A minor drug offender says he slipped a cellphone past guards at two New York City jails -- a security breach he says proves just how easily contraband flows into city lockup.
The former inmate -- with videos and photos to prove his tale -- says the security breakdown began when he reported to Manhattan Criminal Court for sentencing on a previous narcotics conviction.
He was sentenced to a short stint on Rikers Island, but before boarding the bus to Queens, the convict was handed over to city corrections officers who took him to the Manhattan Detention Center, which is connected to the court building.
The former prisoner says neither court officers nor correction officers searched him -- allowing him to shoot cell phone video with his iPhone 6 inside a holding cell.
“I’m not going to do their job for them,” the former inmate said. “It was something that shouldn’t have just been overlooked.”
The former prisoner spoke with the I-Team and shared his videos on the condition his name not be disclosed. He has another criminal case pending and fears correction officers may retaliate if he ends up back in jail.
After boarding a Corrections Dept. bus and arriving on Rikers Island, the convict says he continued taking videos from a holding cell at the Eric M. Taylor jail facility.
His recordings document dirty food trays on the jail cell floor and even a corrections guard who’s back is turned to the camera. At the time, the inmate posted some of the images on Instagram, tagging them with the hashtag “#Rikers.” The Instagram posts have since been deleted.
Illegal cellphones make up a statistically small slice of the total contraband at city jail facilities. Of the 4,756 illegal items seized last year behind bars, just 39 were contraband phones.
But Mark Peters, the Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Investigation, said a smuggled phone has a multiplier effect in the black market jail economy.
“A cellphone, in one sense, can be even more dangerous than a weapon because a cellphone can allow you to communicate undetected, which can allow you to smuggle multiple weapons in,” Peters said.
In November of 2014, Peters and his department conducted a series of integrity tests at Rikers, in which undercover investigators -- posing as correction officers -- smuggled narcotics and weapons into the jail. One undercover agent was able to walk in a cache of heroin, prescription pills and alcohol with a jail-value of close to $100,000 -- in just one day.
The DOI integrity tests are not the first high-profile failure to detect contraband at Rikers. Gary Heyward, a former corrections officer who was arrested in 2006 for smuggling drugs and other contraband, wrote a book about security gaps at the facility.
“I smuggled cell phones a few times,” Heyward told the I-Team. “As I see it right now it’s becoming more common, not only on Rikers Island but throughout the prison system.”
Since taking over New York City jails in 2014, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has toughened screening procedures and invested more than $71 million in new surveillance cameras and x-ray machines. In 2015, contraband seizures rose 21 percent over the previous year.
“Safety for staff and inmates is Commissioner Ponte’s top priority,” wrote Department of Corrections spokeswoman Eve Kessler in an email to the I-Team.
“The 21 percent jump in contraband finds at DOC last year demonstrates that Commissioner Ponte’s comprehensive reforms of our entrance procedures are working,” she added.
Kessler said the DOC is investigating allegations by the former prisoner that claims he was not searched and was able to easily get the iPhone behind bars.
The I-Team sent copies of the videos to the agency a week ago, but so far corrections investigators have been unable to confirm the recordings were taken from holding cells where corrections officers have jurisdiction. Court records show the inmate was in Rikers the same day the videos were posted on Instagram.
According to the New York Office of Court Administration, court officers were not in charge of the holding cells depicted in videos made by the former prisoner. The office says court officers would typically conduct a pat-down search of a defendant after sentencing, but more thorough secondary and tertiary searches would be left to Corrections guards once they take custody of the defendant.
“It seems like somebody didn’t do their job,” said City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale), who chairs the committee that oversees the Department of Corrections. Despite enhanced security measures at Rikers, Crowley said recent incidents of violence behind bars are discouraging.
“We’re seeing incidents spiraling out of control. There are more stabbings. There are more fights. And this is just in the difference of one year when we are seeing also the inmate population decrease. So the security measures that are currently in place simply are not enough.”
To try and sniff out contraband phones, the DOC has deployed seven cellphone detectors that are more sensitive than traditional metal detectors. The agency is in the process of purchasing ten more of the cellphone detectors.
Scott Schober, CEO of Berkeley Varitronics, said the demand for such equipment is high. Since he began supplying correctional facilities with cellphone detection systems about 6 years ago, he says that section of his business has doubled.
Schober’s company does not supply cellphone scanners to city jails, but says correctional officials are often surprised how many illegal phones are in use right under their noses.
“If there’s one phone in there, it tells you there’s not one phone, there’s probably hundreds of phones in there.”
The former prisoner who slipped his iPhone past jail guards said he’s speaking out because there is no excuse for overlooking a smartphone that’s more than 5 inches long.
"It's not to glorify the situation; it's to show there is incompetence at Rikers Island," he said. "They're not doing their job correctly.”