Tavon White, described by authorities as a calculating gang leader who essentially took over the Baltimore jail to smuggle drugs in cahoots with corrections officers, drew compliments from a federal judge and prosecutor at his sentencing Monday.
U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Harding praised the defendant for his bravery and his cooperation. White, 37, aided investigators and then became a key witness against other defendants in the jailhouse scheme.
"Mr. White agreed to cooperate" early in the investigation and "assumed a risk he will have to live with the rest of his life," Harding said. The prosecutor said that decision "took great courage. His whole life is going to be different now."
The scandal rocked the state corrections system and garnered international attention. As a leader in the ruthless Black Guerrilla Family gang, White described in court how he and his co-conspirators smuggled drugs and contraband cellphones into the jail. White also fathered four children with corrections officers while in jail.
For his role, White won't serve an extra day behind bars. As part of a plea agreement, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but that will run concurrently with a 20-year sentence he's already serving for attempted murder. The attempted-murder case sent him to the Baltimore City Detention Center in the first place.
Over the past two years, 35 defendants have pleaded guilty in the jailhouse corruption case. One defendant died. And the remaining eight went to trial, which ended last week in the conviction of two inmates, two corrections officers and a kitchen worker.
Though White pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy — "a very, very serious offense" — Hollander noted the role he played in identifying other defendants and explaining to investigators how the illegal operation worked. She sat in on the recent trial, during which another judge presided.
"You did quite well," Hollander told White at the sentencing Monday. She called him an "excellent witness."
The judge even said it was a shame that White chose a criminal path, saying he has "the tools" to succeed.
The praise from court officials contrasts with the portrayal of White by prosecutors as the mastermind behind the smuggling operation that co-opted corrupt corrections officers and brought tobacco, marijuana and prescription pills into the jail.
At one point in the recent trial, prosecutors played recordings from White's wiretapped phone calls in which he boasted: "This is my jail."
Attorneys for other defendants argued that White was not a credible witness because he would serve no additional time in exchange for testifying.
"He got a hell of a lot better deal than he deserved," said Edward Sussman, a defense attorney whose client was acquitted in the jail corruption case. "The government paid too much for his testimony."
Sussman, who represented corrections officer Michelle Ricks, a 45-year-old sergeant, said he easily discredited White in court by poking holes in his testimony. "I don't think he was particularly believable," Sussman said.
White was one of the first defendants to plead guilty in the wide-ranging case, and he implicated more corrections officers than originally charged.
Harding, the prosecutor, said the way White operated might have had a positive outcome. He said White actually "quelled violence" at the jail because the inmate was motivated to make money, and violence got in the way of profits.
"He became a peacemaker in the facility," Harding said. "He made the place less violent."
For this part, White's attorney, Gary Proctor, called his client "a prince of a guy." Proctor said White took a great risk in cooperating with authorities.
"Mr. White will be looking over his shoulder the rest of his life," he said.
White will be transported to a federal facility. Proctor said he does not know where White will serve out his sentence, but he said it's unlikely to be at the federal prison in Cumberland.
Whitewill receive about 22 months of credit for time served toward the federal sentence and could get additional credits for good behavior.
Proctor said the clock on his sentence began ticking in 2009, when White was first jailed at the Baltimore facility on the attempted-murder charge. He pleaded guilty in that case.
White chose not to speak at the sentencing. None of his family appeared in court. Proctor said White did not want them to attend.
Proctor said White had a difficult childhood. He was exposed to drugs in utero, his father went to jail and he was raised by his grandmother.
White said he joined the Black Guerrilla Familygang in 1997 while serving time for murder at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
After arriving at the Baltimore jail, White testified, he quickly rose through the ranks of the gang's leadership. He said he was selected by other gang members to lead the BGF in the jail during a jail-cell conference call made over a contraband cellphone.
The gang managed to gain control by persuading jailhouse staff to put members into "workingman" posts, which entail tasks like cleaning and distributing food and provide inmates with more freedom. Typically such positions are reserved for inmates displaying good conduct, but investigators said they afforded the gang more opportunity to smuggle drugs and cellphones.
White also managed to maintain sexual relationships with four corrections officers. He often succeeded in keeping his simultaneous affairs a secret, but not always. At one point, he managed to give a Mercedes-Benz to one corrections officer, and then instructed her to give it to another of his paramours, who drove it to work, causing a fight among the women.