Rikers Has a Deadly Contraband Problem. Are Cargo Pants to Blame?

Eight years ago, the New York City Department of Investigation conducted an extensive undercover operation to determine how drugs and weapons were getting onto Rikers Island, where chaos and crime were explosive. Posing as a correction officer on six different occasions, an investigator successfully made it through check points with vodka contained in a water bottle he held in his hand, a razor blade, 250 glassine envelopes of heroin, 24 packaged strips of Suboxone (used to treat opioid addiction) and a half pound of marijuana. The drugs, valued at about $22,000, were concealed in the pockets of cargo pants that were, however counterintuitively, part of the guard uniform.

In the three years following the investigation, 27 correction employees were arrested on charges of smuggling contraband and a ban was implemented on what was viewed by investigators as a primary means of delivery — the cargo pants. This displeased the union, which fought the interdiction. Obviously, most guards were not drug traffickers; the job of a correction officer is extremely stressful; cargo pants are comfortable. Earlier this year, the union could claim a victory: Under a new mayoral administration with a new commissioner of correction, Louis A. Molina, considered friendlier to the rank and file, cargo pants were permitted again.

In July, Benny Boscio, the union president, wrote to his membership that the advocacy of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association had ended “a long antiquated policy.” While others had made “empty promises,” he wrote, as if describing a battle for water on parched land, “the executive board and I never stopped fighting to get this done.”

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While a relaxation of uniform rules might seem like a minor reversal amid the ongoing violence and despair that plague Rikers, it occurred during a year when drug-related deaths appear to have increased at the complex and signals the extent to which the jail crisis can seem intractable even in the face of a rare, seemingly simple preventive measure against harm. Asked in a recent television interview why he could not stop the flow of weapons and drugs into Rikers at the hands of workers and visitors, Mr. Molina answered that “a lot of contraband that comes into the facility, especially drugs, comes in through mail and packages,” and that his department was working on a technological solution to scanning mail.

One of the commissioner’s first moves when he arrived in January was to fire Sarena Townsend, the much-praised chief of internal affairs and investigations for the city’s jail system. Ms. Townsend’s leadership had been described as “critical” to the success of reform efforts, by a federal monitor appointed in 2015 to oversee changes at Rikers. During her tenure, Ms. Townsend told me, she never encountered a rationale for cargo pants, meaning that no one was ever kept from using their pepper spray just because they lacked big, baggy pockets to put it in.

“Drugs come in from many avenues. I’d never say it’s one avenue but the officers are one of many avenues,” she said. “What do you gain by allowing officers to wear something that makes it easier to transport contraband? To express themselves in their outfit? What’s on the pro side of that calculation?”

Further baffling her and the most recent former correction commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, now at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, is that between January and the end of September there were no staff suspensions at Rikers for violations involving contraband, though there had been 12 over the two previous years. “To see zero, it’s not an accident,” Ms. Townsend said. “It’s not because in 2022 people just decided to stop smuggling contraband.” The Correction Department did not respond to my request for an explanation.

So far this year, 19 people have died after being held in the city’s jail system, making 2022 the deadliest year in nearly a decade, even as the jail population has declined by half during this time. Five of the deaths at Rikers have been attributed to overdoses or the likelihood of them. A report issued one month ago by the city’s Board of Correction, which oversees compliance in the jail system, noted the insufficient supervision of inmates at risk of substance abuse, a concern about the increasing amounts of fentanyl entering jails and a failure to flag the use of contraband.

As a result of a lawsuit filed on the part of detainees at Rikers, came an added layer of oversight in the form of the federal monitor seven years ago, and the most recent report from the monitor’s team, although it expressed confidence in the new leadership, continued to deliver a grim evaluation of current circumstances. Ongoing issues, it read, included a “lackadaisical approach to basic security measures,” the staff’s often “hyper confrontational demeanor” and a “deep-seated culture that is steeped in poor practices, illogical procedures and little accountability for the humane treatment of people in custody.”

But it is not at all clear that the monitor’s reports are translating into real changes. More than 5,000 weapons were recovered in the city’s jail system during the 2022 fiscal year, more than double what was recovered the year prior, and yet the number of stabbings and slashings also nearly doubled, while instances of serious injury among detainees involved in violent encounters went up by 45 percent, according to city data.

Nevertheless, testifying at a hearing last month in federal court, the federal monitor, Steve Martin, said that he was seeing gains in regard to officers staying where they are supposed to in Rikers housing units and keeping detainees out of hallways where trouble often begins. Staff shortages have also been reduced. Advocates for criminal justice reform, though, had hoped that conditions at the jail were clearly bad enough that the court would put Rikers under receivership and out of the city’s control, a notion the Adams administration has rejected. The court will review the matter again in the spring; but for now it shares the mayor’s faith.

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