An undercover investigator posing as a correction officer smuggled drugs, alcohol, and a razor blade into jails in Manhattan and Brooklyn with incredible ease and found the Department of Corrections failed to implement reforms it supported publicly for nearly five years.
A report published by the Department of Investigations [PDF], New York City’s inspector general, recounts how an investigator bypassed security screenings at staff entrances to the Manhattan Detention Complex and the Brooklyn Detention Complex with minimal effort in September 2017. He carried two scalpel blades, 26.8 grams of marijuana, and five strips of the prescription opiate substitute Suboxone in his pockets.
This is the second time in the last three years inspectors have effortlessly carried contraband past officers into city jails.
The undercover investigator was not manually searched by corrections officers when he set off the magnetometer, nor was he asked to walk through the machine again.
One officer asked if he had contraband but “accepted the investigator’s answer without conducting a physical search.” Officers let the person being searched dictate how they would be searched and were observed letting their colleagues place food containers on top of X-ray machines instead of through them.
The inspector general recommended drug-sniffing dogs, moving staff lockers to outside the front gate, eliminating unnecessary pockets from uniforms, and hiring a dedicated independent team to handle security at staff entrances.
Notably, officers explained they do not search their colleagues because they work alongside them in the housing units. They are “asked to oversee the same corrections officers they must depend on to protect them.”
This is what is known as the “blue wall of silence,” an understanding between officers not to hold their colleagues accountable for abuse and misconduct, and that there could be consequences for those who do speak up. It is precisely the culture that has animated the legendary corruption and brutality in New York City’s corrections department and what renders many reforms moot.
This report is a grave warning as the city moves to invest tens of billions of dollars in training, technology, and infrastructure for the demonstrably corrupt department as part of its effort to close Rikers Island and reform the jail system.
DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann reacted to the report with optimism, saying investigators “didn’t find fault with our policy but urged us to better apply our procedures which we are committed to doing, and we have already begun implementing significant reforms.” But anyone following this story should feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
In 2014, the inspector general observed identical flaws and recommended identical reforms [PDF] after undercover officers smuggled contraband with a resale value of $22,000 into six facilities on Rikers Island.
During that inspection, officers did not conduct searches in a “thorough and consistent manner,” allowing investigators to bring 250 envelopes of heroin, 24 strips of Suboxone, a half pound of marijuana, a razor blade, and a 16 ounce water bottle full of vodka into city jails.
The corrections department agreed with and accepted the recommendations but didn’t publish a timeline for their implementation. Though they did issue a policy directive to address some of the inspector general’s concerns, and then-commissioner Joseph Ponte said the department had “zero tolerance for anyone, including staff, bringing contraband into DOC’s facilities.”
Since then, 27 corrections officers, 33 inmates, and 10 civilians were arrested for contraband and investigators believe the problems found at Rikers in 2014 are “equally prevalent” in other city jails today.
Corrections officials are far more concerned with policing contraband from visitors and inmates than from within their own ranks. Roughly 80 percent of the city’s jail population is awaiting trial and thousands can’t afford bail.
The department has repeatedly increased restrictions on visitation and penalties for visitors and inmates, which have real collateral consequences. Visiting inmates in New York City jails is already an arduous affair, from the difficult and expensive journey to the harassment, humiliation, and abuse visitors face from corrections officers.
Limiting physical contact during visits is especially cruel, making it harder for inmates to cope with their detention and retain essential connections with their children, partners, and support networks on the outside.
In 2014, it was revealed DOC fingerprinted visitors for at least four years. Although fingerprinting was technically optional, most visitors did not know they could refuse. Had they known, they likely would have allowed the fingerprinting so their visit was not canceled.
The officer union has asked repeatedly for the city to allow them to use ionizing body scanners to scan inmates for contraband. They are illegal in New York because of the health risks they pose.
Lost in all of this is an understanding of the contraband economy in jails: how much money officers can make, the control it offers them, and what little risk or resistance they have faced in smuggling and reselling. The sheer number of officers participating openly in contraband conspiracies evinces a sense of comfortable impunity among staff. And that impunity is reinforced by the department’s policy and enforcement choices.
In 2013, three corrections officers were arrested as a result of investigations into contraband smuggling at Rikers. Austin Romain brought tobacco and marijuana into two jails and made nearly $11,000 through an “elaborate payment scheme” with an inmate’s girlfriend. Khalif Philips was arrested for bringing marijuana to inmates, making as much as $2,000 on one occasion. Angel Lazarte brought marijuana, oxycodone, tobacco, liquor, and scalpel blades to inmates and made several thousand dollars.
The following year, in June, two more officers were arrested and the New York Times reported “at least 12 other correction officers and their superiors were referred for prosecution” as part of an investigation into drug trafficking, abuse, and falsifying documents.
After the corrections department issued new search protocols for officers that September, undercover inspectors smuggled contraband into six Rikers jails.
A few weeks after the 2014 contraband report, Jeffrey Taylor, a nurse for the jail’s for-profit medical provider Corizon Health Care, was arrested for bringing tobacco, alcohol, and Suboxone to inmates. He was caught after investigators listened to over 400 DOC-recorded phone calls of Taylor openly discussing his smuggling operation.
In June 2015, a correction officer, an inmate, and two relatives were accused of smuggling contraband into the Manhattan Detention Complex. By September, the Board of Correction, which regulates city jails, proposed running background checks to screen visitors for “criminal records, visit patterns and trends, and visitor and inmate contraband history.”
When an officer was slashed by an inmate that November, Commissioner Ponte published a statement, claiming the department was engaged in various reforms that inspectors would later find were not implemented in 2017. In December 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio released a “fact sheet” listing hundreds of millions of dollars his administration invested in training, technology, and new equipment to catch visitors and inmates with contraband.
The Board of Correction passed new rules to limit contact during visitation with little publicity in January 2016. By May, two corrections officers, a cook, and several inmates were arrested for contraband. One of the officers, Kevin McKoy, pled guilty and faced two to six years in prison.
Less than a week after their arrests were reported, an article from the local NBC News affiliate, which prominently featured union officials and officers, lauded the number of drug-sniffing K9 units now in the department and celebrated the strides they were allegedly making in cracking down on contraband.
Officer Kevin Cordova, who trained the K-9 units for the Department of Corrections, told NBC, “These inmates sit here and they have ways of thinking. All they do is think of ways to hide stuff all day.”
In January 2017, Raven Rakia reported on the invasive searches women endure when visiting Rikers Island:
Records obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information law reveal that since 2010, New York’s 311 call center has received at least 83 complaints about correction officers subjecting visitors to strip searches or cavity searches. The complaints range in severity from visitors who said officers made them open their pants or disrobe completely to those who said officers penetrated their body cavities. Over the same period, the Board of Correction received 84 complaints about visitors being searched improperly.
At least 27 women have filed or are in the process of filing lawsuits that accuse the Department of Correction of unlawfully strip-searching visitors. Most of the allegations involve searches conducted at Rikers, New York City’s largest jail complex, but they also span facilities across the city’s boroughs, including the Manhattan Detention Center and the Brooklyn Detention Center.
By July, the department revised its visitation rules by strengthening provisions that would let them deny people visitation, including the ability to revoke contact visits and impose stiffer penalties on visitors. The following month, investigators smuggled contraband into Manhattan and Brooklyn jails, finding not much had changed since their last attempt in 2014.
According to reports, in 2018, visitors to Rikers Island are being strip searched and sexually assaulted by officers. The focus remains on everyone but jail personnel, even though the Department of Justice charged two officers with smuggling contraband on February 8.