Our review of the BOPs 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 BOPs 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 BOPs 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Telephone monitors at each institution should be permanent positions.
- 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.
- The BOP should seek legislation to explicitly authorize it to use proceeds from the
inmate telephone system to pay for monitoring inmate calls.
- Discipline of Inmates
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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 inmates 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.
- 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
- Proactive Restrictions of Telephone Privileges
- 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.
- As an additional safeguard to deter potential criminal conduct, the Department should
educate prosecutors about the availability of court orders restricting an inmates
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
- 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 Generals 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 BOPs knowledge about
the inmates history and puts the BOP on notice of the risk posed by the inmate.
However, given the BOPs 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.
- Role of SIS Officer
- 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
SISs 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
inmates 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 BOPs 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
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.