"To some extent these affiliations are supposed to be [for] life, but I don't know whether that's the case."

State officials say they have flagged gang ties of about 7,400 inmates and detainees since 2007. The BGF is now the second-largest group after the Bloods, according to Gary D. Maynard, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the city jail.

The BGF emerged as the dominant group at the city detention center in 2006, according to the indictment. And toward the end of the investigation into White, some jail officials came to regard the gang's power as an inevitable fact of life, an affidavit states.

White had been held at the jail an unusually long time awaiting trial. He is accused in the November 2009 shooting of Devon Butler, a former associate in a drug-dealing operation, according to a summary of a conversation between Butler and a prosecutor included in court records.

The case twice went to trial, both times ending in a hung jury. Last summer, White allegedly made a move to bring the case to an end. When he saw Butler, who was also facing criminal charges, in a holding area at the courthouse, prosecutors allege in court filings, White offered him $15,000 to stop cooperating and implied a threat to Butler's family.

Creston P. Smith, White's attorney in the state case, declined to comment. White had no lawyer listed in the recent federal case.

One way or another, jail officials knew White's protracted stay would eventually end. Someday he would either be sent to prison or released back onto the street.

According to a summary of wiretapped conversations made public last week, one corrections lieutenant at the jail was already making plans for that day.

The lieutenant approached Joseph Young, a gang member known as Monster who was seen as White's heir apparent, and offered him a deal: Young could keep making money selling contraband if he kept a lid on violence, according to the FBI.

Investigation tactics

Yet the gang's strong structure apparently aided prosecutors too. Rosenstein said better-organized groups can be easier to target for major investigations. Federal investigators were able to use the illicit phones against the alleged gang members, getting wiretaps from members on the periphery and worming their way inward.

Rosenstein said it can be hard to prosecute gang crimes without wiretaps and other outside evidence, because informants are usually criminals and therefore vulnerable on the witness stand. Doing a combined gang and corruption investigation is doubly hard, he said, because the targets on the corruption end — in this case, corrections officers — usually don't have criminal records.

"It's the same challenge because they've got clean records and that heightens the likelihood of an acquittal if you don't have unimpeachable evidence," he said. "You need more than just the testimony of a criminal."

And if a gang is highly organized, authorities must target a greater number of its members, Rosenstein said, "because there is structure to the gang; when you remove one leader another will step in."

Gaston, the former New York corrections system leader, recently retired from a second career as a University of Maryland criminology professor and still consults for governments. He has been an adviser on combating jail takeovers by inmates and best practices for maintaining security and control.

As with other prison gangs, the Black Guerrilla Family has low-level "grunts," middlemen and higher-ranking leaders in prisons, who all may be "acting on the orders of those on the street," Gaston said.

"They do not operate in a vacuum. What they are doing in the jail has to be coordinated in the streets," he said. "The higher-ups have a plan. They obviously have a plan [for] what comes in and what comes out" of the jail.

To meet the demands of outside bosses, locked-up gang members are constantly angling for influence within the facility, looking for ways to intimidate guards or skirt security protocols, Gaston said.

"This is not a haphazard group of guys who just happened to get together," he said. "This is not a mob, this is a gang."

Officers' role