Prison Bags

Auburn Correctional Facility corrections officers have to carry their personal items in clear bags.

At 28 years old, Nicholas Cortese has been incarcerated for more than a third of his life. 

Arrested in 2007, Cortese was later convicted of two violent felonies in Niagara County — second-degree attempted robbery for stealing a man's wallet at gunpoint and first-degree attempted assault for stabbing a cab driver in the stomach — and in 2009, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

For years, Cortese kept relatively quiet in the custody of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. But in April 2016, while serving his sentence at Auburn Correctional Facility, he was charged with his third felony: first-degree promoting prison contraband. 

Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann said Cortese confessed his guilt in recorded phone calls with his family, in which he admitted to stabbing another inmate at the prison. In March 2017, Cortese pleaded guilty in court. 

At it his sentencing in May, Cortese shared more of his story, including why he did it. Cortese told Judge Thomas Leone he possessed a 3-inch drywall screw to protect himself from other inmates. 

"I had just got cut 10 months earlier in Attica (Correctional Facility)," Cortese said, claiming that two inmates involved in Attica fight were also transferred to Auburn prison. "I was scared."

Contraband volume

Since Jan. 5, 2017, 17 former Auburn inmates have appeared in criminal court — 15 of those inmates were charged with possessing weapons at the prison while the remaining two were accused of assault and harassment. 

In a press release in March, Budelmann said Cortese's case was just one example of a "real and serious problem" at the prison.

"There were 85 inmate-on-inmate assaults with a weapon reported in 2016 alone," the district attorney said. "(Auburn Correctional Facility) is a dangerous place where inmate-on-inmate attacks with weapons are a very real danger." 

One of 17 maximum-security facilities throughout New York State (16 of which are male), Auburn Correctional Facility houses an average of 1,543 male inmates on a daily basis. It is one of nine state prisons (all male) that have over 1,500 inmates; six of those are maximum-security facilities.

According to DOCCS' statistics — which The Citizen received via a Freedom of Information Law request — from 2012 to 2015, Auburn Correctional Facility recovered 1,178 illegal contraband from inmates and visitors at the prison. Of that contraband, there were 708 weapons, 359 drugs and 111 miscellaneous items such as cash or cell phones. 

In terms of contraband per inmate, no facility had more than Auburn during that time. It also had the third-highest total contraband reported of all 54 maximum- and medium-security facilities; Auburn ranked fourth for weapons and second for drugs.

Meanwhile, roughly 20 miles down the road in Moravia, Cayuga Correctional Facility reported a total of 154 contraband in that same four-year stretch. The medium-security facility houses an average of 952 inmates on a daily basis. 

When asked if DOCCS believed there was a contraband issue at Auburn, spokesperson Thomas Mailey said Auburn's statistics are "comparable" to other prisons, as there are multiple factors that can influence the likelihood of contraband at a facility — factors like security, setup and size. 

For instance, some maximum-security facilities like Clinton and Elmira are "reception centers," meaning a large portion of inmates are housed there temporarily while being evaluated and classified. Then there are "areas of preference" — like Sing Sing, the only maximum-security prison in the New York City region — which allow inmates with good behavior to be closer to home.

"Some of these factors can significantly reduce the risk of contraband," Mailey said in a phone interview with The Citizen. "There is also a big difference between inmates at maximum-security facilities and medium-security facilities ... a difference in violence and crimes." 

The district attorney agreed.

"Every inmate (at Auburn) has been convicted of a serious felony, such as murder, rape, assault, child abuse, domestic violence, robbery and drug sales," Budelmann added. "Some of these inmates are extremely dangerous and many are repeat offenders." 

Policy and a probe

A repeat offender convicted of two violent felonies, Cortese is just one example of the kind of dangerous criminals incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility, Budelmann said. However, some Auburn inmates have recently had their contraband cases dismissed in light of a state investigation at the prison. 

Of the 17 inmates in Cayuga County Court this year, six of them have had their convictions vacated. 

According to DOCCS, the department's Office of Special Investigations began investigating Auburn prison in December 2016 after Corrections Officer Matthew Cornell admitted to planting a weapon on an inmate

At the time, the district attorney said Cornell had confessed to planting the weapon in 2015 in order to break up a prison gang by transferring the inmate to another facility. As a result, Cornell was immediately suspended without pay and several local cases were dismissed. 

"We no longer had confidence in a conviction," Budelmann said during a court proceeding in January, noting that the cases relied heavily on Cornell's testimony. "We agreed to dismiss or vacate six cases in the interest of justice." 

But, despite the dismissals, Budelmann said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the officer in any case. In fact, he said, many of the defendants — like Naythan Aubain and Thomas Ozzborn — had previously pleaded guilty to possessing the contraband in court, and confessed to the crimes in recorded prison calls. 

"Inmates like Aubain and Ozzborn have lied about being set up with a weapon," Budelmann said in an email to The Citizen. "Both pleaded guilty ... with the assistance of counsel (and) both later filed lawsuits claiming they were set up. ... Both also made admissions in recorded phone calls supporting that they were guilty of possessing the weapons." 

Since DOCCS announced the investigation last year, Mailey said Cornell and a second unnamed officer have been suspended without pay. The investigation is ongoing. 

Meanwhile, the department has implemented changes at several facilities, including a new policy that requires prison staff to bring food and personal items to work in state-issued clear plastic bags. That policy took effect last month. 

"DOCCS takes the danger of contraband seriously and has made significant improvements and changes in its continuous efforts to prevent contraband from entering all of New York State's correctional facilities," Mailey said. 

Trends and technology

Over the years, the number of contraband found at correctional facilities has risen steadily throughout the state. 

From 2012 to 2015 — the most recent year for which data was available from DOCCS — Auburn saw a 49-percent increase in contraband. Only three maximum-security facilities reported a decrease in contraband at that time. 

"Contraband is at an all-time high throughout the state," said Joe Miano, the vice president of New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association's Western Region.

As to why there is more contraband now — and why there is more contraband at some facilities versus others — both DOCCS and NYSCOPBA said new technology and staffing levels have simply made it harder for inmates to hide contraband.

"We're finding more," Mailey said. "Investments in technology, the expansion of DOCCS' K9 units and the ongoing partnership between DOCCS' Office of Special Investigations and the New York State Police have resulted in safer and more secure facilities."

"Some facilities do more frisking than others based on an incident that may have occurred," Miano added in an email. "Auburn has had several large incidents that would cause for a facility-wide shut down and searches."

According to DOCCS, Auburn Correctional Facility has been locked down twice in the past year. In May 2016, the facility was frisked after three inmates were caught fighting with a weapon in the prison's south yard. Similarly, the premises was searched again last month after police found two ceramic blades during a fight among 10 inmates.

Increased enforcement aside, the data are troubling to local defense attorney Rome Canzano.

"These statistics are absolutely alarming and tend to corroborate the sentiment expressed by a number of my inmate clients — that in Auburn Correctional Facility, weapons and drugs are everywhere," he said. "It is dangerous for inmates, guards and other staff ... and demonstrates a security problem that must be addressed."

Budelmann said the ceramic blades are the latest weapons being recovered at the prison, as inmates often create contraband in an attempt to trick new technology like Cellsense, a portable detector that can conduct full-body scans in seconds

"With each new step in technology, the inmates respond," he said. "The latest iteration of this trend is the ceramic blade weapons, which are not captured on metal detectors, wands or Cellsense devices." 

In addition to advancements in technology, Mailey said DOCCS has increased staff, nearly doubling its K-9 units and adding 268 new security jobs in the last two years. That has helped the department maintain an inmate to correction officer ratio of approximately three to one, he said, among the lowest ratios in the nation.

As for the future, Mailey said DOCCS is currently changing its package room policy so inmates are limited to receiving items from pre-approved secure vendors. The department also has plans to install additional fixed cameras at a number of facilities and is testing out body cameras at Clinton and Bedford correctional facilities. 

"(DOCCS) continues to review its policies and procedures and make significant improvements to enhance the safety and security in New York's correctional facilities," Mailey said. "Millions of dollars have been invested in additional security staffing, technology and training and the department will continue to work closely with its hardworking staff to address any safety concerns they may have."

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Staff writer Megan Blarr can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or megan.blarr@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenBlarr.