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State approves settlement to ex-inmate amid corrections scrutiny

Drug TraffickingOrganized CrimeGang ActivityExecutive BranchJustice System

With the state corrections system already under scrutiny, the Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday approved a $40,000 settlement with a former inmate of the Baltimore jail who claimed he was assaulted by gang members for not assisting with a drug dealing operation.

The inmate, who filed the lawsuit under the alias Michael Smith, said a correctional officer at the Baltimore City Detention Center connected to the Bloods gang allowed another prisoner to unlock himself and beat Smith while he remained in restraints in a van in March 2007.

Smith, whose legal name is Michael E. Reed Jr., further alleged that when he was transferred to a Hagerstown prison after that beating, his request to be placed in a segregated unit was rejected and he was put in the general population, where he was assaulted again. He was assaulted once again at a Jessup facility, he said.

The settlement comes amid a scandal over the federal indictments last month of two dozen people — including 13 correctional officers — for allegedly fueling a lucrative gang-related drug trade inside and outside the jail. That case involves another gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, and federal authorities say the gang's alleged ringleader at the city jail, Tavon White, also impregnated four correctional officers. At an initial appearance, White pleaded not guilty to allegations that he oversaw the corruption scheme.

The case has drawn national attention and criticism of Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is mulling a potential presidential run.

O'Malley publicly instructed Public Safety Secretary Gary D. Maynard on Wednesday to redouble his efforts to root out corruption in the state prison system after the indictments.

"Do not relent and do not let up for any reason whatsoever. Do what needs to be done," O'Malley told Maynard at the state Board of Public Works meeting.

Maynard has come under fire over allegations that the officers, inmates and gang members outside the jail conspired to smuggle in drugs, cellphones and other contraband. O'Malley said Maynard has his full backing to do anything necessary to combat violent gangs in state prisons.

Maynard appeared at the board meeting to answer questions about the settlement with Smith.

Smith said that while at the detention center awaiting trial on a firearm possession charge, he arranged with a correctional officer and the Bloods gang to smuggle contraband, including heroin, tobacco, and cellphones, into the facility in 2006. When he tried to back out of the deal in 2007, he claimed, the correctional officer threatened to tell gang members he was a snitch and put a bounty out on him, according to the settlement agreement. After he was assaulted, Smith claimed, the city jail's warden refused to let him be treated by a physician.

The events described in the lawsuit spanned the period between the last months of the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the first months under O'Malley.

State officials did not dispute Smith's account but noted that the matter had not been adjudicated. The attorney general's office agreed to settle the case, with the money drawn from the state's general fund, citing substantial risk in proceeding to trial.

The board approved that settlement Wednesday on a 2-1 vote, with Comptroller Peter Franchot dissenting. Franchot said he was concerned that taxpayers could face a wave of settlements of suits brought by inmates as a result of actions by gang-connected correctional officers.

Franchot blasted correctional officials over the incident with Smith, asking how the correctional officer Smith accused of orchestrating the beating was allowed to be hired.

"The reason I'm walking through the fact pattern of events that occurred nearly six years ago is that — as the last few days have made painfully clear — the internal rot within the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was never satisfactorily addressed, and the underlying issues that made something like this possible have never gone away," Franchot said in his prepared questions.

Seven inmates have been killed after assaults in Maryland prisons since September.

O'Malley, who returned from a weeklong trip to Israel on Monday, has mounted an aggressive defense of his administration's record on fighting gang violence.

The governor has emphasized that Maryland corrections officials took the initiative to seek federal help in investigating gang operations at the state-run city jail — a point that was confirmed Tuesday by U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein and a top FBI official.

O'Malley on Wednesday read aloud excerpts of a newspaper article quoting those officials.

"We have a lot of work we still have to do, but there's a lot of progress that has been made," the governor said.

Critics have faulted Maynard for the management of the detention center. They have derided O'Malley's contention that the indictments are a "positive achievement" in the fight against gangs.

State lawmakers have scheduled a hearing next week on the prison corruption allegations.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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