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Prisons Failing in Oversight of Dangerous Inmates

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Prisons Failing in Oversight of Dangerous Inmates

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Prisons Failing in Oversight of Dangerous Inmates

Prisons Failing in Oversight of Dangerous Inmates

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A new report from the Justice Department finds that prison officials are failing to read the mail of some of the nation's most dangerous convicted terrorists. Investigators found widespread staff and funding shortages.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's talk about some inmates in this country. A new report by the Justice Department has found the Bureau of Prisons is not reading the mail of some of the most dangerous convicted terrorists in custody. The terrorists are kept in federal maximum-security prisons, often in isolation, and some have been writing letters to suspected terrorists abroad.

The Department's Inspector General's Office wrote the report and has compiled a long to-do list for prison officials to get a handle on this problem, as NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: The office spent a year studying how well federal prisons are reading the letters of high-threat inmates. Inspector General Glenn Fine says the results weren't good.

Mr. GLENN FINE (Inspector General, Department of Justice): First, we found that the Bureau of Prisons does not read all the mail for terrorists and other high-risk inmates that are on its mail-monitoring lists. Second, we found the Bureau of Prisons does not have enough proficient translators to translate the inmate mail that are written in foreign languages. And third, we found the Bureau of Prisons does not have sufficient staff that are trained in intelligence techniques to analyze whether the terrorist communications contain suspicious content.

SULLIVAN: That's a problem, Fine says, as they've already seen. Last March, the department learned three convicted terrorists at ADX Florence in Colorado wrote more than 90 letters to people with suspected links to terrorism. Some were connected to the Madrid train bombings. Inspector Fine says his office wanted to see if the Bureau of Prisons had improved at monitoring the mail. Instead, the report says officials are reading even fewer letters than they were a year ago.

Mr. FINE: I think the problem is they don't have a devoted, concerted effort to this high priority item.

SULLIVAN: The Bureau says its policy is to read every piece of inmate mail, but in the week the inspectors went to ADX Florence, prison officials read less than two percent of all letters. Fine says that could be a boon to convicted terrorists who want to get their message out.

Mr. FINE: They can communicate outside the facility and encourage and then participate in other criminal and terrorist activities, which is something that should not happen.

SULLIVAN: Florence houses 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, 1993 Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and a dozen others convicted of masterminding or financing terrorist plots. It also houses hundreds of gang leaders.

Federal law allows prisoners to write letters, but prisons can limit who the inmates are writing to. The report blames staffing shortages and a lack of translators for the problem. While the bureau did hire people specifically to read the mail, inspectors found many of them were pulled off to fill in elsewhere, leaving most of the terrorist's letters to leave and come into the prison unread.

Professor MICHAEL KRAUSS (Professor of Law, George Mason University): That's inexcusable. If they can communicate, even in code, then that's a very serious matter.

SULLIVAN: George Mason law Professor Michael Krauss specializes in national security. He says terrorism investigators are missing an opportunity to find other possible terrorists and letting those convicted become celebrities abroad.

Professor KRAUSS: That would be a tremendous achievement for them.

SULLIVAN: The inspector general's Office has recommended the Bureau hire more staff and translators, better train the staff they do have and make the issue a priority. Inspector General Glenn Fine says the Bureau also needs to better monitor visits and phone calls.

Bureau officials declined requests for an interview, but in the report they acknowledge they don't have the staff required to read thousands of letters each week. They said in a statement they hope to hire more people in the next budget cycle.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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