DOI Easily Brings Contraband Into Rikers Jails

Today, Mark G. Peters, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation (“DOI”), issued a comprehensive Report that details the results of a large-scale undercover investigation finding serious problems with security screening protocols and contraband smuggling on Rikers Island. As a result, the City Department of Correction (“DOC”) has agreed to significantly enhance its security procedures, including the implementation for the first time of drug-sniffing dogs at staff entrances, the assignment of the Special Operations Division (“SOD”) to oversee security at staff entrances, and the consideration of upgrading DOC search protocols to the standards employed by the federal Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”). 

DOI’s Report documents DOI’s investigation into the significant and ongoing problem of weapons and narcotics smuggling at Rikers Island, and includes findings from DOI’s integrity tests in which a DOI investigator posed undercover as a Correction Officer and successfully passed through DOC security to smuggle in drugs and a razor blade, exposing lax and inconsistent security procedures. The Report; however, concludes that DOC’s proposed reforms are “reasonably calculated to address the problems found in this report.”

DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters said, “DOI’s investigation exposes the dangerous problem of weapons and narcotics smuggling within the City’s jails. We are pleased that DOC has responded quickly to these most-recent findings and proposed new protocols that we believe will address these issues. DOI will issue a full report on its months-long investigation on Rikers Island before the end of the year.”  

DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte said, “I have zero tolerance for anyone, including staff, bringing contraband into DOC facilities. As part of DOC’s ongoing system-wide reforms, we are working on significant new steps to improve our methods for searching for contraband. These include: the requirement that all items including food and medications be x-rayed; the random deployment of drug-sniffing canines at facility front gates; and the deployment of Special Operations Division officers at front gates. DOC is also exploring the use of equipment and screening techniques similar to those used at airports at our facilities. The Department has already begun reforms to address the issues raised in the DOI report, and we will continue to work with DOI to keep our facilities safe.”

Today’s Report is part of DOI’s comprehensive, ongoing investigation into criminal activity and civil disorder at Rikers Island. As part of that probe, which DOI has been conducting since the first part of this year, DOI investigators spent hundreds of hours reviewing security videos, conducting site visits, and performing undercover integrity tests. As part of those integrity tests, a DOI undercover investigator posing as a Correction Officer smuggled in a razor blade and large quantities of heroin, marijuana, and prescription narcotics at six facilities on Rikers Island. Specifically, the DOI undercover investigator carried in on his person:

  • one plastic bag containing 250 glassine envelopes of heroin,

  • one plastic bag containing 24 packaged strips of suboxone, which is a prescription opiate substitute similar to methadone,

  • two plastic bags containing a total weight of one-half-pound of marijuana,

  • one 16-ounce water bottle containing vodka, and

  • one razor blade. 

The undercover investigator successfully smuggled the contraband – carrying the marijuana and narcotics in his cargo pants pockets and the alcohol in a water bottle in his hand -- through staff entrance security checkpoints at the Anna M. Kross Center, Otis Bantum Correctional Center, George Motchan Detention Center, George R. Vierno Center, Eric M. Taylor Center, and the Robert N. Davoren Center. The contraband was immediately secured by DOI at the conclusion of these operations.  DOI estimates, based on intelligence it has gathered, that a DOC employee could make approximately $3,600 in courier fees for the amount of contraband smuggled during each operation; and that the resale value inside of Rikers of the contraband in each instance totaled more than $22,000.

These integrity tests also exposed inconsistent security procedures, for example, magnetometers that detect metal contraband on an individual that were set at different levels at different facilities, so the undercover investigator set off an alarm in one facility, but not another; security personnel that allowed the undercover investigator to walk into the facility after triggering the magnetometer, and without emptying his pockets; and the failure to follow current protocols, for example, improperly using a transfrisker wand to examine only the investigator’s belt after the investigator said his belt triggered the magnetometer alarm. 

DOI has investigated and arrested many Correction Officers over the years for smuggling contraband into the City jails. The Report documents the recent arrests of six Correctional staff and a nurse regarding the smuggling of contraband and what DOI has learned from those investigations, specifically that contraband is smuggled in cargo pants pockets and lunch bags and then distributed to inmates.

The failure to prevent smuggling to date – especially smuggling by Correction Officers and staff – has two causes: First, the previous protocols for screening staff upon entrance to the facility were not sufficient to actually detect and prevent illegal conduct. Second, even these ineffective protocols were not consistently followed in practice.

The results of DOI’s investigation demonstrate, conclusively, that the new set of controls designed by DOC must be implemented. DOI will continue to monitor the efficacy of these reforms. This investigation was conducted by DOI’s Office of Inspector General for DOC.

DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters thanked DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, and his staff, for their assistance in this investigation.