Laughably Bad Security Allows Rikers Staff to Make Thousands of Dollars Selling Drugs, Alcohol and Weapons to Inmates


A new report by New York City’s Department of Investigation found rampant security violations on Rikers Island that allowed corrections officers and staff to sell contraband such as weapons, alcohol and narcotics to inmates for a sizable profit. DOI has been investigating the Department of Corrections since early January and plans to release a full report by the end of the year.

Security is so lax and inconsistent at Rikers facilities that a high schooler could get through the checkpoints without a problem. Smuggling vodka in a Poland Springs bottle? That’s the oldest trick in the book! But if you’re feeling lazy, lying works, too: one undercover investigator was able to smuggle contraband past a checkpoint by telling the security guard he had already emptied his pockets and didn’t need to do it again.

Here’s how the DOI described the ease with which CO’s and staff could make it through security with prohibited items:

… a DOI undercover investigator posing as a Correction Officer smuggled in a razor blade and large quantities of heroin, marijuana, and prescription narcotics at six facilities on Rikers Island. Specifically, the DOI undercover investigator carried in on his person:

  • one plastic bag containing 250 glassine envelopes of heroin,
  • one plastic bag containing 24 packaged strips of suboxone, which is a prescription opiate
    substitute similar to methadone,
  • two plastic bags containing a total weight of one-half-pound of marijuana,
  • one 16-ounce water bottle containing vodka, and
  • one razor blade.

The undercover investigator successfully smuggled the contraband – carrying the marijuana and
narcotics in his cargo pants pockets and the alcohol in a water bottle in his hand — through staff entrance security checkpoints at the Anna M. Kross Center, Otis Bantum Correctional Center, George Motchan Detention Center, George R. Vierno Center, Eric M. Taylor Center, and the Robert N. Davoren Center. The contraband was immediately secured by DOI at the conclusion of these operations.

To be clear, undercover investigators went six for six, successfully smuggling contraband past checkpoints at every single facility they attempted to enter on Rikers.

Read more about Rikers Island on Prison Protest

The report notes that, “a DOC employee could make approximately $3,600 in courier fees for the amount of contraband smuggled during each operation; and that the resale value inside of Rikers of the contraband in each instance totaled more than $22,000.”

That’s a lot of dough, and I wonder if a simple tightening of protocol is enough to change such a deeply entrenched culture of impunity on the island. My guess: probably not! If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the drug war, it’s that black markets adapt easily, and prohibitions never work. Some of the cases uncovered by DOI even showed CO’s working together to bring contraband into the prison.

This is not even the first time DOI has told the DOC to clean up their act. Throughout 2012/13, DOI investigators recommended multiple changes at Rikers to stop contraband from entering the prison. But as the report shows, many of those recommendations were ignored and/or have yet to be implemented.

But now that the the DOC is eager to show that it is cooperating, the department has quickly (and predictably) responded to the findings by ‘adopting’ a series of ‘reforms’: drug-sniffing dogs, special screening units at staff entrances and ‘other changes.’ Keep polishing that turd, DOC!

This whole pile of nonsense seems like a prime example of how the well-intentioned but endless cycle of ‘prison reform’ is, in the grand scheme of things, incredibly useless and destructive. “Reforms” only seem to save face and buy time for those in power while prolonging the suffering of those on the inside. We need to stop focusing on how to make prisons like Rikers ‘better’ (or more tolerable to the public) and start focusing on what we can do to serve justice to our communities that does not involve incarceration.

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Learn more at
Brian Sonenstein
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