The federal indictments handed down last week against 14 more corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center in a massive jail scandal reinforce questions about whether officials have yet done enough to root out corruption at the facility. The latest indictments come on top of the 13 employees charged in April when the scandal broke and suggest that the wrongdoing there was even more widespread than initially reported. What's still unclear is how far up the chain of command the rot extended and whether all those who bear any responsibility for this mess have been called to account for crimes that apparently went on for years right under their noses.
The indictments in April revealed that members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang operated a highly organized business from behind bars dealing in drugs, cell phones and other goods smuggled into the facility by jail staffers in exchange for cash, jewelry, cars and sexual favors. The initial indictments identified a dozen or so low-level guards who allegedly took advantage of lapses in security procedures to smuggle in the contraband items. But it was clear from the scale of the operation, which generated some $15,000 a month in revenues, that more jail employees probably knew what was going on even if they weren't active participants. It's highly unlikely the scheme could have continued for as long as it did if they hadn't remained silent.
Thursday's indictments included two supervisors among those charged with wrongdoing, one a K-9 officer and Army reservist now deployed to Afghanistan, the other a sergeant responsible for overseeing a specialized unit at the jail. The earlier indictments involved no officers higher than the rank of corporal. The jail's security chief was fired shortly after the initial indictments, reportedly because she failed a polygraph test, and another dozen or so officers between the ranks of major and lieutenant have retired or resigned as a result of the internal investigation into the scandal.
A witness claimed in court documents that as many as three-quarters of the 650 officers at the jail were corrupt. That strikes us as hyperbole, but the fact remains that several of the 14 officers indicted last week were still working for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (though they have now been suspended). Seven months after the scandal broke, how close are we to cleaning up this mess?
State corrections officials say they were aware of problems at the jail as early as 2010 but lacked the resources to investigate and prosecute the wrongdoing on their own. They say that's why they asked federal prosecutors to pursue the case, and that they have cooperated closely with the U.S. attorney's office to bring the perpetrators to justice. Moreover, they stress that the crimes the 14 employees were charged with last week occurred before the scandal broke in April and do not represent a continuation of the same pattern of corruption at the jail. The department of corrections has also beefed up security and intelligence gathering at the facility and will soon install new equipment to block calls from contraband cell phones. We certainly applaud those steps.
Yet it's disquieting that the federal investigation apparently remains in some respects ahead of the department's own reviews. Are there more corrupt officers still working at the city jail? Department officials say there more disciplinary actions in various stages of the process that cannot yet be announced publicly. The department's attitude so far has been that the most important thing was to get corrupt officers out of the facility, and if a retirement or resignation was the way to accomplish that rather than a firing, so be it. Given how out-of-control the jail was, that's understandable.
However, a remark caught on a federal wiretap by corrections officer Jennifer Owens (who has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the April indictments) should give prison leaders pause: "They don't even really be firing [anybody]. Like they give people the option to resign ... for real." At some point all those involved need to be held accountable so that future corrections officers will understand that corruption has consequences. If we are ever to fully regain trust in the management of the jail, we will need a full and transparent accounting of what happened behind the walls of the Baltimore City Detention Center and all the steps the state took to set matters right.
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