Inside an aged housing unit at the Baltimore County Detention Center one recent afternoon, a group of medium-security inmates — old and young, black and white — mingled in a common area, chatting and eating lunch off thick plastic trays.
A corrections officer watched over them from a tower of glass.
In a newer wing of the facility, lower-security inmates in similar gathering areas were being overseen by corrections officers in command posts among the inmates — raised a few feet above the ground but otherwise exposed.
Deborah Richardson, director of the county Corrections Department, calmly described the differences between the “direct” and “indirect” supervision housing units as she and two other county corrections officials escorted a Baltimore Sun reporter through the facility.
County officials suggested the tour the same day they fielded a request to talk with Richardson about the facility and its dealings with the Black Guerrilla Family gang.
Sun reporters have been requesting tours of the Baltimore City Detention Center from state officials, who run the facility, ever since the indictment last month of 13 corrections officers and a dozen inmates and BGF members on charges of running a drug smuggling, racketeering and money laundering scheme there.
State corrections Secretary Gary Maynard moved his office from Towson to the city detention center to directly oversee a cleanup of corruption there. But no reporters have been able to see his new office in person.
They won’t be allowed in any time soon, either, said Rick Binetti, a state corrections spokesman.
“The No. 1 most important thing for the department to do is to identify the scope of any issues that exist down there, and when that involves staff, that is a very slow and deliberative process,” Binetti said. “The priority for the department, frankly speaking, isn't to provide tours for the media through BCDC. It’s to get in there and understand the issues and create solutions for any problems found.”
In Baltimore County, Richardson, deputy corrections director Tom Fitzgerald and Maj. Bruce Flanigan, the jail’s top official, spent more than an hour and a half walking a reporter around the facility. In the “central control” room, corrections officers were observed using 100 different cameras and voice control boxes throughout the facility to lock and unlock doors for authorized personnel. New inmates were seen answering paperwork questions in the “processing” room. Inmates were observed in maximum-, medium-, and low-security settings.
Richardson pointed out there was no gang graffiti — in fact, no graffiti at all — on the walls, a statement that was observably true. Fitzgerald pointed out how much natural light comes into the newer housing units, and it was noticeable.
Richardson said the county detention center has 30 confirmed members of the BGF. They are outnumbered by the 39 confirmed members of the Dead Man Inc. gang at the jail. All gang members are constantly monitored by a full-time sergeant whose entire job focuses on gang intelligence, she said.
If a gang member causes gang-related trouble, or if a leader is seen ordering others around, he is placed into administrative segregation immediately, Richardson said — even if he hasn’t committed a chargeable “violation.”
When it comes to staffing, every applicant who applies to become a corrections officer with the county undergoes an extensive background check, Richardson said. Just before they are hired, they also submit to a polygraph test and asked about any gang affiliations or connections.
Those who fail are not hired, Richardson said.
Many of these screening methods are conducted by the state corrections department when hiring corrections officers, as well, said Binetti. The state’s screening process is extensive, he said, with more than 80 percent of applicants failing in some regions of the state, he said.
But the state does not administer polygraph tests to applicants. While the county has about 350 corrections officers, the state has some 7,400, and polygraphing applicants can be expensive, corrections officials said.
Following the recent indictment, the state is reconsidering polygraph tests for all applicants, Binetti said. “It’s on the table,” he said.
Since 2007, the state has fired or accepted the resignations of 112 corrections officers for contraband or fraternization violations, he said.
The county has fired or accepted the resignations of eight officers in the same period for bringing in contraband or fraternizing with inmates, Richardson said.
“I’m proud of our staff. I trust them and they’re very competent,” she said. “They accept the fact that they are in charge, and they act accordingly.”