RIKERS ISLAND, New York (WABC) -- Drugs are getting smuggled past the barbed wire fences at Rikers Island and 7 On Your Side Investigates uncovered how it's happening and a new way to potentially stop it that is sparking opposition.
Last year was the deadliest year at Rikers in a decade. Nineteen people died in custody and at least three of those deaths were fentanyl related. It's a new synthetic and addictive opioid where even a small amount can be deadly.
The drugs are getting into the jail complex three ways, starting with the mail.
Mixed in with the birthday cards, I miss you notes and holiday greetings, jail officers found a children's Christmas drawing laced with fentanyl, along with a love letter written on plain paper soaked with fentanyl. Someone even sent a novel to the jail that was laced with the drug.
Inside the jail, inmates rip off pieces of the fentanyl-laced paper and sell them to other inmates where they're either chewed up or smoked to get high.
"Books are for reading, not for being laced with fentanyl," said the Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina during a recent criminal justice hearing.
Commissioner Molina told city council members most of the drugs are being mailed into the facility.
"We are exploring all measures to keep fentanyl and all drugs out of our facilities," he said.
The chair of the committee, Council Member Carlina Rivera, isn't convinced it's the primary way of entering and believes the DOC could be doing more to stop the flow of drugs.
"It has been so long since people have really taken seriously what goes on inside of the jail system," Council Member Rivera said. "We have to do something, this is a humanitarian crisis that is happening right here in New York City."
In addition to the mail, Commissioner Molina said people visiting inmates are also bringing illegal drugs into the facility. Last year, 56 people were caught doing so along with two correction officers.
"We have also taken steps that those who work in our jails do not aid or abed the introduction of drugs in our facility," Molina said. "We have zero tolerance for anyone who brings contraband into our jails."
The Department of Correction's solution is to hire a company to electronically scan all of the mail that comes into the jail and allow inmates to view that mail on electronic tablets.
"We want to make sure that one, it's accessible and affordable and two, that we're not removing one of the I think most human elements, that is tangible mail that comes in from your family members," Rivera said. "Things you can hang up, things that remind you have your connection to your family and your community, I think that's really important to the rehabilitation process and so we can't go all the way to digital mail, I think there are ways to do both."
Rivera wants a universal policy for physically scanning everyone who enters the jail, saying the overdose situation is just one of many problems that have to be fixed quickly inside the complex.
The commissioner said it isn't a problem unique to New York City, it's happening at jails across he country. They're training all correction officers on how to use Narcan, the drug that can help reverse the effects of an overdose.
In a statement to Eyewitness News, a spokesperson with the Department of Corrections said "Keeping our staff and individuals in our care safe is paramount and preventing contraband from getting into our jails is one of the best ways to do that."
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