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New crackdown on Rikers Island focuses on guards

By Bill Parry

New security measures have been announced at Rikers Island that will include tighter screenings of guards and employees following a large-scale undercover investigation by the New York City Department of Investigations.

Drug-sniffing dogs will be deployed for the first time at staff entrances at the massive prison after one investigator, posing as a corrections officer, successfully passed through Department of Corrections security with drugs and a weapon.

“I have zero tolerance for anyone, including staff, bringing contraband into DOC facilities,” Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said Nov. 6. “As part of DOC’s ongoing systemwide reforms, we are working on significant new steps to improve our methods for searching for contraband.” Ponte has been charged with reform at Rikers Island since taking over six months ago.

The report was issued as part of DOI’s comprehensive, ongoing investigation into criminal activity and civil disorder at Rikers Island. Investigators spent hundreds of hours reviewing security videos, conducting site visits, and performing undercover integrity tests.

As part of those integrity tests, the DOI undercover investigator smuggled in a razor blade and large quantities of heroin, marijuana and prescription narcotics at six facilities on Rikers Island. The drugs were stashed in the pockets of the investigator’s cargo pants and he was carrying a water bottle in his hand that contained gin, passing through staff entrance security checkpoints.

“DOI’s investigation exposes the dangerous problem of weapons and narcotics smuggling within the city’s jails,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said. “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 estimated, based on intelligence it has gathered, that a Corrections employee could make about $3,600 in courier fees for the amount of contraband smuggled during each operation. It also concluded that the resale value inside of Rikers of the contraband in each instance totaled more than $22,000.

The integrity test exposed another problem at the checkpoints, the report added. The investigator set off magnetometer alarms in one facility but not at others and security personnel allowed the investigator to continue on without emptying his pockets.

The DOI report documented the recent arrests of six Correctional staff and a nurse involving the smuggling of contraband in cargo pockets and lunch bags that were then distributed to inmates.

DOC Commissioner Ponte said that all items, including food and medications, will be X-rayed and the use of equipment and screening techniques similar to those used at airports will be introduced at Rikers Island.

“The department has already begun reforms to address the issues raised in the DOI report,” he said. “And we will continue to work with DOI to keep our facilities safe.”

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