By Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich

Criminal Calls:
A Review of the Bureau of Prisons' Management of Inmate Telephone Privileges

In August of 1999 Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich of the Office of the Inspector General wrote an independent report "Criminal Calls: A Review of the Bureau of Prisons' Management of Inmate Telephone Privileges," which painted a bleak picture of abuses occurring in the system.

Based on information garnered from a questionnaire sent to all 94 United States Attorneys' Offices (USAOs), FBI and DEA field offices, it outlined a troubling picture of the scope and seriousness of inmate use of prison telephones to engage in criminal activity. Below is an excerpt of that report.

Telephone privileges for Bureau of Prison (BOP) inmates have increased dramatically since the 1970s, when inmates were permitted only one telephone call every three months. 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 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.

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 10 inmates were prosecuted for schemes to threaten witnesses, and 12 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; two involved financial fraud; one involved bribery and obstruction of justice.

In fact, 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.

'Little effort' made

Many BOP facilities make little or no effort to monitor telephone use by high-risk inmates. For example, in response to our survey, 27percent of the institutions reported that they do not use the ITS (Inmate Telephone System) alert function. 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. While all calls are recorded and can be listened to later, we found that this occurred rarely.

We also found that the equipment used to monitor inmate calls was inadequate.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Clearly, the BOP's current policy of unlimited access to telephones for the vast majority of inmates-coupled with its monitoring of less than 4 percent of all inmate conversations-needs serious examination and revision. ...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. 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.

You can find the entire report at: