A person dressed as a prison guard recently visited Rikers Island carrying loads of heroin and prescription opiates. People are — theoretically, at least — not supposed to be able to bring these kinds of things inside jails. Yet this person, who was not a prison guard, was able to get these drugs, bags of marijuana, a water bottle filled with vodka and a razor blade through staff security entrances at six of the facilities on the island.
Had this person been an actual prison guard looking to make some extra money, rather than an undercover investigator for New York City, they could have made about $3,600 for bringing the stuff inside. And had these items been sold inside of Rikers, they would have fetched a total of about $22,000, according to a new report from the New York City Department of Investigations.
This report is part of what the department describes as a “comprehensive, ongoing investigation into criminal activity and civil disorder at Rikers Island.” It comes as the notorious and troubled Rikers Island and those who police it are under considerable fire for everything from the way they treat mentally ill inmates to misreporting data about inmate fights. Guards have been arrested for smuggling contraband into Rikers. The use of force by guards and the overall treatment of inmates have been two particularly high-profile issues for Rikers. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, filed a report in August stating that underage inmates at Rikers were not protected from “serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by” prison officials.
Most of the 11,400 people that fill New York City’s jails on any given day are on Rikers Island, which houses 10 jails, a bakery and its own power plant, among other things. Employees who come in through staff entrances are screened before entering, which means putting bags through X-ray machines and walking through metal detectors. In practice, though, the city’s investigation found that this didn’t really occur; guards let workers put their bags atop the X-ray machines and, even after new screening rules were announced, did not thoroughly search these employees.
Guards who have been arrested were smuggling in marijuana, tobacco, oxycodone and scalpels, according to the investigation. The guard who brought the scalpels inside, and who was paid thousands of dollars for ferrying in marijuana and tobacco, told investigators that he knew the packages he delivered held drugs, but said he didn’t know there were weapons inside. This type of delivery — one in which a person is paid a fee to bring something inside, without always knowing what that is — speaks to the larger danger authorities say can be posed by contraband, which the report said “endangers the safety” of inmates and Rikers staff alike.
That is why the city investigator, posing as a guard, walked in through the front gates of six Rikers facilities. The investigator was able to get the drugs and alcohol into all six places “without incident,” the report said. Ultimately, the report concluded, “weapons and narcotics remain readily available within Rikers Island’s jails.” Joseph Conte, commissioner of the city’s Department of Corrections, says that his department is working on some of the issues raised by the new report. No timeline has been announced, but the report urges that changes be made within six months. If security continues to be as lax as the report describes, it is unclear how many tens of thousands of dollars worth of contraband — and what types of items — could make it inside before changes are put into place.