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Archive for Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Risk cited in unscreened prison mail

October 4, 2006

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— Mail for convicted terrorists and other dangerous federal inmates isn't being fully read by prison authorities, and that is a risk to national security, a Justice Department review concluded Tuesday.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is supposed to translate and screen all mail to and from the highest-risk inmates - including terrorists, gang members and spies - for evidence of criminal activity. But that target was not being met consistently at 10 federal prisons and detention centers surveyed by the Justice Department's inspector general.

"The threat remains that terrorist and other high-risk inmates can use mail and verbal communications to conduct terrorist or criminal activities while incarcerated," concluded the report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. It urged the Bureau of Prisons to quickly correct the security gap, including putting tracking systems in place to ensure all high-risk inmate mail is read and analyzed.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said the agency agrees with the review's recommendations in whole or in part. But it is largely too cash-strapped to afford enough staff to sort through the thousands of letters and other pieces of mail federal prisons receive each week - what Bureau of Prisons Director Harley G. Lappin described to inspectors as searching for "a needle in a haystack."

Experts fear that a new generation of homegrown terrorists is being bred in prison and, after release, they will seek guidance from Islamic extremists still behind bars.

The Justice Department's mail investigation was spurred, in part, after three convicted terrorists at a federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo., were found to have written an estimated 90 letters between 2002 and 2004 to Islamic extremists - some with links to the March 11, 2004, attacks on commuter trains in Madrid. Some of the letters later surfaced in the hands of a terror suspect who used them to recruit suicide operatives.

The Madrid attacks killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,700.

Following that discovery, the Bureau of Prisons took steps to limit high-risk inmates' mail and telephone calls, the inspector general found. It also hired more Arabic translators and sought to better analyze mail.

Limited funding, in the face of a growing inmate population, has hindered those efforts, the inspector general's report concluded. About 10 percent of an estimated 191,000 federal inmates, as of July, are considered high risk. The number of high-risk inmates has grown by 60 percent over the last decade; by contrast, federal prisons' staff increased by 14 percent, from an estimated 30,200 to 34,600.

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