Prison Work Programs:

Inmates' Access to Personal Information

GGD-99-146: Published: Aug 18, 1999. Publicly Released: Sep 17, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the extent to which inmates in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and state prison systems had access to personal information through correctional industry work programs; (2) prison safeguards and procedures, statutes and regulations, and proposed legislation that addressed correctional industry work programs involving personal information; (3) the extent to which contracts that provided inmates access to personal information contributed to BOP's and states' correctional industry income; (4) the extent to which BOP and state prison inmates had access to only names and addresses or telephone numbers through correctional industry work programs; and (5) incidents of inmates misusing information obtained through correctional industry work programs, including how safeguards failed and what, if any, changes were made as a result of the incidents.

GAO noted that: (1) on September 30, 1998, of approximately 1.2 million inmates, about 1,400 in BOP and 19 state prison systems had access to personal information through correctional industry work programs, based on the questionnaire responses from correctional industry officials; (2) of these 1,400 inmates, about 1,100 had access to names and dates of birth or Social Security numbers; (3) these inmates were performing work, such as data entry, for the federal, state, or local governments; (4) BOP and all the 19 states reported using a variety of safeguards to prevent inmates from misusing the information; (5) the safeguards cited by the largest number of states were close supervision, selective hiring (e.g., excluding inmates convicted of sex offenses or fraud), confidentiality agreements, and security checks at the exits from the work areas; (6) the federal government and seven states in which inmates had access to personal information were identified as having either enacted statutes or had bills pending that related to limiting which inmates could perform work involving personal information; (7) less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of BOP's and no more than 22 percent of any state's fiscal year 1998 gross correctional industry income was generated from contracts that resulted in inmates having access to personal information; (8) six states reported that less than 1 percent of their gross correctional industry income was earned from these contracts; (9) about 5,500 inmates in BOP and 31 state prison systems had access to only names and addresses or telephone numbers through correctional industry work program contracts or support work; (10) the three safeguards that the largest number of states and BOP reported using were similar to those used when inmates had access to personal information--close supervision, security checks at the exits from the work areas, and selective hiring; (11) questionnaire respondents described nine incidents in which inmates misused personal information or names and addresses or telephone numbers obtained from correctional industry work programs; (12) in four of the nine incidents, inmates removed information from the work areas, either physically or by memorization; and (13) in five of the incidents, the work programs were discontinued.

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