems are used for intelligence management and investigations by the SIS offices, the presentations focused on familiarizing the staff with the systems’ features and the procedures for accessing the databases and did not specifically mention terrorism or how to use the systems’ data for monitoring inmates. The remaining two presentations provided information on interviewing inmates and legal issues. Neither presentation included information specific to terrorism, although the subject of SAMs was presented in reference to legal issues. We also reviewed a video, “7 Signs of Terrorism,” used in the SIS training and found that it presented information on how to identify terrorism activities in the local community that may indicate an attack is being planned.

The BOP also held a 3-day counterterrorism training session for SIS supervisors in September 2005. This training session included the following topics:

  • Overview of radical Islamic groups,
  • Behavioral mindset of a terrorist,
  • Security designation and validation,
  • Management of terrorist inmates,
  • SAMs inmates,
  • Correctional Intelligence Initiative,
  • Protective custody investigation,
  • Ion spectrometry,
  • Religious issues,
  • Analytic partnerships,
  • Successful investigative strategies, and
  • Labor management relations and Office of Internal Affairs issues.

A representative from the FBI presented the segment on building analytic partnerships and discussed FBI and BOP information sharing and what the FBI does with the information from the BOP.

Even though this 3-day training course provided the attendees in-depth information on international terrorist inmates, preventing prison radicalization, and accessing intelligence resources from the FBI, the training did not include information on how to conduct intelligence analysis on international terrorist communications. The BOP reported that 52 Special Investigative Agents and SIS Lieutenants, as well as 13 BOP Central Office staff, attended the September 2005 session. The BOP Assistant Director for the Correctional Programs Division stated that the training would be offered to the remaining Special Investigative Agents and SIS Lieutenants in August 2006. However, the training was not available to other SIS staff responsible for monitoring terrorist inmates’ mail and telephone calls.

In addition, the BOP has offered a 1-hour course called “Terrorism Management and Response” during the Annual Refresher Training attended by all BOP employees. The session covers the definition and history of terrorism, types of terrorism, terrorist inmates, management strategies for international terrorist inmates, and radicalization and recruitment.

While the course lesson plan for the Annual Refresher Training includes a general background and history of terrorism, as well as some counterterrorism information related to the BOP or the institution conducting the training, it does not include specifics on intelligence analysis that would assist in assessing inmate communications for suspicious content related to terrorism. The course covers prevention and detection of radicalization and recruitment, but gives only general information on monitoring and gathering intelligence. For example, the lesson plan states that 100 percent of terrorist mail and telephone calls should be monitored and that staff responsible for monitoring should be alerted to look for specific words and phrases. No other information about specific words or phrases to look for was provided. Also, the lesson plan states, “Gather Intelligence – Gathering Intelligence has been shifted from a criminal activity to proactive focus on terrorism activity,” but the presentation does not give guidance on how to gather such intelligence other than the traditional approach of observing inmate actions and behavior.

Many BOP staff members, including Regional Directors, Wardens, Associate Wardens, and SIS personnel, agreed that SIS staff need more counterterrorism and intelligence analysis training so they can recognize suspicious content in inmate mail and telephone calls. For example, we received the following comments from three officials:

We need to distinguish what we do with the international terrorist inmates as opposed to general population inmates. From a linguistic approach, even cultural diversity, we need to have basic training. There’s a Spanish immersion course, there should be something like that [to help staff translate the communications of] international terrorists.

The BOP tried to give us some training, but we need a lot more. For international terrorists, there’s so many groups... we need to know what is the up-to-date stuff in the last 6 months... any updated training to keep you on top of the game.

Counterterrorism is a new area for the BOP and it is learning how to deal with terrorism inmates as it goes along.

Although BOP personnel have extensive experience in dealing with criminals and gangs, we found a lack of understanding and knowledge of international terrorism and how terrorists operate that would allow BOP staff to better analyze terrorist inmate mail. For example, one SIS Lieutenant stated that he felt unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with international terrorist inmates because he lacks knowledge about inmates’ language, culture, and history that would enable him to better collect intelligence from their mail and telephone calls. Another BOP IO who worked with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) described the need for more counterterrorism intelligence training: “I don’t think people really understand the seriousness and sophistication of [these inmates].”

Collaborative Intelligence Work

We found examples of SIS staff who made significant efforts to pursue terrorist intelligence relating to BOP inmates. For example, the SIS staff at the Allenwood Correctional Complex and FCI Sheridan have productive and collaborative working relationships with the FBI Special Agents assigned to terrorism matters in these institutions. These relationships have facilitated intelligence and information sharing. The FBI agent assigned to Allenwood stated that the SIS staff were “active and knowledgeable” about international terrorist inmates. For example, the SIS staff recently intercepted a letter to an extremist leader in Europe from an international terrorist inmate housed at Allenwood. The FBI agent assigned to FCI Sheridan stated that he regularly received intelligence and information from the SIS staff on terrorist inmates, and that he regularly monitors the communications of these inmates. We also found that the MDC Brooklyn IO had a solid understanding of terrorism issues because of his past membership on the FBI’s JTTF and could identify potential terrorism security risks and share this information with the FBI.

We found that this lack of understanding of terrorist inmatesí beliefs, motivations, and actions affected the BOPís information sharing with the FBI. The FBI relies on the BOP to inform it of any suspicious communication or activity that occurs within the prisons. However, because of a lack of training on terrorism issues, the BOP does not always know when a communication or activity is suspicious enough to report it to the FBI. For example, when the SIS staff at ADX Florence learned that terrorist inmates had been corresponding with Islamic extremist inmates in Spanish prisons, the SIS staff never notified the FBI because the staff did not understand the implications of the correspondence for furthering terrorist activity. Many BOP staff we interviewed told us that they do not believe they have the training to adequately analyze intelligence from terrorist inmates and therefore may not recognize such threats to security.

The BOP does not take full advantage of existing access to information and intelligence through its Intelligence Operations Officers.

Although both MCC New York and MDC Brooklyn have IOs, neither institution has taken advantage of the greater access to the intelligence, information sharing, and resources that JTTF membership could provide the BOP for better monitoring its terrorist inmates’ mail, telephone calls, and activities. The BOP developed the IO position in 1999 to serve as the BOP’s link with federal law enforcement task force operations “which are engaged in operations which could provide meaningful intelligence information regarding inmates already in BOP custody,” particularly the FBI’s JTTF.72 At BOP detention centers in metropolitan areas like New York City where there is a constant population of new inmates arrested on terrorism-related charges, we believe a consistent exchange of information between the IOs and the JTTFs is vital to help BOP institutions determine the appropriate level of monitoring for these inmates.

For example, the MDC Brooklyn IO, a former member of the New York JTTF, said he found out that two inmates at the MDC were terrorism suspects by reading their arrest warrants at the FBI. The charge sheet the MDC had received stated only, “Lying to a Federal Officer.” Because of the information the IO gained from the JTTF, the MDC was able to plan for the appropriate level of security and communications monitoring for the inmates. However, the IO has not been permitted to participate on the JTTF since January 2004 because of staffing shortages at the MDC and his assignments covering vacant posts. At MCC New York, the IO is not a member on the JTTF and therefore has not received background information on incoming inmates, according to MCC New York management staff.

We interviewed Special Investigative Agents and SIS Lieutenants at six other BOP detention centers (one MCC and five Federal Detention Centers [FDC]) concerning the IO position and benefits of JTTF membership to the BOP. Two of these IOs were full-time JTTF members, two were part-time members, one IO was a liaison, and one FDC did not have an IO position.73 At four of the five institutions with IOs, the staff told us that the IO position had enhanced information sharing between the BOP and the FBI. For example, an IO who was a JTTF member had access to FBI databases and could access information about a subject prior to the subject’s arrest. The BOP was then able to plan the appropriate security measures, such as mail and telephone monitoring, prior to the inmate being placed in BOP custody. The IO also could provide information to the JTTF based on intelligence gathering in the prison and could assist the task force in planning operations and utilizing investigative methods inside the prison. In addition to information sharing, JTTF membership allows IOs to develop skills and expertise in intelligence analysis and terrorism issues and to take advantage of the terrorism and intelligence training that the FBI offers to its JTTF members.

Developments and Future Plans

In addition to the Counterterrorism Unit that will serve as a clearinghouse for terrorism intelligence in the BOP, the BOP is pursuing the following initiatives to improve its intelligence capability.

  • Link Analysis Database. In June 2004, an Intelligence Management Analyst at the BOP Central Office created a database (which the BOP refers to as a link database) that enables the Analyst to conduct link analysis on terrorist inmates’ mail, telephone calls, and financial transactions.74 In May 2005, the Analyst began sending monthly link analysis reports to all SIS offices, regional offices, and the National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF). He encouraged the SIS offices to share the report with their local JTTFs. The Analyst said that he had received positive feedback from BOP institutions and the FBI on his link analysis reports. As one example of the report’s value, he said that he detected a link between several BOP international terrorist inmates and a specific address and reported this to the FBI. According to the Analyst, the FBI initiated an investigation based on the information, which the Analyst believed eventually led to an arrest.

    To further expand its link analysis capability, the BOP is developing a web-based tool that will access the BOP’s existing inmate data systems. Staff will be able to conduct link analyses on all inmates, not just international terrorist inmates, without labor-intensive data entry into a separate database. Additionally, all SIS staff will be able to access the web-based link analysis tool at their institutions. The BOP expects this link analysis tool to be available in fall 2006.

  • 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 approximately 146 international terrorist inmates will be re-classified under a new classification system as to their security designations and the resulting information will be used to determine where to house the inmates. In May 2006, BOP officials said the re-classifications were about half completed and should all be completed by October. 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.


  1. The BOP should provide advanced and continuing counterterrorism intelligence training to its full-time SIS staff, Language Specialists, and Intelligence Operations Officers (IOs), especially in those institutions that house terrorist inmates.

  2. The BOP should clarify the role of IOs regarding membership on the FBI’s JTTFs and ensure that the institutions support the IOs in carrying out their full-time task force coordination, intelligence gathering, and information sharing duties.

  1. International terrorist inmates who are not under SAMs are always on the mail monitoring lists.

  2. The other two institutions did not have staff reallocated from their SIS office.

  3. BOP, Mail Management Manual, Program Statement 5800.10, Chapter 3, August 19, 1998, p. 4.

  4. BOP, Mail Management Manual, Program Statement 5800.10, Chapter 3, p. 3.

  5. The results of our request that institutions track their random reading for a week may not be representative in all instances of the reading that usually occurs because the institutions knew their 1-week efforts were being recorded. Moreover, the data provided to us show that although some institutions report higher levels of random reading, they have limited time to read. For example, USP Allenwood reported that its two staff members read 75 percent of 4,218 pieces of mail during the 4-day (32-hour) work week. This equates to over 1,500 letters per staff member. Even with no other duties, this only would allow approximately 30 seconds to read each letter to identify possible criminal or terrorist activity.

  6. According to mailroom staff, mail volume on Mondays may be double that received on a typical Tuesday thought Friday.

  7. The FBI is responsible for translating communications of all inmates under SAMs, including international terrorists, and the BOP is responsible for translating communications of non-SAM international terrorist inmates. As of May 2006, the BOP classified 146 inmates as international terrorists, and held 25 of them under SAMs.

  8. John H. Vanyur, Language Translation Services, BOP CT Translation Special Project Funding, Correctional Programs Division, BOP, March 15, 2005.

  9. Language Translation Services, BOP CT Translation Special Project Funding.

  10. The Hispanic population for all BOP institutions constituted approximately 32 percent of the inmates. Not all Hispanics communicate in Spanish.

  11. BOP, Inmate Characteristics Report, May 2005.

  12. The Hispanic population in BOP institutions is made up of both U.S. citizens and foreigners. The BOP tracks inmates’ citizenship and ethnicity, but not the languages they speak.

  13. The Spanish immersion course is intended to give staff the ability to understand key words and to communicate with Spanish-speaking inmates. Staff who are more proficient in Spanish are then encouraged to participate as interpreters during disciplinary hearings, intake screening, and monitoring of phone calls to pick up words, phrases, or conversations that may be suspicious.

  14. According to a BOP Program Statement, a supervisor is responsible for submitting a nomination for an employee to receive a cash award for translations done as a collateral duty. Wardens may approve up to $1,500, Regional and Assistant Directors may approve up to $3,000, and the BOP Director may approve up to a $5,000 cash award. BOP, Bureau of Prisons’ Awards Program, Incentive Awards, Program Statement 3451.047, July 10, 2001.

  15. Until 2005, the employee was assigned as an Education Specialist at the USP Florence.

  16. As mentioned previously, the BOP defines exotic languages as Middle Eastern, Pacific Island, and South Asian languages.

  17. Michael B. Cooksey, Language Translation Services for Inmates Affiliated with International Terrorism, Correctional Programs Division, BOP, July 25, 2003.

  18. John H. Vanyur, Language Translation Services, BOP CT Translation Special Project Funding, Correctional Programs Division, BOP, March 15, 2005.

  19. AT&T Language Line Services offers live “over-the-phone” translation in over 140 languages for a fee.

  20. The IO position exists at certain institutions such as the BOP’s Metropolitan Correctional Centers and Metropolitan Detention Centers. This management-level position is supervised by the Intelligence Operations Officer located at BOP Central Office in Washington, D.C. The IO works with law enforcement agencies and the courts to obtain information regarding inmates pending indictment or already in BOP custody. The information is to be used for determining the inmate’s security risk to the BOP and the public. BOP, Position Description for Correctional Program Specialist, Intelligence Operations Officer, July 15, 2005.

  21. At the time of our site visit, 15 international terrorist inmates were incarcerated at MCC New York and MDC Brooklyn.

  22. A member of the JTTF is supervised by and receives taskings from an FBI JTTF squad leader. A JTTF liaison is not a participating member of the JTTF and acts only as a point of contact.

  23. The BOP’s database does not create links but rather extracts and organizes the data in a manner that enables the analyst to identify relationships or links in phone numbers, addresses, names, financial transactions, etc.

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Step 1: An SIS staff member estimates the required translation (counts the number of words in each inmate letter or number of minutes for each telephone call).  This workload estimate gives the BOP Central Office an indication of the cost of the translation. Step 2: The SIS staff member sends a memorandum to an official in the Intelligence Section at Central Office requesting funding through the contract. Step 3: The Intelligence Section reviews the appropriateness of the request and notifies the institution of approval, usually via e-mail. Step 6: After the translation is completed, the institutionís business office processes the transaction and charges the cost to the Language Translation Services Project accounting code. Step 5: The SIS staff member sends copies of letters or CDs of telephone call recordings to the vendor for translation. Step 4: SIS drafts a purchase order and sends it to the institutionís business office along with a copy of the approval from Central Office.