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Opinion Weak staff-search policy aids federal prison smuggling, report says

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, in Coleman, Fla. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Are prison employees behind “the persistent problem of contraband smuggling” in federal prisons?

An investigation into the Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Prisons cites weak and ineffective procedures that make it easier for workers to get prohibited items to inmates.

And employees, albeit a small percentage, do smuggle.

Justice Department news releases show seven cases of smuggling-related crimes charged against individuals while they were federal prison employees so far this year. That does not include staffers disciplined administratively. To put that in context, contraband represents about 5 percent of the prison staff misconduct cases.

A new report from the department’s Office of the Inspector General says 134 BOP staffers, less than 1 percent of the agency’s workforce, were implicated in substantiated contraband-related investigations over the two-year period that ended in July 2014. More employees might have been investigated directly by the prison system, but a spokesman said he couldn’t immediately provide that information.

While the portion of employees involved is small, contraband “poses grave dangers” to the 200,000 prison inmates, as well as staffers, visitors and the public, the report warned. The most common prohibited items found in federal prisons during fiscal years 2012 through 2014 were cellphones.

“Inmates with cellphones can direct criminal activities from behind bars, including intimidating witnesses and victims,” Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in a statement. “Inmates also have used cellphones to coordinate escapes. We found that cellphones are one of the most prevalent and dangerous contraband items that the BOP recovers in federal prisons, with over 8,000 phones confiscated during a recent three-year period.” That’s almost eight every day.

Here’s a big problem — “BOP still does not have an effective policy for searching staff when they enter prisons, despite our raising this issue more than 13 years ago,” Horowitz said. “For example, we found that correctional officers and other staff entering federal prisons are rarely subject to random pat-down searches.”

The inspector general’s analysis found that high-security federal penal institutions do the equivalent of one random pat search every three months. A staffer could probably escape that.

The BOP agreed with the report’s recommendations and said it “will develop and propose changes to the staff search policy that includes a minimum frequency and duration requirement for randomly pat searching staff.”

Lackadaisical procedures don’t stop with searches. The inspector general’s office said prison officials do not “comprehensively and reliably” track recovered smuggled goods and employees need more guidance and training on new technologies to detect contraband.

In 2003, the inspector general told prison officials they should require searches of workers and their property when they enter facilities. Apparently it was not considered a top priority, because a staff-search policy was not implemented until 10 years later, following talks with the American Federation of Government Employees. That policy lasted only two years before it was thrown out by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. It acted on a complaint by the union’s Council of Prison Locals that the search policy had not been “fully negotiated” with the labor organization as required.

Although prison officials agreed that the current level of staff searches are “not conducted with enough frequency to be an aggressive and effective deterrent,” the report says the bureau is limited because any new policy requires additional labor negotiations.

While AFGE officials did not comment for this story, the report said union leaders pointed out that relatively few employees engage in illegal activities and “emphasized that random pat searches subject the rest of the rule-abiding staff to harassment, intimidation, and coercion by institution management.” Union officials said they would support staff searches when there is reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

Because it took a decade for prison officials to implement the 2003 recommendation for staff searches, the report said, “we believe the BOP must make this issue a priority with the goal of much more timely corrective action to improve the safety of BOP institutions.”

The staff-search policy was reinstated with minor changes in March. While the policy allows random staff searches, it does not dictate any level of frequency. Lax policy means searches are rare.

Another problem is that staffers can take containers of any size into work, according to the report, “including duffle bags, briefcases, and large and small coolers,” contrary to a 16-year-old inspector general’s office recommendation against that: “We reported in 2003 that unrestricted property and large personal containers are among the significant methods for introducing contraband.”

This contrasts with state prison systems that “employ more stringent measures to deter contraband introductions,” the report said.

Also, the prison system’s security camera operation has “blind spots known to inmates and staff” that “further reduce the BOP’s ability to deter contraband introductions.”

The report concluded, “The safety and security of staff and inmates will continue to be at risk until the BOP develops and implements a comprehensive and effective staff search policy.”

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