1. Overview

    Telephone privileges for the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) approximately 113,000 federal inmates have increased dramatically since the 1970s, when inmates were permitted one phone call every three months and the call was placed by BOP staff. Today, most inmates in the federal prison system are free to make as many telephone calls as they are able to pay for or as many collect calls as people outside prison will accept. Even though all inmate calls are recorded, except prearranged calls between inmates and their attorneys, the BOP listens to less than four percent of calls,1 citing the lack of staff to monitor more calls. Consequently, prison officials have little control over inmate calls or any criminal activities discussed during those calls.

    This special review conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) seeks to identify the extent of telephone abuse by BOP inmates, assess the BOP’s response to the problem, and offer recommendations to address this serious issue. Our review found that a significant number of federal inmates use prison telephones to commit serious crimes while incarcerated – including murder, drug trafficking, and fraud. We conclude that despite BOP management’s awareness of this problem, it has taken insufficient steps to address it.

    The BOP provides inmates access to telephones on the grounds that it furthers important correctional objectives, such as maintaining an inmate’s ties to his family. However, BOP’s responsibilities extend beyond those objectives, and the virtually unlimited telephone access comes at the cost of allowing inmates the ability to commit serious criminal activity using prison telephones. Often those crimes extend beyond the prison. We believe that the BOP needs to squarely address what appears to be widespread inmate abuse of prison telephones and take immediate and meaningful actions to correct this problem.

    We found that the limited action the BOP has taken in recent years to address this problem came only after the extensive publicity given to cases involving inmates using prison telephones to run large-scale drug organizations. The most notorious recent case of inmate telephone abuse involved Rayful Edmond III, a convicted drug dealer from Washington, D.C., who used contacts he made with Colombian drug dealers while serving two life sentences in the U.S. Penitentiary (USP) at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to expand his drug trafficking operation while in prison. Federal prosecutors initially referred evidence of Edmond’s use of prison telephones to commit additional crimes to the BOP to handle as an administrative matter. However, BOP officials took no action to limit Edmond's use of prison telephones. Prosecutors eventually gathered enough evidence to charge Edmond with additional drug trafficking crimes. As a result, Edmond agreed to cooperate with the government in developing criminal cases against four other inmates who were using BOP telephones to operate large drug trafficking organizations outside prison. In 1996, Edmond pleaded guilty to drug charges stemming from his use of prison telephones and received an additional 30-year sentence. In an interview with the OIG, Edmond said he had spent several hours every day on the telephone, occasionally using two lines simultaneously to conduct his drug business.

    After a 1996 BOP review of inmate telephone abuse in the aftermath of the Edmond case, the BOP approved only one significant change in its telephone policy – an increase in the severity of the sanction for inmate telephone abuse. This revision has yet to take effect because the rule-making process required to enact the new policy is still ongoing.

    The Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General also have expressed an interest in this issue and have pressed the BOP to pursue administrative, legislative, and technological avenues to ameliorate the problem. Our review shows that for a variety of reasons – a lack of resources, the press of other issues, the belief that a settlement with inmates in a class action lawsuit about inmate access to telephones imposes restrictions in this area – the BOP’s limited corrective efforts have been insufficient to address this serious issue.

    Several BOP officials with whom we spoke also have expressed the belief that a new generation of telephone equipment planned for installation in all BOP institutions during the next two years will prevent many cases of inmate telephone abuse. As will be discussed below, however, BOP's postponement of needed reforms until this new telephone system is operational is not justified. No new technology on the horizon – including the BOP’s new inmate telephone system – will solve the problem of inmate telephone abuse without aggressive intervention by BOP officials. As we describe below, we believe that unless the BOP places meaningful restrictions on inmate telephone privileges, steps up its monitoring of selected inmate calls, and consistently disciplines telephone abusers, no significant change in the level and seriousness of inmate telephone abuse will occur.2

  2. The OIG Review

    At the outset of our review, we attempted to determine the scope of the problem of inmate abuse of prison telephones. However, we found that the BOP had a paucity of information on this issue. Neither BOP headquarters in Washington, D.C., nor BOP facilities keeps statistics of cases in which inmates are accused of committing crimes from prison using the telephone. Although the BOP maintains statistics on violations of prison regulations, this data does not identify which cases involved the use of telephones. For example, statistics may exist reflecting cases involving an inmate’s introduction of contraband into an institution, but the BOP’s records would not reflect whether the introduction of drugs was arranged through the inmate’s use of the telephone. Moreover, several BOP officials acknowledged to us that their statistics do not represent the overall number of telephone violations because many violations are informally resolved or are dismissed when prosecutors pursue criminal charges arising out of the same events.

    Initially, we attempted to independently identify the scope of the problem through a survey questionnaire we sent to various Department of Justice offices. We sent the questionnaire to all 94 United States Attorneys’ Offices, asking them to identify any cases they prosecuted involving crimes committed by inmates using telephones in federal facilities. We sent a similar questionnaire to FBI and DEA headquarters, which distributed it to all FBI and DEA field offices. This questionnaire asked all offices to identify investigations they conducted involving a federal inmate’s use of prison telephones to commit crimes. In response to our request, we received information from 72 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, 16 FBI field offices, and 11 DEA field offices. But because these offices do not index cases according to whether they took place in prison or involved the use of telephones, their responses to our questionnaire were based on the memories of the people who answered it rather than a comprehensive statistical analysis.

    We also sent a questionnaire to all 66 BOP facilities that use the Inmate Telephone System (ITS), a telephone system that can store and analyze sophisticated data about inmate telephone calls better than the older telephone system used in 27 other BOP facilities. The questionnaire asked each facility to provide data on the total number of calls made by inmates on three separate dates we randomly selected; the number of inmates making more than 25 calls on those dates; the number of telephone numbers dialed over 10 times on those dates; the number of BOP staff monitoring calls on those dates; the number of calls monitored by BOP staff as they took place on those dates; and the number of previously recorded calls listened to by BOP staff on those dates. The questionnaire also asked for information about each facility’s policies regarding the hours of and methods of monitoring inmate calls.

    In addition, we visited nine BOP facilities to interview the staff responsible for the institution’s security and inmate telephone monitoring operations, and also to familiarize ourselves with various relevant aspects of the federal correctional system, field staff operations, and the telephone equipment used in the facilities. The facilities we visited were:

U.S. Penitentiary Lewisburg, PA High 1,507
U. S. Penitentiary Leavenworth, KS High 1,721
U. S. Penitentiary Allenwood, PA High 959
U. S. Penitentiary Atlanta, GA High 2,248
Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland, MD Medium 987
Federal Correctional Institution Fairton, NJ Medium 1,150
Federal Correctional Institution Allenwood, PA Medium 1,074
Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg, VA Low 1,324
Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix, NJ Low 3,868

We selected these facilities in order to collect information from several different types of BOP institutions, including institutions with different security levels and different physical layouts, two factors that affect the methods of monitoring prison telephones. We visited four penitentiaries, three of which have remote monitoring locations in use and utilize correctional officers to monitor calls; three medium security facilities; and two low security institutions.

To obtain further insight on inmates’ use of telephones, we interviewed Rayful Edmond about his experience using prison telephones to commit crimes and his impressions about the extent of inmate telephone abuse. We also reviewed the BOP case files from four inmates whose convictions received significant public attention and who appeared to have the resources to continue criminal activities while incarcerated. We examined these files to determine what steps, if any, the BOP took to prevent these inmates from using the telephones to continue their criminal activities while in BOP custody. In addition, we examined three high-profile prosecutions of prisoners who were convicted of conducting their crimes from inside a BOP facility – the prosecution of Edmond and his co-conspirators; the prosecution of drug dealer and convicted murderer Anthony Jones of Baltimore, Maryland; and the prosecution of alleged mob figure Oreste Abbamonte. Each used prison telephones to commit his crimes while incarcerated. We examined these cases to determine how the BOP responded to each case and what, if anything, could have been done differently to detect or deter this criminal activity.

As part of our review, we interviewed numerous BOP officials about the scope of the problem of inmate telephone abuse, reviewed the BOP's current policies regarding this issue, and assessed BOP efforts to address the problem. Among the BOP Headquarters officials we interviewed were the Assistant Director for Correctional Programs; the Deputy Assistant Director for Correctional Programs; the Chief and former Chief of the Intelligence Section; the Director of the Program Review Division; the Assistant Director for Administration; the Chief of the Trust Fund Branch; the Chief of the Inmate Telephone Section; and the Deputy and Associate Deputy General Counsel. In addition, we interviewed nine BOP wardens and members of their staff during our site visits. All told, we interviewed more than 70 BOP employees and about 20 other persons in the Department of Justice during our review. We examined numerous documents, including BOP program statements on the issue of telephones and case law on inmate rights to telephone access. We also reviewed the litigation and the settlement in a large class action lawsuit brought by inmates against the BOP regarding the telephone system.

What we found from these interviews, case examinations, data collection, and document review paints a troubling picture of the scope and seriousness of inmate use of prison telephones to commit criminal activity. In sum, we found that the current monitoring system for inmate call is virtually useless because only three and a half percent of the thousands of calls made daily from each BOP facility are monitored. In addition, prison staff who monitor inmate calls are often untrained and frequently rotated to other assignments at the facility. Consequently, few serious incidents are discovered through BOP’s telephone monitoring.

  1. Organization of the Report

This report describes the results of our review and is organized into nine chapters and five appendices. In Chapter Two, we provide an overview of the BOP and discuss the history of BOP inmates’ access to prison telephones. We also describe the current inmate telephone system, state prison practices regarding telephone use, and the role of the BOP staff in monitoring telephone use in federal institutions. Chapter Three describes the legal and regulatory background to inmate telephone use. Chapter Four assesses the data and information the OIG collected from its surveys and interviews of staff from United States Attorneys’ Offices, the DEA, and the FBI. Chapter Five reviews the case histories of several inmates who conducted serious criminal activity from federal prison, including Rayful Edmond, and our review of the telephone use of four inmates whose crimes received substantial public attention. Chapter Six describes a variety of BOP initiatives over the years to address inmate telephone abuse. Chapter Seven analyzes potential technological and administrative solutions to the problem of inmate telephone abuse. Chapter Eight offers our recommendations, and Chapter Nine describes our conclusions.

1 Our survey of all institutions using the BOP Inmate Telephone System found that the BOP monitors approximately 2.9% of live calls by inmates. We also found that the BOP reviews an additional .7% of calls after they have been recorded. These numbers are based on estimates provided by those responsible for monitoring at each institution, and not on monitoring statistics. Such statistics are not maintained by the BOP.

2 In comments submitted to the OIG, the BOP argued that the magnitude of this problem is exaggerated and the scope and effectiveness of the changes that the BOP has implemented to address the problem are underrated. As described throughout this report, we disagree with these arguments.

3 Population at time of site visit in 1998.