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O'Malley promises corrections reform as GOP calls for audit

Justice SystemExecutive BranchGang ActivityCell PhonesOrganized Crime

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Thursday that he would expand the use of technology to block cell phone calls in Maryland corrections facilities, part of a set of reforms designed to "root out corruption" after a federal indictment alleged widespread gang activity at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

O'Malley also called for a review of whether enhanced workplace protections for corrections officers helped dishonest workers stay on the job, and said polygraph tests would continue to be administered to jail employees.

The announcement came as state Republican leaders criticized his response to the alleged corruption and called for an independent audit of jails and prisons.

The statements continued a political back-and-forth that has followed the indictment of 13 officers and a dozen alleged Black Guerrilla Family gang members in a scheme to smuggle drugs, cellphones and other contraband into the jail, a state-run facility.

"We have zero tolerance for corruption," O'Malley said in a statement. "When members of murder networks are behind bars, the public has every right to expect that they will be prevented from committing further crimes."

It was the Democratic governor's most substantive response to the federal indictment, which has become a potentially embarrassing national story at a time when O'Malley is considering a presidential run.

House Republicans in Annapolis said O'Malley had missed opportunities to act before the scandal broke and has been slow to move after the allegations became public. He initially called the indictment "a positive development" that showed that law enforcement could tackle corruption.

Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, the newly elected House minority leader, said he's glad to see the governor taking action now.

"We're glad that he's stepping up and we urge him to take personal responsibility as the chief executive of this state to reform corrections, and he will find bipartisan support among members of the legislature to fix this problem," the Anne Arundel County Republican said.

Also Thursday, two inmates charged in the case appeared in court and pleaded not guilty.

The indictment included lurid details about alleged gang leader Tavon White's sexual exploits behind bars — such as the allegation that he impregnated four corrections officers. But in an affidavit the FBI also pointed to systemic failures in corrections department security and discipline policies.

O'Malley said he wants to address those problems, making it easier for the corrections department to discipline corrupt officers. He also wants to crack down on contraband cellphones, a critical connection to the outside allegedly used by gang members to coordinate their activities.

O'Malley released his statement just minutes before Republican state lawmakers held a news conference to chastise him and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly.

Kipke said the administration needs to take immediate steps to work with an independent police agency outside the public safety department — perhaps the Maryland State Police — to conduct background checks on applicants for correctional officer positions.

And he said that in the short term a separate agency should also control the outside gates of correctional facilities so that staff members can't bring in contraband.

Maj. Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the state police, said that his agency works closely with the corrections department and that there is no need for troopers to pat down corrections officers.

"At this time, we do not believe the assignment of troopers as entrance security personnel would enhance conditions already being directly and effectively addressed by the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services," he said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said it was good that the governor is making suggestions. He said lawmakers from both parties would have a chance to propose solutions, but warned that there would be no "quick fix" for the problems at the jail.

"This is not going to be resolved overnight," he said. "Our goal is to work together to resolve this."

House and Senate leaders have said they will hold a hearing on problems at the jail sometime in June.

While the governor's statement proposed specific cellphone legislation, it left much painted only in broad brush strokes. Corrections officials said many parts of the state's response to the indictment, including new security procedures and changes to the discipline process, are still under "review."

In the meantime, corrections chief Gary D. Maynard has begun a review of operations at the jail, including polygraph testing for senior officials. That investigation recently led to the removal of the head of security at the jail.

O'Malley said other officials would be removed if their "job performance or integrity compromises the security of our jail or prisons."

The governor's plan also includes a promise to review the Corrections Officers Bill of Rights, a protection passed by state lawmakers in 2010 at the urging of labor leaders. The FBI said in court filings that the law may have stymied the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' efforts to fight corruption.

Patrick Moran, the president of AFSCME Council 3, which represents many corrections officers in Maryland, said the FBI made a "misstatement" in placing blame on the bill of rights.

"There's no indication or evidence that we've seen that it makes it difficult for the department to discipline [corrections officers]," he said. "What has happened is not a reflection on the COBR."

The governor also said the state will review discipline procedures to "enhance our ability to crack down on correctional officers who violate the public's trust."

O'Malley said officials are planning to expand the use of cellphone suppression technology, which blocks unauthorized signals getting through to jails and prisons. A pilot program has been running at a prison in Baltimore since last year and corrections spokesman Rick Binetti said the department is "assessing" its use at the detention center.

The governor also called on the General Assembly to pass legislation upping the sentences for inmates convicted of possessing a phone behind bars. A measure that would have made second and subsequent offenses a felony failed to pass this year.

But some Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee called for the current law to be more vigorously enforced, particularly against corrections officers. Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said a focus on criminal penalties for smuggling contraband was "deflecting attention off the real problem."

"It's the state's responsibility to make sure that what goes on in our house is appropriate," she said. "You can't push it off on the gang members, the inmates or low-level corrections officers."

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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