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The Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has recently increased the frequency and intensity of cellblock searches inside the five primary jails, and the results have surprised and dismayed jail officials, as an illicit marketplace for drugs, weapons, and even cell phones is slowly but steadily uprooted.
The new routine began in late February in the pretrial detention center, a 1712-bed complex commonly referred to as the "main jail," which is attached to the Richard E. Gerstein Criminal Justice Building on NW Thirteenth Street. The new approach is credited with nearly halting the flow of incoming contraband items.
Specially organized shakedown teams assigned to that task full-time have been methodically making their way through the jail with exhaustive thoroughness. What used to take a random hour now occupies the teams half a day several times a week as corrections officers aided by building maintenance personnel pore over every crack and air duct in a given area.
The official reason given for the increased inspections is to help inaugurate a new policy beginning this month to further restrict what visitors can bring into and out of the jail during visits. "We've been doing shakedowns forever," says Sheila Siddiqui, the assistant director in charge of jail operations. "The biggest difference is that we've increased them while getting ready for the new ... policy. We're being a lot stricter about what's allowed in." She adds, "There was no single incident that prompted this."
To prepare for that policy change, the department is instituting a "purge" where officers go through the inmates' living quarters to make sure anyone who has been moved or released did not leave behind personal items such as shirts, shoes, or shaving tools. Each inmate is allowed three sets of civilian clothing -- shirts, pants, underwear -- and a jail-issued jumpsuit to be worn during trips outside the jail. Officials started with the main jail, Siddiqui says, because it was going to take the longest to purge. Built in 1959, it is the oldest in the county. Several times a week inmates are corralled into the main recreation yard while officers scrutinize every inch of the cellblocks.
Another reason for the new policy may be something officials are less inclined to talk about openly. According to sources who asked not to be named, the main jail's captain, Susan Kronberg, announced the new shakedown team system after receiving information about a drug turf dispute brewing among inmates.
"She announced it at a staff meeting with her corporals, lieutenants, and sergeants," says one corrections officer. Although this officer was not present at that meeting, he was in attendance when a sergeant later announced the new policy to corrections officers on his wing. "He told us the captain is afraid of a drug war breaking out," the officer recalls.
Kronberg, who declined to comment, arranged for teams made up of a lieutenant, a corporal, and four to five officers to be permanently assigned to do the searches, with the idea that they would develop specialized knowledge of how and where inmates hide contraband. In the past, search teams were assembled ad hoc from whoever was available. "Usually with a shakedown you take an hour and you're totally done," says the officer. "Now they're taking half a shift to do one cell." The main jail has ten floors with two or three wings on a floor; each wing holds large open dormitory-style halls accommodating up to 40 people.
"You have to think like an inmate, and they are very creative about finding hiding places," Siddiqui explains. "The team goes from the bunk area, to the toilet, to the air vents. They go over the mattress with a metal detector. Every place in that cellblock is gone over from top to bottom."
The results have been illuminating. According to one witness who viewed collected contraband at the main jail, dozens of cell phones have been found, most connected via untraceable Metro PCS accounts. Also seized were restaurant-grade steak knives in addition to the more common shivs and several pounds of pot. The witness reported seeing one cache of at least five pounds of "crippie," high-quality, hydroponically grown marijuana, which was found out on the perimeter walkway that corrections officers use to monitor inmates. The walkway is accessible only to officers, maintenance personnel, and medical staff. Inmates are not allowed on it. Another cache of about three pounds of marijuana and some balloons containing cocaine were also discovered, according to the witness.
"I think the alleged amount of drugs seized [at the Pre-Trial Detention Center] is inaccurate," Siddiqui counters. "I know of some drugs taken but not in those amounts. There have been some cell phones and some chargers seized."
"I saw a box full of them," scoffs the witness.
The cell phones have been a revelatory discovery. Corrections officers have reported hearing them ring every once in a while but had been unable to locate the sound source in the sea of bodies. "No one's actually been caught on a phone yet," Siddiqui says. Exactly how inmates smuggle them in has led to a lot of speculation. Many assume that corrections employees, perhaps even officers, are responsible. The phones found by the shakedown teams have been collected by the department's internal affairs unit for further investigation.
The Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center and Metro West have started increasing the number of searches but have not switched to the full-time teams of shakedown specialists, according to officers in those jails.