To sniff out contraband, the New York City Department of Corrections is more than doubling the number of K-9 units trained to find drugs and other items banned behind bars.
This year, Commissioner Joseph Ponte has added 9 dogs, bringing the department’s total to 22. By 2017, he hopes to have thirty-five K-9 units patrolling city jails.
“We’ve probably tripled and quadrupled our efforts in everything you could possibly think of, from cell searches to unannounced searches to doing searches at different times of the day, to doing searches at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Ponte said.
So far Ponte’s emphasis on contraband recovery has yielded results.
According to department numbers, there was a 21 percent increase in contraband finds in 2015 over 2014.
Of the 4,756 banned items seized last year, 12 percent were discovered by dogs.
Ponte says before he took over at city jails, there were no K-9s assigned specifically to search the for contraband imported by Corrections Officers. Now there are four dogs dedicated to checking for officer-related contraband. Ponte said the department aims to have six dogs dedicated to internal investigations by the end of the year.
The crusade against contraband at Rikers Island has not been without setbacks. Last month the I-Team interviewed a former Rikers prisoner who boasted about how easy it was for him to smuggle an iPhone into the facility. He even posted videos from behind bars to the internet in real time.
“I think we’re human,” Ponte said. “There are people doing these jobs. There are times when it’s not done as well as we like. People make mistakes, but one cell phone? The sky didn’t fall.”
Earlier this month, the I-Team had exclusive access to a Corrections K-9 training session where dogs practiced searching for narcotics.
In the exercise, one corrections officer planted boxes containing drugs on a bus used to transport prisoners from court to Rikers Island. Fifteen minutes later, a K-9 handler and her specially trained Labrador boarded the bus and zeroed in on the contraband within seconds.
Among the dogs recently added to the ranks on Rikers Island is “Rip”, an 8-year-old K-9 who retired from the US military after serving in Afghanistan.
At the end of 2012, city Corrections Officers went to North Carolina to adopt Rip and he’s now patrolling jail cells, mailrooms, and visitor areas for drugs.
“The more dogs that we have, the more areas we can search. The more stuff we can find,” said Officer Kevin Cordova, a K-9 Trainer for the Corrections Department.
“These inmates sit here and they have ways of thinking. All they do is think of ways to hide stuff all day.”