Trouble at North Branch

The corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, with its salacious details of guards impregnated by an inmate, has gotten national headlines, but the state corrections department risks facing a bigger problem at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Western Maryland. Union officials say 15 correctional officers have been assaulted by inmates there since the end of June the state says nine and three inmates have been killed by fellow inmates in the last year. More ominously, a letter from one inmate to a tier captain at the facility warning that two guards were being targeted for violence had the same implication as the communications federal wiretaps revealed at the city jail: The inmates believe they're in control.

Union officials on Tuesday called for the resignation of three top officials in the corrections department over what appears to be a serious lapse in procedure, common sense, or both that easily could have turned deadly. For reasons that have yet to be explained, officials warned one of the two guards named in the letter but not the other. On Monday, the unwarned guard was attacked and stabbed in the face and neck with a homemade weapon. That his injuries were not life threatening is a miracle. Two other guards were hurt in that incident.

The corrections department is investigating the matter, and a spokesman says it will take disciplinary actions if warranted. Moreover, the overall level of violence at North Branch and in the system in general is lower than it was a few years ago. But the union is right to demand more attention to the problems at North Branch. Violence does spike from time to time, but the presence of organized gangs behind bars fosters the possibility that it could develop into a self-perpetuating cycle. The department has made security adjustments in response to the wave of violence at North Branch, but they have obviously not been sufficient.

Since the end of June, North Branch officials have restricted inmates' movements and contact with one another through lockdowns and modified schedules and procedures, but that didn't stop Monday's assault, nor did it restrain the bravado of the inmate who warned of the attack. Writing last week, he identified himself as heading "security" for an unnamed prison organization with "power over [his] troops." He advised the tier captain he wrote not to "put one of them in the line of fire again to be punished," as if it was the inmates and not the guards who were in charge of maintaining discipline in the prison.

That's all too reminiscent of Tavon White's boasts that he ran the Baltimore City Detention Center. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal racketeering charges, as well as to the attempted murder charge that he was in jail for in the first place. He has indicated that more than the 13 indicted corrections officers were involved in the scheme. In response, the corrections department has conducted polygraph tests on jail officials, at least one of whom has been fired as a result, and state corrections chief Gary D. Maynard has moved his office to the detention center. A bipartisan General Assembly work group is also studying the matter and is expected to make recommendations for policy and legislative changes by the end of the year.

The union's contention that the situations at the Baltimore jail and North Branch are directly related seems dubious. The president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local at North Branch alleges that detainees transferred from the city jail after the corruption indictments had "brought some trouble" with them to the Western Maryland facility. They may indeed be bad eggs, but it's hard to imagine that the four men from the city jail who are still being held at North Branch could in the space of a few months have taken over a prison with a population of about 1,400.

More worrisome, and more likely, is the prospect that gangs are deeply rooted in Maryland's prisons, even North Branch, the system's newest and supposedly most secure facility. Maryland is not alone in facing that problem; surveys of correctional systems across the country find the prevalence and sophistication of prison gangs increasing in most states in the last several years. The phenomenon poses a mounting threat to the safety of corrections officers and other inmates, and it is not easily addressed. Mr. Maynard was at North Branch on Tuesday, and he will need to be making many more return trips to make sure what has developed into a bad situation doesn't get worse.

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