By Michael R. Sisak and Mchael Balsamo, AP
A federal correctional officer was arrested Friday for lying to investigators after a loaded gun was found in an inmate’s cell at a federal jail in New York City — the same troubled lockup where financier Jeffrey Epstein killed himself in 2019.
Greg McKenzie, a guard at the since-shuttered Metropolitan Correctional Center, used a prepaid cellphone to communicate with the inmate and the inmate’s wife prior to the gun’s discovery in March 2020, but denied doing so when federal agents interviewed him about it last year, prosecutors said.
McKenzie, 35, of Danbury, Connecticut, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of obstruction of justice and making false statements. They carry a combined maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
McKenzie was released on $200,000 bond following his arraignment in Manhattan federal court and must seek court approval to travel outside of Connecticut and the New York City area.
McKenzie’s lawyer, Aaron Wallenstein, said: “My client denies he committed a crime. He answered any questions from law authorities to the best of his knowledge.”
The federal Bureau of Prisons said McKenzie is currently employed as a correctional officer at the federal correctional institution in Danbury, but Wallenstein said he is starting a job Monday as a delivery driver. The inmate McKenzie is accused of communicating with was not identified in McKenzie’s charging documents.
Special Agent Ryan Geach of the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s office said in a statement that McKenzie’s alleged lying and obstruction are especially troubling “because a loaded firearm in the hands of an inmate endangers not just the prison, but the entire community.”
In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons said it is cooperating with the Inspector General’s office on active investigations and “takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody as well as maintain the safety of correctional staff and the community.”
“Allegations of staff misconduct are taken seriously and consistent with national policy, referred for investigation, if warranted,” the agency said. “Incidents of potential criminal activity or misconduct inside BOP facilities are thoroughly investigated for potential administrative discipline or criminal prosecution.”
McKenzie is the first person charged in connection with the smuggled handgun, one of many crises that led the federal Bureau of Prisons to close the Metropolitan Correctional Center, at least temporarily, last October to address issues plaguing the Manhattan facility, including lax security and crumbling infrastructure.
The incident, just before the start of nationwide COVID-19 shutdowns, marked a massive breach of protocol and raised serious questions about security practices in federal prisons, which house more than 154,000 inmates.
The jail, billed as one of the most secure in America, was put on lockdown for a week, with inmates kept in their cells without access to their lawyers or visitors. Searches turned up other contraband and led to a criminal probe into guard misconduct.
Bureau of Prisons officers located the gun March 5, 2020, inside a wall accessible to a particular cell in a Metropolitan Correctional Center housing unit. Prior to that, prosecutors said, McKenzie had been in contact with the inmate living in that cell and the inmate’s wife using a prepaid Samsung cellphone that he bought Jan. 30, 2020.
Cellphone records show multiple communications between McKenzie’s prepaid phone and the inmate’s wife on Jan. 31, 2020, and indicated that for a time their phones were in the same vicinity in the Bronx, prosecutors said in the officer’s indictment.
McKenzie, who was on a year-long temporary assignment to the Metropolitan Correctional Center spanning December 2019 to December 2020, then went to work for a midnight shift on the inmate’s housing unit, the indictment said. Security video showed him walking around, rather than through, a stationary metal detector when he entered the facility, the indictment said.
According to the indictment, phone records show the inmate called and then sent a text message to McKenzie’s prepaid phone around 12:16 a.m. and, about three minutes later, security video shows McKenzie exiting the guard station and walking toward the area of the inmate’s cell while carrying an object under his left arm.
During a voluntary interview with two federal law enforcement agents on Nov. 4, 2021, prosecutors say McKenzie made materially false statements about purchasing, possessing and using the prepaid cellphone, obstructing the investigation into the smuggling of the gun and other contraband into the jail.
Epstein killed himself at the jail in August 2019 while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges. The wealthy financier’s death led to intense scrutiny on the jail and the Bureau of Prisons. Two correctional officers accused of sleeping and shopping on the internet when they were supposed to be watching Epstein’s unit reached a deal last year to avoid jail time after admitting they forged records to make it look like they checked in on him.