Investigation: Rikers Island COs contribute to flow of contraband into NYC jails
“If you get 2 pounds of weed, it’s safe to assume it didn’t come in through the visit floor.”
By John Annese and Graham Rayman
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — A packet of drugs in a McDonald’s salad. Vacuum-sealed marijuana in a lunch box. Hennessy cognac in AriZona Iced Tea bottles and Ciroc coconut-flavored vodka in Poland Spring water bottles.
These are all examples of contraband smuggled into New York City jails in recent years — not by detainees or their visitors, but by correction officers.
Those cases and more documented in investigative reports and criminal charges brought against correction officers show that staff contribute significantly to the flow of drugs into city jails, says a former top Correction Department official and others who have investigated smuggling.
“You are talking about people across the jails,” Maureen Sheehan, a retired NYPD detective who until early 2022 was the Correction Department’s deputy director of investigations, said of the smuggling.
With four overdose deaths in city jails in 2021 and six reported in 2022, the flow of drugs into Rikers Island is a major issue.
But Sheehan is among a number of current and former jails officials and investigators who believe the culture of the Correction Department makes it difficult to deal with the problem.
Early in her tenure, Sheehan went to Rikers Island’s front gate to make sure everything and everyone heading to the island went through metal detectors — including Correction Department officers and staff.
“They were so angry about that that the unions wrote a letter complaining about me,” she said. “But they weren’t checking. It’s a kind of willful indifference.”
When visits to detainees were banned during the pandemic, Sheehan notes, drug contraband seizures increased.
“We saw more contraband when visits were canceled than ever before,” Sheehan said.
More evidence that correction officers are a significant part of the contraband problem emerged during the Brooklyn Federal Court trial in November of James Albert‚ 46, a detainee accused of bribing correction officers to bring drugs to Rikers Island.
Detainees seeking to smuggle in drugs “usually use officers and civilian staff,” Andrew Walker, a Correction Department investigator assigned to work with the city Department of Investigation, testified during the trial.
And Manhattan federal prosecutors in May 2021 won indictments of seven current and former correction officers and two civilians accused of smuggling blades, drugs, alcohol and cellphones in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribes in five city jails in 2019 and 2020. Eight of those charged in the cases have pleaded guilty; the disposition of the ninth case is unclear.
Despite investigators’ findings, Correction Commissioner Louis Molina did not focus on staff smuggling as a serious problem at a City Council hearing in October. Molina blamed the rising number of jail overdoses on fentanyl-soaked packages and letters coming in through the mail and to items smuggled in by visitors.
To solve the problem, the Correction Department has proposed digitizing mail so detainees can only read it on tablet computers and banning all package deliveries except from Amazon and other known retailers.
Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), chair of the council’s Committee on Criminal Justice, is skeptical of that plan.
“The data about drugs in the jails doesn’t seem to indicate digitizing the mail is the most effective way to stop them from coming in, or that it’s coming in more in the mail than through posts or visits,” Rivera told the Daily News.
Molina has yet to provide the council with data to back up his assertion that smuggling in packages and the mail is a leading cause of the contraband problem, Rivera said.
“The commissioner is downplaying the number of factors involved in drugs entering the jail system,” Rivera said. “We cannot dismiss the involvement of officers themselves when there are a number of cases that have been documented.”
Seizures of fentanyl in the mail rose sharply during the pandemic, one investigator told the Daily News. Sometimes, smugglers used fake legal documents to get drug-soaked letters into the jails, the investigator said.
Visitors are of course sources of contraband. Sometimes a visitor will put a packet in or under a trash can in the visiting room or bathroom, knowing the detainees empty the trash. Officers have been found to be lax at times in watching for that trick or thoroughly searching detainees post-visit.
Because of their bulk relative to other drugs, marijuana and tobacco are more likely to have been brought in by staff than visitors or in the mail, investigative sources said.
“If you get 2 pounds of weed, it’s safe to assume it didn’t come in through the visit floor,” an investigator said.
The city Department of Investigation receives more than 200 allegations a year of officers bringing in contraband, according to sources familiar with the probes. The agency is investigating about 50 of those complaints at any given time.
But only a small fraction result in criminal cases or disciplinary action.
While many complaints have no merit — detainees may just be trying to get back at officers, for example — there are other factors that result in complaints not being fully probed.
In some cases, the key inmate informant or go-between is sent to state prison before a monitored exchange can be executed. Other times, an inmate is released or declines to cooperate further or can’t put a name to an officer. In some cases, hard evidence like video or phone conversations or money transfers can’t be established.
But most allegations are filed away by DOI in case more information comes to light, the sources said. A DOI spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
It’s not just drugs, blades or alcohol. Officers have been caught bringing in contraband cheeseburgers and donuts.
A correction captain in 2019 told investigators a detainee told her to tell an officer to bring him his “muffins.” She then reported seeing the officer handing off an 18-inch tall paper bag to the same detainee.
Most commonly, officers will stick the contraband in their pants or inside their bullet-resistant vests or brassiere. Lax checks at entry to the jails allow the contraband to go through.
But the Correction Department has resisted using body scanning equipment on staff, citing logistics, cost and privacy issues.
In one case, investigators found an officer bringing in Ciroc coconut-flavored vodka in Poland Spring bottles, and in another, Hennessy cognac in AriZona Iced Tea bottles.
“There are so many people coming in to work, there’s no way to check everyone,” an investigator said. “So they try to make sure the bottles are unopened but even that slows everything down.”
One officer thinking he was about to be caught was suspected to have “boofed” a packet of drugs — meaning he stuck it in his rear end. He was later caught bringing in two knives and fired.
Correction officers like to wear cargo pants because of the comfort and the useful extra pockets. The Department of Investigation convinced the Correction Department to ban cargo pants due to concern over smuggling. Molina lifted the ban earlier this year.
Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, sides with Molina that contraband largely comes in through the mail and visitors.
“Council Member Carlina Rivera and many of her colleagues on the City Council continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that the drug epidemic in our jails is driven by inmates,” he said in a statement.
“They are quick to scapegoat us, while ignoring the serious crimes committed by the inmates in our custody every day.”
Correction Department officials did not respond to requests for comment.