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NYC jails' security flaws remain as undercover investigators smuggle drugs, weapons: DOI

Even when the hidden blades set off metal-detector alarms, one undercover investigator was allowed entry without challenge, per the Department of Correction audit.

Mark Peters, New York City's investigation commissioner, discusses how an undercover investigator, masquerading as a jail guard, was able to smuggle marijuana, narcotic painkillers and weapons into jails in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Feb. 8, 2018. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

An undercover investigator posing as a jail guard smuggled marijuana, blades and a narcotic painkiller into the lockups in Brooklyn and Manhattan by exploiting the same deficiencies identified in a 2014 audit, the New York City Department of Investigation said Thursday.

Even when the hidden blades set off metal-detector alarms, the investigator was allowed entry without challenge, according to the audit of the Department of Correction, which runs the city jails.

The same day, according to the audit, an officer accepted the investigator’s story that no contraband was present.

“Three years after a DOI undercover investigation demonstrated serious flaws in DOC security screening, the problems remain and a new undercover operation smuggled in drugs and weapons just as easily,” investigations commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement.

Since 2014, more than two dozen correction employees have been arrested on contraband smuggling charges, Peters’ office said. His 2014 audit found that an undercover investigator was able to smuggle drugs and weapons into all six jails surveyed.

The Department of Correction, with an inmate population averaging nearly 9,000 a day, for years has been under scrutiny by local, state and federal authorities. The U.S. Department of Justice has said Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, has a “deep-seated culture of violence.”

Peters’ office renewed recommendations from the 2014 audit, including:

- Using drug-sniffing dogs at staff entrances.

- Elimination of unnecessary pockets on guards’ uniforms.

- Placing staff lockers outside front-gate entrances, instead of inside.

In a statement, Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann said, “We recognize there’s more work to be done.”

Brann said lockers are being moved outside front-gate entrances, uniforms would be revamped and use of drug-sniffing dogs would be expanded.

The audit covered the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as The Tombs, and the Brooklyn Detention Complex, known as Brooklyn House.

According to the audit, in September 2017 an undercover investigator posing as a guard sneaked in two scalpel blades, with blade covers and handles, 26.8 grams of marijuana and five strips of a prescription opiate substitute similar to methadone called suboxone, into the Manhattan and Brooklyn facilities.

At the Manhattan Detention Center, the metal detector sounded but, “the correction officer stationed at the front desk did not acknowledge the alert on the magnetometer, did not ask the investigator to pass through again, and did not stop or search the investigator, either manually or with a transfrisker wand” (a handheld metal detector) “before allowing him through security,” according to the audit.

In Brooklyn, the audit said, “only one correction officer inquired about whether the undercover investigator was carrying contraband, but accepted the investigator’s answer without conducting a physical search.”

Councilman Keith Powers (D-Manhattan), whose committee oversees jails for the city council, said Thursday afternoon he would hold an oversight hearing into the lapses.

Separately Thursday, a federal indictment was unsealed in Brooklyn alleging that guards helped smuggle marijuana and other contraband into city jail facilities in exchange for bribes. Brann said the guards had been suspended and would be fired if convicted.

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