When the New York State Commission of Correction issued its report last month on the overdose death of Nassau County jail inmate Kevin Rollins, it included a fairly damning assertion. The report said the jail, "due to inadequate facility policies for searches, failed to take adequate precautions to assure the elimination of contraband in the building that housed Rollins prior to his death."
Letting the jail know its procedures were dangerously lax, and letting the public and elected officials know, too, should be an urgent priority. But Rollins died on Dec. 28, 2018, and the commission’s final report was not released until Jan. 5, 2021, after the jail saw a preliminary version three months earlier.
If a jail is running under policies lax enough to contribute to deaths, that assessment, and the changes that should follow it, need to come with greater urgency.
Rollins was a 28-year-old from West Babylon with a history of addiction when he died of a fentanyl overdose. The report outlines multiple discoveries of contraband in his housing unit in the days before his death and says the jail’s policies "failed to identify that contraband found during a random search is an indication that a full housing search should be conducted."
The report demanded that jail procedures be revised so that housing unit searches are conducted when there is evidence of contraband.
What the report demands is important and necessary. And Sheriff James Dzurenda, who assumed the post in March after running the state prison systems of Connecticut and Nevada, says he made such changes before he ever heard from the state.
Penal institutions are often rife with contraband, and drugs are a perennial problem. The drugs come in tiny packets and can be hidden easily or camouflaged. The Nassau jail itself distributes an opioid, Suboxone, to inmates trying to overcome addiction, that inmates can illegally stash and sell. And a court ruling bars strip searches of new inmates unless they are felons or strongly suspected of carrying contraband.
Then there are the prison employees, and visitors, who can sneak contraband in.
A Newsday investigation last month showed jail officials seized drugs or drug paraphernalia 237 times in less than four years at the East Meadow facility. Penal experts say that’s typical.
Dzurenda says he has fought and will continue to fight contraband, by searching more, and doing more intelligence-led investigating. Two recently purchased, highly sensitive body scanners should soon help.
Brian Sullivan, president of Nassau’s correction officers union, said more attention needs to be put into the search policies and argued that the county shortchanges spending on correction and training, but praised Dzurenda’s leadership.
Keeping inmates safe, from themselves and each other, is terribly difficult. The Nassau County jail can and must do a better job limiting the flow of dangerous contraband into the facility.
But it will never be easy. And state reports damning jail procedures as potentially deadly, if they’re to be useful, need to be delivered far more quickly.
— The editorial board