By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors on Tuesday charged six jail guards with taking bribes to smuggle drugs and cellphones into New York City’s infamous Rikers Island, a prison complex officials have vowed to close due to chronic violence and decrepit facilities.
Fifteen other people including five inmates also were charged following a probe by federal and New York City investigators that began in early 2019.
They uncovered a scheme to bribe the guards in exchange for smuggling marijuana, the narcotic Suboxone, the synthetic drug K2 and cellphones into two jails, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement.
Telephone surveillance revealed the defendants spoke in code, referring to marijuana as “Oakland Raider jerseys,” cellphones as “joints” and calling jail guards “Pink Panties,” the statement said.
“The smuggling of contraband into our jails is a common Hollywood storyline, but while there’s an element of fiction in many a screenplay, there’s nothing fake about this real-life threat to our correctional facilities,” FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney said in a statement.
The inmates arranged for civilian accomplices to deliver marijuana and other contraband to the guards, who received thousands of dollars to smuggle the drugs past security, prosecutors said.
In October, jail security officers seized 12 clear plastic bags of marijuana, an iPhone and a charger from one of the guards, the statement said.
That same month, the New York City Council voted to close the Rikers Island complex by 2026, approving an $8.7 billion package to close Rikers and three other jails, replace them with four more humane facilities throughout the city, and eventually turn Rikers Island itself into a public space.
The 400-acre (160-hectare) island in the East River, connected by bridge to the borough of Queens, is home to nine jails with about 7,000 inmates. Most are defendants awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than one year.
A U.S. Justice Department investigation in 2014 found inmates’ constitutional rights were routinely violated though inmate-on-inmate violence, virtual solitary confinement, and excessive force by guards.
A New York state Commission of Correction report in 2018 called for expediting the closure, citing a “spiraling year to year increase of violent incidents and degrading conditions facing both inmates and staff.”
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bill Berkrot)