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Probe Finds Poor Security at New York City's Rikers Island

Probe Finds Poor Security at New York City's Rikers Island
Investigation finds problems with security at the city's jail complex.

Water bottles filled with vodka that go uninspected. Lunch boxes packed with drugs allowed to bypass X-ray machines. Razor blades and other objects waved on through, even when they set off metal detectors.

   Gaping security holes at the city's Rikers Island jail allowed guards and other staffers to easily smuggle in all manner of contraband - including heroin, marijuana, booze and weapons - to the inmates they are supposed to be watching, city investigators found.

   Such porousness has proved lucrative to those willing to take the risk, with inmates paying an average of $600 in "courier fees" for each illicit delivery. In one case last year, a guard got $2,000 for smuggling in 150 grams of pot.

   "Clearly our investigation indicates that this is a real problem," said city Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, who released a scathing report Thursday that recommended an overhaul of screening at the 10-jail Rikers complex, including better-trained security workers and more drug-sniffing dogs.

   It followed a series of smuggling sweeps at Rikers, which this year alone resulted in charges against 10 guards and the arrest of 30 inmates.

   The report found one undercover investigator posing as a guard was able to smuggle in more than $22,000 worth of contraband in separate attempts at six different Rikers jails. The booty included 250 tiny envelopes of heroin, 24 strips of the opiate-addiction drug suboxone, two bags containing a half pound of marijuana, a 16-ounce water bottle containing vodka and one razor blade.

   Investigators found guards were routinely allowed to put lunches on top of X-ray machines, rather than through them, and were regularly waved through security after setting off metal detectors.

   One jail nurse told investigators he sneaked clear alcohol such as vodka in Poland Spring water bottles while darker liquor could be put into Snapple iced tea bottles, neither of which would be checked by guards.

   Peters and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte said some of the recommended reforms already are being implemented, such as mandating that supervisors oversee searches at shift changes and requiring that food go through the X-ray machines in clear containers.

   Other recommendations in the report included putting drug-sniffing dogs at porous security checkpoints, turning over screening to specially trained security staff and eliminating extraneous pockets from uniform pants.

   But training security staff, hiring more canine units and implementing search protocols up to Transportation Security Administration standards could take up to six months, Peters said.

   In a statement, Ponte said he had "zero tolerance for anyone, including staff, bringing contraband into DOC facilities." Guards who get caught are arrested and criminal investigators are called. The department can then initiate the administrative process of firing them.

   "It's true that this report provides hard and detailed evidence of smuggling," Peters said. "But it also provides DOC a set of reforms that they've already started to put in motion."

   The investigation comes amid increased scrutiny of New York City's jails, where inmate violence has steadily surged in tandem with use-of-force by jail guards. Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to reform the troubled system.