Investigators Exclusive: Contraband crackdown at Rikers Island

RIKERS ISLAND, New York (WABC) -- Rikers Island is the world's biggest jail, where 10,000 inmates await trial. For years, contraband has been a huge problem, fueling a lot of the violence that have left correctional officers and prisoners seriously injured.

But security reforms over the past couple of years may actually be putting a squeeze on the flow of weapons and drugs inside the correctional facility.

In an exclusive showing, the Department of Correction laid out the hundreds of weapons they stopped from getting inside Rikers over the past few months, including knives, saws, scalpels and razor blades.

"This is only six months of contraband," Correctional Officer Erika Fontana said. 'And this doesn't include any of the drugs."

Among the hundreds of confiscated items are a butane torch, a stun gun in working order and a foot-long saw.

Most of what is confiscated comes from visitors who must take a bus to get to Rikers Island to see an inmate. Visitors are given the chance to voluntarily give up any weapons or drugs without facing an arrest.

"We're getting better at confiscating it because of this amnesty program we've got going on right now," Fontana said. "It's definitely shown a lot of results."

The amnesty policy, along with a tripling of the number of drug sniffing dogs, investment in surveillance cameras and new security scanning machines, are being credited with a 52 percent increase in weapons confiscated from fiscal year 2015 to 2016 and a 22 percent increase in drugs confiscated.

In an exclusive interview, DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte said said with contraband confiscation up, violence inside Rikers is starting to go down.

"(Contraband) always is a major driver of violence, both from weapons standpoint and drugs," he said. "We've seen a downward trend. I think the trend is reversing now. Again, nowhere near where we'd like to see us. I want to say it's good, but I think we're getting good signs and it's getting better."

To make a real dent in the contraband problem, it's clear security efforts must focus not only on those who visit Rikers, but also those who work there.

"Everything we know suggests that correction officers are the bigger problem," Department of Investigations Commissioner Mark Peters said. "Correction officers can bring in larger quantities of material than individual visitors."

Two years ago, an officer working undercover for the DOI repeatedly got through security screening with heroin, pot, opiates and razor blades hidden in his pants. After that, Rikers deployed drug sniffing dogs and tightened screening, and then came the arrests: a network of correction officers, staff and inmates charged with running a big-money drug and weapons-buying business.

The contraband crackdown has continued, and just weeks ago, an instructor inside the jail was arrested for smuggling drugs.

"As we continue to arrest more and more officers, people are going to get the message that if you do this, you will get caught," Peters said. "You will go to jail, and suddenly, a couple of thousand dollars isn't risk free anymore."

But Ponte said the most effective tool in the fight against contraband is something he can't have, which is body scanners that are forbidden under state law because of radiation health concerns.

A law to allow the DOC to use body scanners has been stalled for years in the General Assembly Health Committee in Albany.
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