More Terrorists, Less Resources: Confronting One of the Most Critical Challenges in Corrections History

By Turner, Allan | Corrections Today, July 2004 | Go to article overview

More Terrorists, Less Resources: Confronting One of the Most Critical Challenges in Corrections History


Turner, Allan, Corrections Today


In the early 1990s, the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., was the only administrative maximum-security penitentiary within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. At that time, USP Marion housed the highest risk inmates in the federal prison system, including several foreign and domestic terrorists. Thus, there was concern about outside support for these inmates and the potential for an external assault on the facility as part of an escape attempt.

Although there previously had been numerous threats and an external assault on USP Marion by several people aiding members of a security threat group during an escape, the focus was still primarily on "inside out" security with little attention given to "outside in" security. It was apparent that the ability to deal with the growing external threat was inadequate. In 1991, the facility was able to obtain some funding to improve longstanding security concerns. The meager resources at USP Marion were stretched as far as possible to install additional surveillance equipment and establish a security position on the main avenue of approach into the institution. Although there was never an actual assault on the institution, intelligence sources provided information on several threats by outside associates of Colombian drug cartel members and other high-risk inmates to use aircraft and weapons to attack the facility between 1991 and 1992. One threat was credible enough to cause the U.S. attorney general to dispatch part of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team to USP Marion for a short period of time to provide extra security.

While the potential for an outside assault on USP Marion was great at that time, it does not compare with the seriousness of the threat that exists for many correctional facilities today.

Forgotten But Not Excluded

As widely reported by the news media, there is a major effort under way, beginning at the federal level, to develop and provide the tools necessary to deal with weapons of mass destruction and to fight the war on terrorism. During the past several months, a number of meetings and conferences related to this effort have been held. The emphasis is on providing first responders (firefighters, emergency medical personnel and law enforcement) with the equipment and training to cope with incidents involving weapons of mass destruction and developing the intelligence gathering, information sharing and tracking technology tools necessary to prevent such attacks. Unfortunately, corrections is rarely mentioned in any venue either as a key element in combating terrorism or as a priority for resources. This may be due in part to planners not considering correctional staff to be first responders (of course, this is true unless a correctional facility is the target), and law enforcement and security personnel not fully recognizing, nor fully appreciating, the important role corrections plays in an effective homeland security strategy. However, make no mistake, corrections is not excluded from the war on terrorism. According to the FBI, al Qaeda continues to recruit members in U.S. prisons despite a government crackdown. In fact, prisons are likely to be breeding grounds for any criminal activity, and terrorism is no exception, as reported by FOX News.

FOX News has also reported that Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in New York for plotting to blow up landmarks, is accused of sending messages from prison through visiting attorneys that directed terrorist acts to followers. And Jose Padilla, the dirty bomber, was exposed to radical Islam during his time in American prisons and from there was recruited by the al Qaeda network.

In fact, a key area of recruitment, according to the June 18, 2002, Washington Times article "Terrorists Recruited From the U.S. Seen as Rising Threat," is U.S. prisons and jails, where al Qaeda and other organizations have found men who have already been convicted of violent crimes and have little or no loyalty to the United States. …

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