How to prevent costly anthrax prison mail hoaxes

A hoax anthrax letter can cost millions of dollars in emergency response and cast doubt on security measures in prison mailrooms

In October and November of 2015 a convicted rapist in a Tennessee private prison sent fake anthrax powder in letters to the FBI and other government agencies.

In March 2017, an Ohio inmate was sentenced to more time behind bars for mailing a white-powder substance to government offices. He mailed hoax anthrax letters to a prison committee and three central Ohio television stations. The letters actually contained an artificial sweetener.

This type of malicious deception is being used by inmates across the country, with the letters coming directly from prison mail rooms.

Firefighters in protective clothing prepare to enter the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. The second floor of the federal court building was evacuated Wednesday after authorities found a letter containing a threat about anthrax. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Firefighters in protective clothing prepare to enter the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. The second floor of the federal court building was evacuated Wednesday after authorities found a letter containing a threat about anthrax. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

These fake threats tax our government and environmental agencies and are costly for taxpayers. A two-day evacuation of a state agency in Connecticut regarding an anthrax hoax cost taxpayers $1.5 million in 2001.

Who responds to anthrax alerts?

Once a letter is opened containing a white powdery substance, everyone in the room is considered contaminated. No one is allowed to leave until they are decontaminated. Absolutely no contact with anyone outside the contaminated area is allowed. While the contaminated area is being secured, the following agencies are notified to either respond or be on stand-by:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Local law enforcement
  • EMS
  • Firefighters
  • Biohazard experts
  • Hazardous materials team
  • Hazard communication team
  • Exposure control team
  • Centers for Disease Control
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  • Biorecovery units
  • Health care advisors
  • Homeland security
  • State attorney’s office
  • Federal prosecutor office
  • Postal inspectors
  • Prison inspectors (when inmates are involved)

If prison staff can prevent these hoax letters from leaving prisons, millions of dollars can be saved.

Why do Inmates Send Hoax Anthrax Letters?

Many inmates send fake anthrax letters to be malicious and threaten the state attorney or their defense attorney. Other inmates think it is a game. They enjoy disrupting authority figures they consider their enemy.

Inmates may also use hoax anthrax letters as a way to be moved from prison back to the county jail. By receiving new charges, the inmate is moved back to jail in order to be closer to family or a loved one. Being transported also allows more chance for escape. Some inmates are not even sending the hoax letters to the government agency in the county they were sentenced in. This may indicate a want or need to be moved to that particular county jail and should be a red flag for security.

We need to pay attention any time an inmate is willing to risk added prison time. A majority of the inmates involved in hoax anthrax letters are serving long prison sentences.

How can Prison Management Prevent Anthrax Hoaxes?

Mail room security is important not only for the safety and security of our institutions, but our communities as well.

As a prison inspector I would flag suspect inmate mail and monitor all incoming and outgoing mail. On many occasions the outgoing mail gave me more information about future crimes such as introduction of contraband, death threats or escape plans than the incoming mail. This is an example of how important outgoing mail is to our safety and security.

Letters from inmates to the clerk of courts is public record. In my opinion, these letters can be searched with no legal issues. Many of the hoax anthrax letters have been mailed from prison to the clerk of courts. Letters from inmates to the state attorney’s office should not be sent. The inmates need to mail legal letters to their public defender or private attorney. The state attorney’s office should not open mail from inmates and should mark “return to sender.” Letters to judges from inmates should be returned to sender. Many judges want correspondence to go through the inmate’s attorney. Pro-Se Litigants can become a problem.

Prison leaders should work with their agency’s legal counsel to develop a plan. The goal is to find all contraband letters, while not impeding legal mail.

Mail room security staff or civilian mail room staff should be trained to check every outgoing letter for contraband. If letters are checked properly, a white-powder substance will be easy to see. Legal mail can be scanned, but not read. All mail should be scanned for contraband. This sounds simple, but not everyone is following this procedure.

Legal Rulings About Mail Checks

A report from the Arizona Capital Times dated May 18, 2017, noted: “In a unanimous decision Thursday, judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said corrections officials do have the right to ‘inspect’ outgoing mail, even to attorneys, to ensure that it does not contain contraband. That would include things like a map of the prison yard, timing of shift changes or even actual forbidden items.” 

Reading legal mail is still forbidden.

States vary in regard to how officers can scan legal mail. Wardens, assistant wardens and prison officials need to meet with the Bureau of Prisons and work with lawmakers to make it clear that searching outgoing legal mail is important, as this is the vehicle used most for anthrax hoaxes. We need legislature to back us up on this serious issue. Millions of taxpayer dollars can be saved by controlling outgoing prison mail.

I strongly believe inmates caught sending hoax anthrax letters should be placed on a terrorist list, charged with a federal crime and receive administrative disciplinary action from the prison.

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