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Cover Story

Working Gangs From Inside Prison

Started just over two years ago at New York's infamous Rikers Island prison, the project uses an extensive database, networking and shared assignments.

May 01, 1999  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

A Liaison Grows

Correction officer investigators from Rikers, are now assigned to the NYPD's intelligence division and the "Cold Case Squad" (which handles gang- related crimes and unsolved homicides), the New York High Intensity Drug Trafficking unit (a federal drug information center), and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Gang information is shared on a regular basis between these agencies.

Said Lewis Rice, Jr., special agent in charge of the New York Office of the DEA, having a correctional officer assigned to him, "is an asset to the DEA Unified Intelligence Unit. It has greatly enhanced the exchange of information. The New York City Department of Correction's wealth of intelligence on gang membership, activities, codes, signs and methods of operation, is an integral part of our drug investigations and tactical operations," he told POLICE.

Unified Intelligence Division

The Unified Intelligence Division (UID) consists of three agencies: the New York City Police Department, the DEA and the New York State Police. Their mission is to gather, share and disseminate intelligence pertaining to narcotics in the greater New York City area.

NYPD Sgt. Lenny Lemer is a group supervisor for the Unified Intelligence Division. He said he found the information that they received from the corrections department extremely helpful. "It is very effective in allowing us to integrate a vast source of knowledge from an investigative standpoint into the knowledge that we presently possess. It gives us a real advantage that we did not have," he explained.

Part of that information focuses on trends. According to Deputy Warden bailey, the weapon of the moment within the prison system is razors and scalpels. "What tends to happen in here tends to manifest itself out there," he said.

"I am guaranteeing you this: The next weapon you will see out there that can be hidden and will be popular with these organizations and with these young kids who don't know, is the scalpel. The scalpel is the weapon of choice. The density of it is real thin. It is smaller than a razor. You can get it at hobby stores."

In addition to inmates already within the corrections system, the jail arrests, on the average, 10 to 15 people weekly who are trying to bring contraband into the inmates.

This contraband includes both weapons and narcotics. Members of GIU then debrief the suspects who are arrested, and according to Commissioner Kerik, "whatever information they give us relating to narcotics possession or distribution will go back to the DEA and or the New York City Police Department's narcotics units.

"Therefore we have a constant flow of information out of the jails back onto the streets and that comes back to us basically as a result of the arrests they make.

"It goes in a full circle so that we keep the investigative intelligence network going. We are constantly getting information of these groups."

Inquiries Abound

The New York City Corrections Department gets inquiries from all over the country, and credits its information with stopping an assassination attempt on both a police officer and four federal judges. Recently, it received a query from Fairbanks, Alaska where the area is experiencing a problem with the Bloods. Because of the city's problems there, it is also setting up a superbase program similar to the NYC Corrections department.

"If they have a Blood problem in Fairbanks Alaska, we want to help them." Deputy Warden Bailey said.

Information such as telephone records and who visits the inmates can become key information for an outside agency's investigation. "Inmates sometimes think they are very smart, but they don't realize that we have access to all of their visits and all of their visitors' information," said Commissioner Kerik.

By keeping close track of its inmates and collecting essential data, the corrections department has become an invaluable asset to other law enforcement agencies.

It Could Work Anywhere

"I think this would be just as effective in any other area, the only caveat being the corrections bureau would have to set up their database in a similar fashion. The key to the whole system is what the Department of Corrections in New York City has done to accumulate the intelligence that they have and then be able to share it with other agencies.

"In this instance, the information is being shared at the very least, with the DEA as well as the New York State Police," said NYPD's Sgt. Lemer.

Corrections Commissioner Kerik agreed. "This could be effective in any department. Any criminal agency can find it extremely effective. What you need is the cooperation and the coordination with the outside agencies.

"First and foremost you have to have the intelligence network inside. You have to have the investigative tools inside and then you have to let the people on the outside know what is available to them.

"Once that is done, there is no system in the United States where people on the outside would say there is nothing we could use in the jail system," he said. "Our statistics will show you that not only do they need what we have, not only do they substantially use what we have, but what we have is of a major benefit to those outside. It could be used anywhere, federal, state, municipally.

"It could be used anywhere."

Shelly Feuer Domash is a freelance writer living in the New York City area who regularly covers the police beat for the New York Times. She is a longtime and frequent contributor to POLICE magazine. Her most recent article for POLICE was a profile on the burgeoning field of database compilation programs for our Technology report in the October 1998 issue. This report followed numerous interviews and a day spent at Rikers Island.

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