The inmates' requests often start small, former corrections officers say: a ballpoint pen, for example, or a sandwich from beyond the prison walls.
"You may think it's insignificant," said former Cpl. Sheila Hill, who retired last year from the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. "But it's not."
Even small gifts cross the clear line that should be drawn between inmates and officers, Hill and others said Tuesday. It's a line that federal officials say was flagrantly broken at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Officials say 13 female corrections officers conspired with 12 inmates and others affiliated with the Black Guerrilla Family gang in a scheme to smuggle in marijuana, prescription pills and cellphones.
Those indicted now face racketeering, drug and money-laundering charges. Four officers are alleged to have been impregnated by the gang's alleged leader in the facility.
Hill and several former colleagues gathered Tuesday at the Baltimore office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents most of the state's 7,500 corrections officers, to discuss the allegations. Union members called for better staffing, more training and expanded background checks of applicants.
The union defended a package of workplace protections that federal investigators said might have made it more difficult to punish corrupt officers.
The former officers said opportunities for corruption abound behind the state's prison walls. Hill said inmates often test officers with small requests for help or gifts.
"They can build up from there," she said.
Former Lt. Steve Berger said that, in 1980, he was approached by an inmate on his first day on the job at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown. "Early in their careers, [officers] are targeted to see if they will do something illegal," he said.
Berger said an inmate asked him if he would smuggle drugs into the facility. If so, the inmate said, there would be money in it for him. "I immediately told that person, 'No way, I'll never bring anything in,' " Berger said.
He then informed his supervisor. He said the inmate who'd approached him never did so again.
"You learn that 'No' is the answer," Hill said. That becomes easier for officers as they become more experienced and gain a reputation among inmates for going by the book.
Crooked officers were allegedly central to the Black Guerrilla Family's success at the city jail. Legislators in Annapolis have questioned how such corruption could become so entrenched, so widespread, so obvious and yet so uninterrupted.
Federal officials allege that gang members methodically targeted female officers with "low self-esteem, insecurities and certain physical attributes" who they believed could be easily manipulated.
State corrections secretary Gary D. Maynard has moved his office to the city facility and promised "integrity reviews" of every officer there. Polygraph tests have begun for the jail's top administrators. Gov. Martin O'Malley said Tuesday that he stands by Maynard.
Former Lt. Jack Hughes, who retired in 2008 after seven years in the Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit in Quantico and Eastern Correctional Institution in Salisbury, said the state does not have enough staff to allow officers to watch over one another.
Hill called for more training.
Rick Binetti, a corrections department spokesman, said officials are looking at all options.
He said that there have been no major staff cuts in recent years and that hundreds of new positions are to be created starting in 2015, while training has already been ramped up. Recruits now undergo 35 days of training, with focuses on corruption, inmate behavior and fraternization with inmates.
Binetti said existing background checks — which tap federal and state criminal and gang databases — are already thorough.
Nearly 83 percent of applicants to facilities in Baltimore and surrounding areas fail background checks, he said. More than 73 percent fail in the Hagerstown area, and more than 68 percent fail on the Eastern Shore.
AFSCME leaders said they planned to meet with Maynard today to plot a path forward.
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