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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

Investigators say gang turned city jail into 'stronghold'

Corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were preparing for a middle-of-the-night search of jail cells, aimed at rooting out drugs, cellphones, weapons and any other contraband inmates had stashed away. But the officers weren't the only ones getting ready.

Hours before the planned checks in January, an FBI affidavit says, word reached Tavon White, an inmate who prosecutors say reigned as the jailhouse leader of a violent gang called the Black Guerrilla Family.

White's alleged tipster, according to court records: a corrections officer at the jail.

The advance warning vividly illustrates the success with which federal authorities believe the BGF turned the downtown Baltimore detention center into a gang "stronghold."

Authorities around the country have struggled for years to dislodge gangs from jails and prisons. In Maryland for example, a 2009 investigation revealed widespread BGF activity at other corrections facilities.

But the scale and scope of the allegations laid out this week in a federal indictment — 25 people, including corrections officers, were accused in a smuggling scheme — has astounded even longtime observers.

After getting the tip, White allegedly announced: "I just got message saying that they going to pull a shakedown tonight. Let me call all these dudes in my phone and let them know."

Prosecutors say White relayed the news to two gang deputies, who in turn sounded the alarm to other inmates — fellow BGF members with nicknames like Fatboy, Ack and Flatline.

With White as its alleged leader behind the jail's walls, the gang dealt marijuana, cigarettes, painkillers and cellphones that it smuggled in with help from corrections officers, several of whom were having sex with gang members, according to a federal indictment unsealed this week.

The gang's so-called "Minister of Finance" also collected dues from members and levies from non-member inmates, funneling money to gang leaders on the outside, the indictment alleges.

Court filings paint gang members as highly organized, with an eye on the long term at a facility intended to temporarily hold suspects before trial. Prosecutors say they methodically went about co-opting corrections officers and had a command structure that jail authorities believed would determine succession if a member was set free or sent to prison.

Corrections department investigators discovered BGF documents outlining that new recruits are trained to target female officers with "low self-esteem, insecurities and certain physical attributes," according to the affidavit. Gang members believe such officers can be easily manipulated, investigators wrote.

Previous federal investigations targeting the BGF suppressed the gang in Maryland's prisons and on the streets, prosecutors say. But the new indictment says it became deeply entrenched inside the jail — establishing the 36-year-old White in power while he awaited trial for more than three years on an attempted-murder charge.

Arnett Gaston, a clinical psychologist and prison gang expert who rose to the top ranks of the New York and Maryland corrections systems, said he was shocked by the alleged level of involvement by corrections officers. Thirteen were charged, and four officers were impregnated by White, prosecutors say.

"Quite frankly, I have never come across this level of voluntary participation. That's what really surprised me," said Gaston, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s commanded New York City's main jail complex on Rikers Island, considered one of the largest detention facilities in the world.

Growing in Baltimore

From roots in California prisons during the 1960s, the BGF has spread its influence to the streets of Baltimore, investigators say, setting in motion a wave of violence around the city late last year.

White, who held the relatively senior rank of Bushman, felt supreme inside the jail, according to an affidavit filed in connection with the case. But investigators also intercepted conversations between him and more senior leaders outside in which he asked for instructions.

In Maryland, prosecutors say, the BGF rose to prominence after federal authorities took on another gang, the Bloods, in the middle of the last decade. The Black Guerrilla Family might even have directly benefited from those cases, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said Friday.

"People choose their gang affiliations based on which they think is currently the most powerful," he said. "So I suspect the series of prosecutions against Blood sets led people to join a different gang.

"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

Corrections officials face this challenge on a regular basis, all across the country. But for the situation to get so out of control at the Baltimore jail, as laid out by prosecutors, there had to be "very lax" security, Gaston said.

"The supervisory staff really weren't doing the job they were supposed to be doing, because it was on such a large scale," he said. "There had to be some indication of what was going on."

The state corrections department has said that it asked for and fully supported the federal investigation, and that the indictment shows the state's willingness to take on corruption in its facilities.

"These types of insidious gang issues cannot and will not be tolerated," Gov. Martin O'Malley said Friday. "Over the last six years, we've made it a priority to work with our federal and local law enforcement partners to combat prison gangs."

On Friday, secretary Maynard said he would decamp to the detention center from his Towson office, and subject top jail officials to polygraph tests. Other workers will be given "integrity reviews," he added.

Gaston said it is not easy to weed out problematic corrections officers.

Pop culture representations idealize prisoners, he noted, and officers with existing connections to certain prisoners can "lionize and romanticize" them.

Brian Johnson, a former trainer for Maryland corrections officers, said inmates take a strategic approach in trying to co-opt officers and attempt to get "a full idea of what makes that person tick."

"They'll break minor rules and see how the officer responds," Johnson said. If the officer does not crack down immediately, he said, gang members will keep testing.

He said new recruits are most vulnerable in their first year on the job, when they might feel isolated and at risk. Johnson said officers should be closely supervised as they learn the ropes, but that does not always happen. Feeling scared, he said, the officers might start looking to inmates for protection rather than their superiors.

"That first year is the most important," he said. "That decides which way they're going to go."

To Gaston, the idea that four corrections officers could be impregnated — one of them twice — by the same inmate should have set off alarms far sooner than it did, he said. "You mean nobody was following up on this?"

Smuggling problem

Key to the BGF's success was its ready access to cellphones, which it used "to arrange sexual encounters, conduct the business of the enterprise … and to coordinate with members of the enterprise outside the prison," according to the indictment.

Gaston said there are several ways to minimize if not eliminate smuggling of contraband cell phones and drugs into the jail, starting with increasing spot checks of officers by higher-ranking officials. He has carried out surprise searches in every facility he has ever run.

"You have the latitude to do this," he said. "They may think that's onerous, they may have objections, but it is a necessity, obviously, in this case."

Gaston said he would make all security screening positions permanent assignments, filling them with highly vetted, trusted employees. In some prison and jail systems, officers rotate through such positions, leaving security barriers in the hands of different employees at different times, some of whom may allow the smuggling.

Corrections officers took advantage of such a loophole at the Baltimore jail, according to the indictment, sometimes pretending to be late for their shifts just to determine who was manning the scanners.

"It would be very simple when your homeboy is as complicit as you when he's on the job," Gaston said. "You know that's when to smuggle things in and out."

Decades ago, it wasn't uncommon for certain prisoners to wield authority. Known as "building tenders" or "barn bosses," these favored prisoners helped guards maintain order on cell blocks. Often they did so through intimidation and violence toward other inmates.

The practice took a hit in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after a federal judge in Texas condemned it in a case that led to an overhaul of the state's prison system. Still, unofficial agreements between corrections officers and powerful inmates continue, Gaston said.

Wahid Shakur, now 20, who arrived at the Baltimore detention center in 2008 at age 16 on armed robbery and carjacking charges, said he wasn't surprised by the allegations in the indictment.

He said it's "way more crazy over at city jail than it is in prison," where he was sent after his 2009 conviction. Jail inmates act unpredictably because they often don't know if they will be released or sentenced to long prison terms, he said.

"It's always been a straight jungle over there," he said of the detention center. "When you over at city jail, it's a whole different type of mindset."

But responsibility rests with corrections officers, or COs, said Shakur, who now talks to middle and high school students about avoiding a life of crime for an organization called Friend of a Friend.

"Anything that's happening, the COs got to allow it to happen," he said. "If you got the CO on your side, that's what gives you power. ... If you getting dope in the jail, you're only getting dope in the jail because the COs allow it. If you got a knife in the jail, the CO allowed it. You only get in what they allow."

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