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Rikers Has a Deadly Contraband Problem. Are Cargo Pants to Blame?




One of the commissioner’s first moves when he arrived in January was to fire Sarena Townsend, the much-praised chief of internal affairs and investigations for the city’s jail system. Ms. Townsend’s leadership had been described as “critical” to the success of reform efforts, by a federal monitor appointed in 2015 to oversee changes at Rikers. During her tenure, Ms. Townsend told me, she never encountered a rationale for cargo pants, meaning that no one was ever kept from using their pepper spray just because they lacked big, baggy pockets to put it in.

“Drugs come in from many avenues. I’d never say it’s one avenue but the officers are one of many avenues,” she said. “What do you gain by allowing officers to wear something that makes it easier to transport contraband? To express themselves in their outfit? What’s on the pro side of that calculation?”

Further baffling her and the most recent former correction commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, now at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, is that between January and the end of September there were no staff suspensions at Rikers for violations involving contraband, though there had been 12 over the two previous years. “To see zero, it’s not an accident,” Ms. Townsend said. “It’s not because in 2022 people just decided to stop smuggling contraband.” The Correction Department did not respond to my request for an explanation.

So far this year, 19 people have died after being held in the city’s jail system, making 2022 the deadliest year in nearly a decade, even as the jail population has declined by half during this time. Five of the deaths at Rikers have been attributed to overdoses or the likelihood of them. A report issued one month ago by the city’s Board of Correction, which oversees compliance in the jail system, noted the insufficient supervision of inmates at risk of substance abuse, a concern about the increasing amounts of fentanyl entering jails and a failure to flag the use of contraband.

As a result of a lawsuit filed on the part of detainees at Rikers, came an added layer of oversight in the form of the federal monitor seven years ago, and the most recent report from the monitor’s team, although it expressed confidence in the new leadership, continued to deliver a grim evaluation of current circumstances. Ongoing issues, it read, included a “lackadaisical approach to basic security measures,” the staff’s often “hyper confrontational demeanor” and a “deep-seated culture that is steeped in poor practices, illogical procedures and little accountability for the humane treatment of people in custody.”