Our review of the BOP’s inmate telephone system found that a significant number of inmates use prison telephones to commit serious crimes – including murder, drug trafficking, and fraud. The BOP has been aware of this problem for more than a decade, but to date has taken limited corrective action to address this abuse.

Implementation of a new inmate telephone system – ITS II – will not be the cure all that some BOP officials apparently are counting on. In fact, given the lack of understanding and use of the security features in the existing telephone system, ITS II will have little impact on the BOP’s efforts to detect telephone abuse by inmates.

The BOP deserves credit for the difficult job it does maintaining order in its institutions. However, it also has a duty to protect the public from inmates who continue to commit crimes from prison. The BOP’s concentration on this first objective – maintaining order – has come at the cost of turning a blind eye to inmates who use prison telephones to commit serious criminal activity in the community.

Based on our review, we believe that the BOP should take steps to curb prison telephone abuse in four ways: 1) increased monitoring of inmate conversations and more efficiently targeted monitoring; 2) increased and more consistent discipline of telephone abusers; 3) proactive telephone restrictions for inmates who have a history of telephone abuse or a likelihood of abuse; and 4) refocusing SIS officers to detect and deter crimes committed outside the institution by inmates using BOP phones.52 We offer specific recommendations in each of these four areas.

  1. Monitoring of Inmate Telephone Calls

    The BOP must increase the percentage of inmate telephone calls it monitors on an ongoing basis if it expects to make any headway on the problem of inmate telephone abuse. While additional resources will be helpful, the reality is that given the high volume of inmate calls, the only realistic solution is to reduce the call volume so that BOP staff assigned to this task can monitor a greater percentage of calls. Towards this end, we make the following recommendations:

    1. The BOP should impose limits on all inmates’ telephone privileges. The 1997 Wardens’ Working Group recommended 300 minutes per month, an arbitrary figure arrived at without examining data on inmate telephone usage. The BOP should research this issue and develop a recommendation for limiting the number of minutes that inmates can use the telephone which takes into account inmate calling patterns and the number of calls that can be effectively monitored by available staff.

    2. The BOP currently monitors less than four percent of all inmate calls. This is an unacceptably low percentage to detect and deter criminal conduct by inmates. We recommend that the BOP set a significantly higher goal and then calculate the resources needed to meet this goal. Undoubtedly, this will require two things: more staff assigned to monitoring inmate telephone calls and fewer inmate calls.

    3. All the BOP institutions should have telephone monitors on duty at all times that prison telephones are available to inmates. Hours of telephone operation may have to be limited to make this possible. Our review showed that 19 of the 66 ITS institutions have monitors on duty less than 50 percent of the time the telephone system is operational.

    4. The BOP must do a better job identifying inmates with a high probability of abusing their telephone privileges and institute a plan to proactively monitor their calls. Attempts in the past by the Intelligence Section to institute a proactive monitoring program have failed. We recommend that SIS Offices improve proactive monitoring at the institutions and train institution-level SIS officers in this proactive monitoring approach.

    5. The BOP should install state-of-the-art recording equipment in all of its institutions. In addition, remote monitoring officers should be provided with computer monitors and sufficient information about inmates to allow them to effectively monitor calls. The SIS Office, working closely with the Inmate Telephone Section, should develop a comprehensive training curriculum and materials to teach telephone monitors how to most effectively use the ITS and ITS II equipment to detect criminal activity.

    6. Telephone monitors at each institution should be permanent positions.

    7. The BOP should develop a unit at the headquarters or regional level that could review calls identified by institutions as suspicious or translate calls made by targeted inmates that are in a foreign language.

    8. The BOP should seek legislation to explicitly authorize it to use proceeds from the inmate telephone system to pay for monitoring inmate calls.

  2. Discipline of Inmates

    1. During our review, we discovered cases in which inmates retained full telephone privileges after being convicted of a crime involving use of prison telephones. We recommend that the BOP develop and enforce policies to ensure that administrative action is quickly taken against inmates who abuse their telephone privileges, particularly those inmates convicted of crimes stemming from use of prison telephones.

    2. The BOP should develop and implement policies that mandate restriction of telephone privileges as the preferred sanction for inmate telephone abuse. Subsequent violations of BOP telephone policies should result in increased sanctions that include loss of telephone privileges. Inmates who commit crimes using prison telephones should have their privileges revoked.

    3. The BOP should consider designating certain institutions or wings of institutions as housing units for inmates whose telephone privileges have been revoked or restricted. This would alleviate the problem of inmates without telephone privileges getting other inmates to make calls for them.

    4. The BOP should examine the possibility of making use of coded language by inmates over the telephone a disciplinary violation in certain circumstances. Such a rule would allow the BOP to restrict or suspend an inmate’s telephone privileges when an SIS officer finds an inmate engaging in suspicious coded conversations. As a model, the BOP should look to its existing correspondence regulations that contain a provision allowing wardens to reject correspondence that contains a code.

    5. The BOP should use the STG “phone abuse” category more frequently and set standards for its use. Such entries will be useful when the inmate is transferred to a new institution.

  3. Proactive Restrictions of Telephone Privileges

    1. We recommend that the BOP develop and implement regulations that permit restriction of inmate telephone privileges as a matter of classification. The BOP should explore whether BOP Headquarters or staff at the regional level are better positioned than institution-level unit teams to make decisions about proactively restricting an inmate's telephone and correspondence privileges as a matter of classification.

    2. As an additional safeguard to deter potential criminal conduct, the Department should educate prosecutors about the availability of court orders restricting an inmate’s telephone privileges in racketeering and drug cases in which continued criminal activity from prison is likely. The Department should also consider seeking legislation to permit similar court orders in all cases in which the government can make a showing that the defendant should not be entitled to telephone privileges because of a prior history of telephone abuse.

    3. The Department should emphasize to U.S. Attorneys’ Offices the need to inform the BOP of inmates who pose special risks of committing serious crimes while incarcerated, as outlined in the Attorney General’s May 7, 1998 letter on this subject. As of the fall of 1998, the BOP had received only two such notifications.53 These notifications are crucial because they fill gaps in the BOP’s knowledge about the inmate’s history and puts the BOP on notice of the risk posed by the inmate. However, given the BOP’s failure to properly monitor high risk inmates after either court order or notice from prosecutors, it is advisable that a reporting system be set up to assure U.S. Attorneys’ offices that proper measures have been taken and attention given to the situation after such a notification.

  4. Role of SIS Officer

    1. Our review found that SIS officers at BOP institutions spend far too little time detecting and deterring criminal conduct committed by inmates using prison telephones. The SIS’s mission should be expanded to include a more substantial focus on the detection of crimes by inmates in BOP custody. This could be accomplished through additional training for SIS staff, greater communication between the SIS and other law enforcement agencies, and better gathering of intelligence on inmates. In addition, the BOP should revise its procedures to require SIS staff to ensure that each number listed on an inmate’s telephone access list is thoroughly investigated prior to approval, especially with high-risk inmates.





Permitting inmates access to prison telephones and protecting the public against crimes facilitated through use of prison telephones present a complex balancing of interests. At the present time, the balance appears tilted too far in favor of inmate access. Our review highlighted the serious nature of inmate abuse of prison telephones, including murders and drug deals arranged using BOP telephones. Clearly, the BOP’s current policy of unlimited access to telephones for the vast majority of inmates – coupled with its monitoring of less than four percent of all inmate conversations – needs serious examination and revision.

The current inmate call monitoring system is virtually useless. The low number of crimes or administrative violations detected and the high number of crimes likely being committed should indicate to the BOP that major changes are needed. In addition, our interviews of telephone monitors left us with the impression that they are overwhelmed and untrained.

The BOP has taken some action to address the problem of inmate telephone abuse. As outlined in the report, it approved raising disciplinary sanctions for telephone abuse, created 24 new positions to work with outside law enforcement, prepared a guide to aid the field in telephone monitoring, added an STG category for phone abuse, and worked on improvements for the second generation of ITS.

However, we conclude that these actions are insufficient to address the problem of telephone abuse. The increase in the disciplinary sanctions have not yet been implemented. Guidance to the field has generally not been followed, including instruction on a proactive approach to inmate telephone abuse, the use of alerts, and the use of the STG category. While some new tools for telephone monitoring have been created, we believe these tools have not been adequately used.

It is clear from our review that ITS II, the next generation prison telephone system, is not the panacea to the problem of inmate telephone abuse. It also appears that the BOP has refrained from taking substantive steps to address this issue for fear of reopening the litigation in Washington v. Reno. While it is possible that necessary changes to the current telephone system may provoke inmates to file suit, it is our opinion that the BOP will prevail in any litigation. Notwithstanding the possible litigation risks, the current situation is untenable and demands that the BOP make dramatic changes.

Such changes will no doubt be expensive, but much of this cost can be recovered if the Department obtains legislation allowing it to pay for telephone monitoring from revenue generated by inmate calls. A significant portion of the $71 million in profit reaped from the telephone system during the past seven years should be used to ensure that the system operates safely and that inmates do not have the opportunity to use it to endanger or defraud others. And while the cost may be significant, we believe based on this review that the problem of inmate telephone misuse is widespread and the consequences serious enough that significant amounts of time and money should be expended to address it.

52 Whatever substantive changes the BOP intends to make to inmate telephone privileges should be implemented through appropriate rulemaking procedures. The BOP bypassed this step when installing the original inmate telephone system, and this failure was partially responsible for the inmates' lawsuit in Washington v. Reno.

53 As of August 1999, the BOP had received only six such notifications.