Bureau of Prisons:

Improved Evaluations and Increased Coordination Could Improve Cell Phone Detection

GAO-11-893: Published: Sep 6, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 6, 2011.

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The rates Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmates pay to make phone calls generate revenue that funds inmate wages and other amenities; however, inmates' contraband cell phone use is growing. The Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010 criminalized cell phone possession in federal prisons and mandated that GAO study related issues. In response to the mandate, this report addresses (1) how telephone rates for BOP inmates compare with other correctional systems and the implications of lowering rates; (2) the number of cell phones confiscated in BOP and selected states, and any reported impact; and (3) the extent to which BOP and selected states have taken actions to minimize cell phone smuggling, these actions' effectiveness, and how BOP has coordinated internal and state information sharing. GAO reviewed BOP's policies, procedures, and cell phone confiscation data (2008-2010). GAO also interviewed BOP officials within BOP's 6 regions and 4 of its 116 institutions--as well as officials from 8 state correctional departments--selected for their cell phone detection efforts or challenges faced. The results are not generalizable, but provide insights.

BOP's rates for inmate telephone calls typically are lower than selected state and military branch systems that also use telephone revenues to support inmate activities; lowering rates would have several implications. Inmates would benefit from the ability to make cheaper phone calls, but lower rates could result in less revenue and lower profits, and therefore fewer funds available for inmate wages and recreational activities. According to BOP officials, when inmates have fewer opportunities for physical activity, idleness increases, and the risk of violence, escapes, and other disruptions also rises. BOP and selected states confiscated thousands of cell phones in 2010, and these entities believe that rising inmate cell phone use threatens institutional safety and expands criminal activity. All of the BOP officials, as well as officials from all eight of the state departments of correction with whom GAO spoke, cited cell phones as a major security concern, given the potential the phones provide for inmates to have unmonitored conversations that could further criminal activity, such as selling drugs or harassing other individuals. BOP and selected states have taken actions to address contraband cell phone use in their correctional institutions, but BOP could better evaluate existing technologies to maximize its investment decisions. BOP screens visitors and staff to detect contraband and has also tested multiple cell-phone detection technologies. However, BOP has not developed evaluation plans for institutional use to measure the effectiveness of these tests, which could help ensure that such tests generate information needed to make effective policy decisions. Moreover, while BOP has shared detection strategies with state agencies to some extent, BOP's regional offices have only had limited interaction with states, and could increase coordination and knowledge sharing to better identify and benefit from other strategies being used. This is a public version of a sensitive but unclassified - law enforcement sensitive report that GAO issued in July 2011. Information that the Department of Justice deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO recommends that BOP's Director formulate evaluation plans for cell phone detection technology to aid decision making, require use of these plans, and enhance regional collaboration with states. The Department of Justice concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that while the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had developed criteria for determining which cell phone detection technology it should test for use, it had not developed a sound evaluation plan including--among other things--criteria or standards for determining how well the technology works. We also found that the level of technology evaluations performed could vary based on the institution responsible for implementation of the detection technology. As a result, we recommended that BOP develop a policy requiring regional and institutional adoption of technology evaluation plans, and that results of evaluations be shared with BOP leadership. In November 2011, BOP developed a new Program Statement defining the roles and responsibilities of its OST, with an attached technology evaluation template calling for a clear methodology, criteria, performance measures, and other items when assessing new security technology for use. This Program Statement requires that regional offices and institutions follow the evaluation template developed and provide evaluation results to OST. In February and March 2012, BOP made revisions to this template in response to questions and comments by GAO. The procedures outlined in BOP's revised Program Statement and evaluation template are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help BOP respond more effectively to contraband cell phone challenges, the Attorney General should direct the BOP Director to develop a policy to require that regions and institutions apply OST's evaluation plans when testing the technology that OST believes may be viable for detecting or combating contraband cell phones. This policy should also require OST to provide the results of these evaluations to BOP leadership to better inform BOP-wide decisions regarding the adoption of such technology.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that while the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had developed criteria for determining which cell phone detection technology it should test for use, it had not developed a sound evaluation plan including--among other things--criteria or standards for determining how well the technology works. As a result, we recommended that BOP's Office of Science and Technology (OST) form evaluation plans that support a consistent approach to testing and deploying such technologies. In November 2011, BOP developed a new Program Statement defining the roles and responsibilities of its OST, with an attached technology evaluation template calling for a clear methodology, criteria, performance measures, and other items when assessing new security technology for use. In February and March 2012, BOP made revisions to this template in response to questions and comments by GAO. The procedures outlined in BOP's revised Program Statement and evaluation template are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help BOP respond more effectively to contraband cell phone challenges, the Attorney General should direct the BOP Director to direct BOP's Office of Security Technology (OST) to formulate evaluation plans that both support a consistent approach to testing cell phone detection technologies and strengthen decisions about deploying cell phone detection projects. Such plans should include key characteristics of successful evaluation methods, such as defining measurable objectives and including a detailed data analysis plan. The plans should also clearly define evaluation-related responsibilities for the individuals conducting the test at each institution.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) regional offices had limited interactions with state and local agencies on combating contraband cell phone smuggling and use. As a result, we recommended that BOP enhance such collaboration, to include documenting and sharing information learned on efforts to combat cell phone smuggling. In November 2011 and later in February and March 2012, BOP provided us with updated information on collaborative information-sharing efforts. BOP noted that the National Institute of Corrections funds and supports the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). BOP also provided agendas from meetings ASCA had sponsored, which showed that state and federal correctional leaders had opportunities to specifically discuss cell phone smuggling experiences. We also received information on BOP's plans to develop an intelligence bulletin for sharing critical information on contraband cell phones with regional, state, and local partners. We then obtained this bulletin, which was distributed as BOP planned, in May 2012. BOP also provided us with examples of documentation (such as additional intelligence bulletins and meeting agendas) that Regional Offices have shared to demonstrate they have received information from other state and local partners. These actions taken by BOP are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help BOP respond more effectively to contraband cell phone challenges, the Attorney General should direct the BOP Director to enhance regional office collaboration with other federal, state, and local organizations; document what is learned; and share it throughout BOP to enhance agencywide knowledge of key efforts to prevent or minimize cell phone smuggling in prisons.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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