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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

First sentence handed down in BGF jail corruption case

A federal judge ordered a former corrections officer behind bars for smuggling drugs into the Baltimore jail at the behest of the Black Guerrilla Family — the first sentence in a case that revealed the gang's takeover of the facility.

U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander said she hoped the prison time would send a clear message to other corrections officers who might be tempted to take part in illegal activity. Hollander gave the officer 31/2 years, a few months shy of the maximum recommended by sentencing guidelines.

"This is such a serious case — the message must go out," Hollander said. "The public is still having a hard time grasping the magnitude of what happened."

The scandal has dominated headlines since federal authorities alleged last spring that gang members corrupted jail officers during their time in jail, indulging in smuggling and fornicating with women who worked there.

And the fallout continues. Wednesday's proceeding was the first of several federal court hearings scheduled this month, and the General Assembly plans to hold its own hearings on whether to tighten security at the state-run jail or replace it entirely.

The officer, 25-year-old Adrena Rice, was one of 13 female jail officers charged in April with helping Black Guerrilla Family members bring drugs, cellphones and other contraband into the Baltimore City Detention Center as part of a lucrative smuggling business.

Rice pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge in September.

Meanwhile, cases are just beginning for another wave of officers and inmates charged in November. Two of them pleaded not guilty earlier this month.

Gov. Martin O'Malley again thanked the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore and the FBI for their efforts in fighting corruption at the jail. The governor said the facts that emerged from a joint investigation were "ugly" — as he said they are in most corruption cases.

"It is far better to address it than to put your head in the sand," he said.

But as his term expires next January, O'Malley acknowledged he might not see all the needed reforms implemented. He said a decision on replacing the entire complex will likely be left to the next governor.

While the governor did not outline specific plans for construction, the administration's spending plan is expected to include money for planning and designing a new section of the jail that houses juveniles charged as adults — the first step in a proposal to rebuild the facility.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said lawmakers, who must address a budget shortfall of about $500 million, will look for ways to put aside the money to improve detention facilities in Baltimore.

Miller would like to see an official stationed at the facility with the power to arrest inmates or correctional officers who violate the law and called for prospective officers to undergo psychological screening similar to that used by police. He also said lawmakers will examine the "bill of rights" for corrections officers, which has been blamed for making it too difficult to fire problem officers.

Prosecutors in Rice's case had been seeking a slightly longer sentence, but the term imposed by Hollander fell within the range spelled out by federal sentencing rules. Eight other corrections officers who have pleaded guilty face similar sentences when they go before the judge.

Charles N. Curlett Jr., an attorney for one of those officers, argued in court papers that his client should not be sent to prison at all. He said his client took part in a system sanctioned by senior security officials at the jail, who allowed "an internal hierarchy constructed by the inmates themselves to control behavior and discipline within the facility."

He called his client, Taryn Kirkland, and the other young officers charged in the case "victims of circumstance," and noted that no supervisors have been charged in the case.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, rejected Curlett's characterization of the jail's supervisory structure.

"Policies don't contribute to illegal activity; bad decisions by staff leading to corruption do," Binetti said. "We will go after any corrupt staff, no matter the rank, and penalties will be stiff."

Binetti pointed out that 12 supervisors between the rank of lieutenant and major resigned in the wake of an internal investigation into corruption at the jail. They have not been charged with crimes.

In court Wednesday, Rice apologized to the judge in a brief, tearful address. She stood up to talk, taking a long pause before she began speaking.

"I know what I did was wrong, I apologize for everything that I did," Rice said. "I know I made a messed-up decision in my life."

"I wasn't considering my child … I wasn't thinking," said Rice, who is a single mother and who will be allowed to turn herself in to serve her sentence. "I've got to step up and be a better person for him."

Rice's emotional comments in court contrasted with conversations between her and gang leader Tavon White that were intercepted on a wiretap.

"I am just about my money," Rice said in the February phone call. "You hear me? I love money. I love it."

Rice's attorney said in court papers that ultimately her client didn't make much money from working with the BGF, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Harding said government informants have described Rice as "one of the more prolific smugglers."

Witnesses also told authorities that Rice had sexual relationships with three gang members in the jail, Harding said. He questioned the extent to which Rice accepted that her actions were wrong.

"I'm sure she's remorseful about having got caught," Harding said, adding there was no evidence she felt bad about her conduct at the jail. He noted that she failed drug tests while the case was pending.

But Andrew R. Szekely, who represented Rice, said she had told him "from the get go" she intended to plead guilty.

He urged the judge to be lenient because Rice had already lost the state job she saw as a "ticket into the middle class" and would bear the consequences of having a federal conviction on her record for the rest of her life. When the matter is resolved, Szekely said, Rice will have a chance to try and start afresh.

Hollander agreed, and said that while Rice's actions were "despicable" and that she had "seriously violated" the public's trust, she would have a chance to take a different path after emerging from prison.

"What you do with your future is entirely up to you," Hollander said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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