(August, 1999)





  1. Introduction

    Telephone privileges for Bureau of Prison (BOP) inmates have increased dramatically since the 1970s, when inmates were permitted one telephone call every three months and the call was placed by BOP staff. Now, most BOP inmates are allowed 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 few such calls – approximately 3.5 percent of all calls made by federal inmates. Consequently, prison officials have little control over any criminal activities discussed during those calls.

    This special review conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that a significant number of federal inmates use prison telephones to commit serious crimes while incarcerated – including murder, drug trafficking, and fraud. Although the BOP has been aware of this problem for a long time, it has taken insufficient steps to address the abuse of prison telephones by inmates. The BOP has failed to respond adequately, partly because of the fear of litigation if it made changes to inmate telephone privileges, partly because of its misplaced reliance on new technology to provide solutions, and partly because of its apparent belief that inmates primarily use the telephone to maintain family relationships and ties to the community.

    We believe that the fear of litigation should not prevent needed measures to combat inmate telephone abuse. We also conclude that no technology on the horizon will solve the problem of inmate telephone abuse without aggressive intervention by BOP officials. Moreover, while providing inmates access to telephones may further important correctional objectives, such as maintaining an inmate’s ties to his family, the BOP’s responsibilities extend beyond this objective. Permitting inmates virtually unlimited telephone privileges comes at the cost of providing them the ability to commit serious criminal activity using prison telephones. As described in this report, 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 the problem.

  2. The OIG Review

    At the outset of our review, we attempted to determine the scope of inmate abuse of prison telephones. 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 is not sufficiently specific to identify which cases involved the use of telephones. Several BOP officials acknowledged to us that their limited statistics do not represent the overall number of telephone violations because many violations are resolved informally or not pursued administratively when criminal charges are brought.

    Given the limited information available from the BOP, we attempted to independently identify the scope of inmate telephone abuse through a questionnaire we sent to all 94 United States Attorneys’ Offices (USAOs). In the questionnaire, we asked the USAOs to identify any cases they prosecuted involving crimes committed by inmates using telephones in BOP facilities. We sent a similar questionnaire to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters, for distribution to all FBI and DEA field offices, asking them to identify investigations they conducted involving federal inmates’ use of prison telephones to commit crimes. In response to our requests, we received information from 72 USAOs, 16 FBI field offices, and 11 DEA field offices. Because these organizations do not index cases according to whether they took place in prison or involved the use of telephones, their responses to our questionnaires were based more on the recollection of the people who filled them out rather than on any comprehensive statistical review.

    We also sent a questionnaire to the 66 BOP facilities that use the Inmate Telephone System (ITS), a telephone system that can store and analyze data about inmate telephone calls better than the older telephone system used in 27 other BOP facilities. In this survey, we sought information about the volume of inmate calls and each institution’s monitoring practices, staffing, equipment, and other policies related to the detection of telephone abuse by inmates.

    We also visited nine BOP facilities to interview staff responsible for the institution’s security and inmate telephone monitoring operations. These nine facilities represent institutions with different security levels and different physical layouts, two factors that affect the methods of monitoring the use of prison telephones. We visited four penitentiaries, three medium security facilities, and two low security institutions.

    In addition, we examined several prosecutions of high-profile inmates who were convicted of committing crimes from inside a BOP facility. We examined these cases to determine what steps, if any, the BOP had taken to prevent these inmates from using the telephones to continue their criminal activities while they were incarcerated. We also interviewed one of these inmates, Rayful Edmond III, about his experience using prison telephones to commit crimes.

    In total, we interviewed more than 70 BOP employees and approximately 20 other persons in the Department of Justice. We examined numerous documents, including BOP program statements on inmate telephone usage, the case law on inmate rights to telephone access, and the litigation and settlement agreement in a large class action lawsuit brought by inmates against BOP regarding the telephone system.

  3. OIG Findings

    1. Inmate Telephone Abuse

      Our interviews, case examinations, data collection, and document review paint a troubling picture of the scope and seriousness of inmate use of prison telephones to engage in criminal activity.

      From our interviews of law enforcement officials, we determined that inmate abuse of prison telephones appears to be widespread. For example, responses to our survey to the USAOs revealed 117 cases which those offices had prosecuted recently involving inmates’ use of prison telephones to commit criminal acts. Eleven of these cases involved prosecutions for murder or attempted murder arranged by inmates over prison telephones. In one case, an inmate used prison telephones to attempt to arrange the murder of two witnesses and a judge and to pay for the execution with illegal firearms. An additional ten inmates were prosecuted for schemes to threaten witnesses, and twelve were prosecuted for attempts to influence the testimony of witnesses. Twenty-five cases involved fraud schemes, many involving credit cards. In one case, an inmate directed by prison telephone a fraudulent employment matching service scheme that involved approximately $1.6 million. Another inmate used prison telephones to swindle trucking companies out of more than $100,000.

      The 16 FBI field offices that responded to our questionnaire reported that they conducted 44 investigations between 1996 and 1998 involving prison inmates. Of these cases, 27 involved introduction of narcotics into a BOP institution; 11 involved drug conspiracies outside prison being conducted over the telephone by inmates from inside prison; 2 involved financial fraud; 1 involved bribery and obstruction of justice; and 3 were ongoing so details were not provided. However, these offices could not state definitively whether the cases involved the use of prison telephones because their records were not indexed in that fashion. Yet, we believe that these statistics, which were based on the memories of those responding to the questionnaire, probably undercount the total number of FBI cases involving inmates using prison telephones because the FBI does not index cases based on their location or whether an inmate was involved.

      We also surveyed the DEA about any drug cases it has investigated involving the use of prison telephones by federal inmates. Eleven out of twenty-one DEA offices responded. They reported 12 cases at BOP facilities in which federal inmates had used prison telephones to commit crimes in the recent past. In none of these cases was the criminal activity detected by the BOP.

      The head of the FBI office in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which handles many FBI cases involving crimes in prison because of the office’s proximity to a large number of BOP institutions, also believed that many inmates commit criminal activities over prison telephones. He told us that he believed that when large scale drug dealers serve time in the United States Penitentiary (USP) in Lewisburg, “all you do is change his address and his phone number” by putting him in prison. He stated that drug dealers can conduct business as usual and may even feel a bit more secure behind bars than they do on the street. Another former Williamsport FBI agent told us that he believes few inmate calls from USP Lewisburg were legitimate calls to family and friends of inmates. Both FBI officials told us that in their view the BOP makes little effort to target inmate telephone calls for suspicious activity and to refer such evidence of criminal conduct to the FBI for investigation. A federal prosecutor from the Los Angeles USAO, who works mostly on prosecutions involving crime in prisons, similarly said that the use of prison telephones to commit crimes is rarely detected by the BOP.

      These statements were supported by our interview of Rayful Edmond, a notorious Washington D.C. drug dealer who used prison telephones at USP Lewisburg to run a drug organization through contacts to Colombian cocaine cartel members who he met in prison. Edmond told the OIG that during his incarceration at USP Lewisburg, he talked on the telephone “all day long” and made arrangements for drug deals on the telephone almost every day, including participating in conference calls to Colombia. He estimated that he arranged to have drugs brought into prison 50 or 60 times. He claimed that almost half of Lewisburg inmates were involved in bringing drugs into the institution and that most of these drug deals were arranged over prison telephones. Edmond said that he had little concern about conducting drug deals on prison telephones because he knew that most calls were not being monitored. He said he also believed that even if he were caught abusing his telephone privileges, at worst he would receive a light punishment or a restriction of his privileges for a short period of time.

    2. BOP’s Efforts to Prevent Inmate Telephone Abuse

      Based on our review, we concluded that the BOP’s limited attempts to monitor inmate calls are virtually useless in preventing inmates from committing crimes using the telephones. For example, only 3.5 percent of the tens of thousands of calls made each day from BOP facilities are monitored. Our survey found that even though inmate telephones were available an average of 18 hours per day, the institutions had staff assigned to listen to telephone calls an average of only 14 hours on weekdays and 12 hours on weekends. Our survey also indicates that 16 of the 66 BOP institutions using ITS assign staff to listen to inmate telephone calls less than 50 percent of the time that the telephones are operational. While all calls are recorded and can be listened to later, we found that this occurred rarely.

      We found that a few inmates were using prison telephones excessively. We found that approximately 74 percent of the inmates used the telephone less than 300 minutes during a one-month period. However, 15 inmates at the nine institutions we visited spent over 66 hours each on the telephone during a one-month period, but none of the institutions had done anything about this excessive telephone use or was even aware of it.

      During our visits to the nine institutions, we also saw that the BOP staff responsible for monitoring inmate telephone calls was not sufficiently trained on the telephone monitoring equipment or monitoring procedures. We did not talk to any telephone monitor who had received anything other than on-the-job training. We found no monitors who had received formal instruction on the best way to monitor; how to recognize suspicious activities or coded inmate language; which inmates should be monitored; or how to detect three-way calls, which are prohibited under BOP regulations. The telephone monitoring officer position is generally a rotating assignment, typically lasting 18 months. Several telephone monitors we interviewed said that by the time they learn how to effectively monitor inmate calls, their rotation was nearing its end. Moreover, the few permanent telephone monitors with whom we spoke did not use all of the tools that were available to them, such as the alert function on the ITS system that notifies the monitoring officer with an audible alarm whenever specified inmates were using the telephone. Several of the telephone monitors were not even aware that ITS had such a function.

      Many BOP facilities make little or no effort to monitor telephone use by high-risk inmates. For example, in response to our survey, 27 percent of the institutions reported that they do not use the ITS alert function. At the nine institutions we visited, we found few proactive investigations of any high-risk inmates’ use of the telephones. Several of the nine institutions made no attempt to even identify inmates who posed a high risk of using the telephones for criminal activity.

      Correctional officers are sometimes assigned collateral duties of monitoring inmate calls. However, we found that they generally monitor inmate calls in a perfunctory way and do the minimum required by their post orders. For example, at USP Atlanta the “post orders” expect (but do not require) certain correctional officers to listen to and file telephone monitoring reports for six or seven telephone calls each shift. That would result in 135 telephone monitoring reports each 24-hour period. Instead, we were told that between zero and 16 reports were filed each day at this institution. Many of the reports written by remote monitoring officers that we reviewed were virtually useless, containing short notations that were of little use in any monitoring effort.

      We also found that the equipment used to monitor inmate calls was inadequate. For example, five of the nine telephones used for monitoring inmate calls at USP Atlanta were broken and no work orders had been submitted to repair the majority of them. The telephone monitor in USP Atlanta told us that he believed the correctional officers who were supposed to monitor calls were breaking the equipment so they would not have to monitor inmate calls. We contacted the monitor again several weeks after our visit and he informed us that the equipment had not yet been fixed.

      Many inmate calls are in foreign languages. Yet, none of the facilities we visited had monitoring staff who were fluent in French, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic. Some BOP facilities do not have monitors who are fluent in Spanish, despite the fact that many facilities have a very significant Spanish-speaking population.

      At the nine institutions we visited, we found that virtually no review is performed of the inmates’ lists of approved numbers they may call to determine, for example, whether the lists include known criminals or past criminal confederates of the inmates. Inmates are permitted frequent changes to their telephone lists, and BOP staff normally approve the changes without review. None of the institutions we visited asked the Special Investigator Supervisor (SIS) office -- the part of the institution responsible for investigations of inmates -- to review inmate calling lists.

    3. Case Studies

      In addition to our general surveys and site visits, we examined several high-profile prosecutions of inmates who were convicted of conducting their crimes from inside a BOP facility. We looked at their cases to determine the BOP’s actions in each case and what, if anything, it could have done differently to detect the criminal activity. These cases provide vivid examples of the BOP’s failure to adequately monitor inmate telephone use, especially those inmates who are likely to commit further crimes in prison.

      Rayful Edmond was convicted in 1989 of running a large and sophisticated criminal enterprise that controlled much of the cocaine market in Washington, D.C. Soon after his arrival in USP Lewisburg, a correctional officer who was monitoring one of Edmond’s telephone calls reported that he appeared to be engaging in a drug deal. The BOP reported this incident to the FBI and was told to keep a close watch on Edmond. Yet, we found no evidence that the BOP gave any additional information about Edmond’s drug activities in prison to the FBI, or that the BOP sanctioned Edmond in any way for his use of prison telephones to continue his drug dealing.

      In 1992, the FBI obtained information from an informant about Edmond’s continued drug activities using prison telephones and shared that information with the BOP. But the BOP still took no action to discipline Edmond or restrict his calling privileges. Finally, in 1994, the FBI learned from another informant that Edmond was continuing to broker cocaine deals from prison. The FBI opened an investigation of Edmond and eventually confronted him with the evidence of his drug dealing. Edmond admitted that he had continued drug trafficking activities in prison.

      Our review showed that despite significant evidence that Edmond was continuing to engage in criminal activities using prison telephones, the BOP took no measures to restrict his privileges and expended little effort to monitor his calls. Moreover, several other inmates associated with Edmond also used the prison telephones to commit crimes without any response by the BOP. For example, we reviewed the case of Jose Naranjo, who was convicted of conspiracy to distributed cocaine in 1979. While serving a 12-year sentence in Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Otisville, he used the prison telephones to participate in a conspiracy to import cocaine from Colombia, South America to North Carolina. Even after his conviction for that crime, he continued to enjoy full telephone privileges. After being transferred to FCI Petersburg, he engaged in other conspiracies to distribute cocaine, and in 1995 was again convicted of drug distribution offenses. After Naranjo’s sentencing, the federal prosecutor wrote to the BOP to urge it to prohibit Naranjo from using prison telephones. However, during our review in 1998, we were surprised to learn that Naranjo’s telephone privileges had been restored and that the BOP was making no special effort to monitor his calls.

      Another case we examined was even more troubling. Anthony Jones, a drug dealer in Baltimore, Maryland, was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and was incarcerated at a BOP facility in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. While incarcerated, Jones became aware of an ongoing grand jury investigation into his drug activities. He used the prison telephones to order his associates outside prison to murder two witnesses he suspected had testified against him. One of the witnesses was killed and the other was shot several times. As a result, in May 1998 Jones was convicted of murder and attempted murder charges, and he received a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Yet, even after this conviction, Jones retained full telephone privileges and the BOP did not take any measures to monitor his telephone calls. Only after the OIG questioned the BOP about Jones’ telephone access did it move to restrict his telephone privileges in July 1998.

      The case of Oreste Abbamonte provided another example of the BOP’s failure to monitor or restrict inmate telephone abuse. Abbamonte had a long history of convictions for drug distribution. In 1986, while imprisoned in FCI Lewisburg, he was convicted for using prison telephones to orchestrate the distribution of multiple kilograms of heroin. After this conviction, the USAO for the Southern District of New York wrote a letter to the Director of the BOP stating that Abbamonte’s access to prison telephones had enabled him to commit drug crimes while incarcerated and expressing the hope that narcotics distributors would have special restrictions placed on their use of prison telephones. When Abbamonte was sentenced, the court specifically recommended that Abbamonte be confined to the BOP’s highest security facility and that he have limited telephone privileges.

      Despite these recommendations, the BOP placed no restrictions on Abbamonte’s telephone use, and his drug trafficking using prison telephones continued. While in a BOP facility in Leavenworth, Abbamonte again used prison telephones to conspire to purchase cocaine, and he was convicted in 1992 for this offense.

      When we reviewed Abbamonte’s BOP files in 1998, we were surprised to find that Abbamonte’s telephone privileges were not limited in any way, despite the USAO’s letter, the court’s specific request, and his repeated use of the prison telephones to commit crimes. He has never been charged with any violations of BOP regulations for using prison telephones for his continuing criminal activities, and he was not even placed on the special monitoring list maintained by the prison’s SIS office.

      Finally, we reviewed BOP case files from four randomly selected inmates whose convictions received significant public attention and who appeared to have the resources to continue criminal activities while incarcerated. We reviewed 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 two of the four cases, we found that the BOP was properly monitoring the inmates’ telephone calls, but in the two others cases the BOP was not. In one of these cases, the prosecutor had even made a specific request for such monitoring to occur and the warden had provided assurances that it would. Despite these representations, no onitoring of this inmate’s calls was occurring.

  4. BOP’s Corrective Efforts

    Our review found that the BOP has taken only limited and insufficient corrective efforts to address the serious problem of inmate telephone abuse for a variety of reasons – such as a lack of resources, the press of other issues, and the belief that a settlement with inmates in a class action lawsuit about inmate access to telephones imposes restrictions.

    Three working groups have reviewed inmate telephone use in the past few years – a BOP working group convened in August 1996, a Department of Justice working group convened in the fall of 1996, and another BOP working group in 1997. However, changes as a result of these working groups have been extremely limited. For example, the BOP has attempted to implement 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.

    Several BOP officials told us they believed that a new generation of telephone equipment planned for installation in all BOP institutions during the next two years will detect many cases of inmate telephone abuse. However, we found that the 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. Implementation of a new inmate telephone system is not the cure all that some BOP officials apparently are counting on. In fact, given the lack of understanding and failure to use some of the security features that already exist in the BOP telephone system, the new system may have little impact on BOP’s efforts to detect telephone abuse by inmates.

  5. OIG Recommendations

    We believe that unless the BOP places meaningful restrictions on inmate telephone privileges, steps up its monitoring of selected inmate calls, and disciplines telephone abusers consistenly, no significant change in the level and seriousness of inmate telephone abuse will occur.

    Based on our review, we recommend that the BOP take steps to curb prison telephone abuse in four ways. First, the BOP must increase the percentage of inmate telephone calls it monitors if it expects to make any headway on the problem of inmate telephone abuse. While additional resources will be helpful in this regard, because of the high volume of inmate calls the only realistic solution is to reduce the number of calls so that BOP staff assigned to this task can monitor a greater percentage of calls. Towards this end, we make various recommendations, including that the BOP impose limits on all inmates’ telephone privileges, set a significantly higher goal for monitoring inmate calls and then calculate the resources needed to meet this goal, have telephone monitors on duty at all times that prison telephones are available to inmates, do a better job identifying inmates with a high probability of abusing their telephone privileges, and institute a plan to monitor these inmates calls proactively.

    Second, the BOP must increase and more consistently discipline telephone abusers. During our review, we found various cases in which inmates retained full telephone privileges even after they were 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 their use of prison telephones. The BOP also 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 all telephone privileges. Inmates who commit crimes using prison telephones also should have their privileges revoked. The BOP also 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.

    Third, the BOP should restrict telephone privileges proactively for inmates who have a history of telephone abuse or a likelihood of abuse. This would mean that some inmates simply would not have telephone privileges because of their previous behavior using the telephones in prison. As an additional safeguard to deter potential criminal conduct, the Department of Justice should educate prosecutors about the availability of court orders restricting an inmate’s telephone privileges in racketeering and drug cases. The Department also should 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. Moreover, the Department should emphasize to USAOs the need to inform BOP of inmates who pose special risks of committing serious crimes while incarcerated, as outlined in a letter from the Attorney General on May 7, 1998. As of the fall of 1998, the BOP had received only two such notifications. These notifications are critical because they fill gaps in BOP’s knowledge about the inmate’s history and put the BOP on notice of the risk posed by certain inmates. In light of the BOP’s failure to properly monitor high-risk inmates after either court order or notice from prosecutors, we recommend that a reporting system be established to assure USAOs that the BOP has taken proper measures after such a notification.

    Fourth, the BOP should emphasize the responsibility of its officers to detect and deter crimes by inmates using BOP phones. 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 intelligence-gathering on inmates. In addition, the BOP should revise its procedures to require SIS staff to ensure that the numbers listed on an inmate’s telephone calling list are investigated prior to approval of those lists, especially with high-risk inmates.

    In sum, permitting inmates access to prison telephones and protecting the public against crimes committed with prison telephones present a complex balancing of interests. Our review highlighted the problem of inmate abuse of prison telephones, and the serious crimes that are committed by inmates using the telephones. Because of the BOP’s generally ineffective efforts to monitor calls, prevent inmate telephone abuse, or sanction inmates who abuse their telephone privileges, we believe that the BOP’s current policy of affording unlimited telephone access to the vast majority of its inmates requires serious examination and substantial revision.

    Michael R. Bromwich
    Inspector General