An extensive conspiracy to smuggle scalpels and drugs onto Rikers Island in exchange for bribes, which led to 17 indictments, can be seen in two ways. The arrests of officers, staff, inmates, and civilians show the scrutiny now on Rikers may be getting results. . But the arrests last week also highlights the long way to go before any meaningful reform makes any difference.
Over the two years since the Department of Investigation focused on Rikers and Joseph Ponte became commissioner of the Department of Corrections, more than 30 officers and staff have been arrested. Instances of found weapon contraband are up 48 percent from a year ago and found drug contraband is up 32 percent.
So is smuggling getting worse, or are more smugglers being caught? Investigators and corrections officials think it’s the latter. But there’s more, too. In the recent conspiracy, after one officer was arrested, another simply took his place in the smuggling ring. And they weren’t alone. Inmates led the effort and recruited the officers, and their families and friends, and a prison cook, helped, too.
There are many troubling pieces to this complex puzzle. Perhaps most troubling is that several of the officers involved were relatively new, and still on probation. And yet, there they were, already immersed in a systemic culture of drugs, violence and law-breaking.
So, there’s much more to do. Most important are changes to officer hiring, training, probation and screening. New officers need mentors who buy into the reforms. Corrections officials should track recent classes of officers to determine what, if any, methods work to change behavior.
The Department of Corrections should have the tools and latitude it needs to improve screening and detection. That includes more widespread use of drug-sniffing dogs, better scanning technology and getting support and resources to the officers who want to change the culture. In the past, the corrections officers’ union resisted some changes. Real reform requires the union’s full support.
The indictments were one victory in a war. City officials know they can’t stop there.