Maryland lawmakers called Wednesday for a sweeping inquiry into the state prison system, amid allegations that a gang effectively took over the Baltimore City Detention Center, orchestrating crimes from behind bars and impregnating female correctional officers who helped smuggle in contraband.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the accusations detailed in a federal indictment this week were "disgraceful" and "unbelievable." He said the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the jail, must answer for the gang activity and for a recent string of inmate-on-inmate violence at state facilities.
"It's so shocking that it's going to require a look at the entire prison system — the number of deaths of inmates, the entire way the system is being run and how people are vetted to serve as correctional officers," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.
Some state legislators took aim at department secretary Gary D. Maynard. Already, lawmakers have suggested investigative hearings into the situation at the jail, have contacted auditors to review the prison system, and have called for Maynard to explain what happened.
"The gang isn't supposed to run the prison; the secretary is supposed to run the prison," said Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat and a criminal defense attorney who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. "I don't see how we can absolve Secretary Maynard for what went on. I think we need a sit-down [meeting] and some answers. How was this able to happen? How were these people able to be hired?"
Federal prosecutors allege that the Black Guerrilla Family gang established a lucrative smuggling operation inside the jail under the leadership of inmate Tavon White. Gang members — with the help of corrupt guards — trafficked marijuana, prescription pills and cellphones in the jail, prosecutors say. White held power through the lure of easy money and a network of sexual relationships that left four correctional officers carrying his children, according to the indictment.
In an affidavit linked to the case, FBI investigators wrote that senior corrections officers had informal deals with White's gang, relying on it to curb violence inside the jail.
Maynard said his agency will investigate those claims, which were not part of the formal charges, and will seek sanctions for any corrections officers who were involved with the gang. The agency had pushed for federal help in rooting out the gang, he said, and the indictment unsealed Tuesday shows that policy worked.
Other proposed reforms in the prison system are awaiting Gov. Martin O'Malley's approval and will be unveiled soon, he said.
Corrections officials say safety has generally improved inside state facilities and point to a smuggling crackdown that has led to approximately 450 criminal cases against inmates accused of having cellphones.
But in recent months the corrections agency has faced problems on several fronts. The U.S. Department of Justice brought cases against corrections officers at a prison in Western Maryland, accusing them of covering up the beating of an inmate. Meanwhile, there has been a spike in homicides inside state prisons — seven in the past seven months. .
O'Malley, who is on a trade mission to Israel this week, was not available to comment Wednesday.
Spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the governor "has full confidence in Gary Maynard. There's zero tolerance for corruption at our facilities, especially from our correctional officers."
She said the corruption alleged in the federal indictment was an example of problems that have existed in the prisons for decades, and "was the result of more than a year's worth of work by the state."
But lawmakers said that the gang problems alleged in Baltimore are probably not isolated, and noted that they had questioned Maynard in previous budget hearings about how easy it was for gang members to get their girlfriends hired as corrections officers.
Sen. Ed DeGrange, chair of the Senate appropriation's subcommittee on public safety, said gang problems had been discussed in budget hearings over the past few years, but there was no hint at widespread corruption.
"Why isn't someone saying what's going on? To me, it's pretty obvious that it wasn't hidden," DeGrange said. "I don't think that this is the only place where things like that happen. It could be in Jessup, it could be in Western Maryland, it could be on the Eastern Shore. ... If they're working the system [in Baltimore], they could be working it elsewhere."
Del. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat and chair of the appropriations subcommittee on public safety, said, "The bottom line is there's no question that we have to be very seriously holding people accountable for what happened and what they plan to do."
Lawmakers said they have responded to other concerns expressed by prison officials, and this year approved a bill allowing state funds to be used for prisons to gain accreditation from the American Correctional Association. In the budget, Guzzone said, lawmakers advised the system to hire more than 375 additional guards over the next four years instead of relying on overtime.
Maynard and O'Malley have said the indictment was the result of a joint federal-state investigation — for example, a squad of officers handpicked by senior corrections department officials was sent to raid the cells of suspected gang members in February.
But House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell questioned why state officials were not ready with specific reforms if they knew about the scope of corruption ahead of time.
"I'm not buying that whatsoever," said O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican. "I think Maryland has a pernicious problem that has never truly been addressed. … What corrective action was taken before this occurred?"
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the criminal actions detailed in the indictment "dangerous" and "unsettling."
"I'm very pleased the indictments were made," she said. "This is something that had been rumored. It's certainly dangerous when we think that we're putting criminals behind bars to serve time yet they're still in business. ... It works against our efforts to make Baltimore safer."
Maynard said Wednesday that he was first briefed on the federal allegations Monday evening.
Now that the indictment has been filed, he said, officials will review policies on the way officers are screened when they arrive for their shifts, an issue federal investigators singled out for criticism.
"There will be other personnel actions taken as we work up through the chain of command," he said. "Obviously we'll look at the entrance procedures. We're going to look at the overarching policies."
Maynard said his concerns about the detention center had been mounting since last year, independent of the investigation. The top administrator at the jail was recently replaced, he said. Jail officials had identified White as a problem and planned to move him to another facility, but the FBI asked his department to wait until concluding its investigation, he said.
Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is running for attorney general, said investigators were "smart not to breathe a word of the investigation."
Frosh, who chairs the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, said that with new state laws about gang involvement and stiffer penalties for bringing contraband into jails, there is not much more the legislature should do to respond to the indictment. "No one has said so far if we only had 'x' or we had 'y,' we could have cracked the case sooner or we could have put them away from longer."
White has now been transferred, according to the corrections department.
Appearing at a state court hearing Wednesday morning on an attempted-murder charge, White was led before the judge by at least nine security officers but still managed a smile for family members in the room. His trial was postponed until June.
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