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Ex-New York corrections officer gets over 2 years in prison for smuggling contraband into

A former New York City corrections officer was sentenced Tuesday to more than two years in prison for sneaking cell phones and narcotics into Rikers Island in exchange for nearly $10,000 in bribes, according to officials, the latest case involving staff smuggling items into federal facilities. 

Krystle Burrell, 36, of Lawrence, New York, was found guilty of bribery, smuggling contraband, and accepting payments for narcotics, according to a release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York’s Eastern District. Burrell, who was employed by the New York City Department of Corrections in 2016 and worked at Rikers Island, was sentenced to 29 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto 

“Krystle Burrell put her own interests above the safety of incarcerated individuals and other correction officers at Rikers Island,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement. “Public corruption is especially harmful when it affects the safety and security of our city’s jails and today’s sentence demonstrates that correction officers face serious consequences for smuggling contraband.” 

Prosecutors said Burrell worked at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island when she accepted bribes to smuggle contraband for Terrae Hinds, an incarcerated man believed to be a member of the Bloods street gang. Officials said Burrell also accepted payment on behalf of Hinds for narcotics and other items that Hinds resold in jail.

Prosecutors said Hinds was previously charged with possession of a loaded firearm in connection to a shooting. He pleaded guilty to bribing Burrell and is awaiting sentencing, officials said in the release.

Rikers Island, a maximum security institution on an island between Queens and the Bronx, houses about 6,000 inmates. The city aims to close the institution — which has been marred by stories of abuse, inedible food, and rats — by 2027 and open four smaller jails in the boroughs under a legal mandate, New York City officials said on Monday.

Contraband has been a longstanding issue in U.S. jails and prisons, with officials saying these items lead to further drug use and violence in institutions. The National Institute of Justice released a 2021 report analyzing the prevalence of contraband in 301 prisons across six state departments of corrections. Researchers said while both visitors and staffers were responsible for the smuggling, more prison staff violations were reported within the span of a year.

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New York officials in 2021 investigated reports of Rikers Island correction officers smuggling contraband to inmates, including members of the Bloods, who operate in New York City and across the country. Authorities said members of the same gang are often placed in the same housing unit to avoid fighting. 

Burrell smuggled at least two cell phones to Hinds while he was incarcerated, officials said. Prosecutors said Hinds called her more than 200 ocassions in June 2021. 

A month later, a search of Hinds’ cell and of other members believed to be in the Bloods produced a charger and two phones, one of which appeared to belong to Burrell, the complaint said.

“Contraband cell phones are extremely valuable items within a jail because they allow incarcerated individuals to make telephone calls without being monitored,” Department of Homeland Security special agent Dianna Oglio said in the complaint.

She said incarcerated members of the Bloods used contraband cell phones “in furtherance of their gang activity.” Items like these often sell for many times greater than their cost outside prison, Oglio added.

Prosecutors said Burrell initially denied bringing a cell phone into Rikers Island, but then later said she smuggled the item in because she was threatened with a weapon. Oglio said she believes Burrell lied because she received money from Hinds and was in a personal relationship with him. 

Between June and July 2021, Burrell and Hinds, also known as “Tomato Sauce,” received bribes and engaged in bribery at Rikers Island, according to a complaint. 

Burrell pleaded guilty in federal court in September 2022 for bribery charges, officials said. While on bail pending sentencing, authorities said she conspired with Hinds and others to smuggle items into the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Hinds had been transferred.

In March this year, Burrell was additionally charged with smuggling contraband into a federal prison. 

“Bringing contraband into a correctional facility undermines the security of the institution,” New York Police Department Commissioner Edward Caban said in a statement. “Above all else, correction officers are public servants – the majority of whom honor their oaths and serve as stellar examples to the community and those under their care. Ms. Burrell, who blatantly abused her position of authority, was the exact opposite.”

The case is being handled by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. 

Prison contraband poses a substantial threat to the safety of staff and inmates, with an average of 34 weapons, 31 cell phones, and 28 controlled substances found in a year, according to a National Institute of Justice report.

The analysis was based on a 2018 National Survey of Correctional Contraband, which collected data from hundreds of prisons across six state departments of corrections. More staffers than visitors were reported to have received violations for contraband-related incidents.

The incidents are widespread. An ex-prison nurse received six years in June for smuggling drug-soaked paper to inmates in a Miami prison and accepting bribes totaling $150,000. In September, an investigation revealed that at least 360 employees of Georgia’s state prison system have been arrested on accusations of smuggling contraband since 2018.

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