2:59 PM EDT, July 18, 2013
Investigators looking into alleged corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center appear to have made a major breakthrough this week when Black Guerrilla Family prison gang leader Tavon White, the inmate accused of masterminding a drug- and contraband-smuggling ring inside the jail, agreed to name additional staffers who participated in the scheme beyond the 13 female guards already charged. Now that Mr. White is talking to prosecutors, we can hope that more indictments will follow and give a much more complete picture of the wrongdoing at the facility.
Ever since the scandal broke in April, questions have been raised over whether the extensive criminal operation described by investigators — involving contraband drugs, debit cards, cellphones and sexual favors by guards and inmates — could have succeeded just through the efforts of the handful of low-level female corrections officers named in the initial indictment. Some have suggested the fact they were all women assigned to guard male prisoners somehow made them more vulnerable to manipulation. In reality, however, gender probably had little to do with it: Inmates are practiced manipulators and expert at finding ways to compromise their captors.
What is striking is that up to this point there's been no indication prosecutors have identified higher-ups at the prison who may have been compromised. The detention center's security chief was fired from her job shortly after the case became public, reportedly after she failed a lie detector test, and another supervisor reportedly was allowed to resign. But none of the supervisors on staff are facing criminal charges, even though it strains credibility to believe not a single one had any idea what their subordinates were doing. It was their job to know what was going on at the jail, yet the ring apparently operated for years right under their noses.
Now that Mr. White reportedly has admitted to knowing "many other Correctional Officers involved in contraband trafficking and sexual relations with inmates," according to court documents, it is more likely that some of those higher-ups will be implicated. It's impossible to know at this point just how high the corruption goes, but its full extent will tell us a lot about Maryland's ability to manage its prisons, not just in Baltimore City but throughout the state. Prison gangs like the Black Guerrilla Family are a growing menace everywhere, and even when top corrections officials realize they have a problem, they often find themselves powerless to control it.
But as pervasive as the BGF and other prison gangs are, it is also obvious that shoddy security procedures made conditions at the city detention center ripe for corruption. The smuggling ring led by Mr. White had virtually taken over running the facility as a private, for-profit criminal enterprise that funneled thousands of dollars from the sale of drugs and other contraband in the prison to gang members who were still on the streets. At one point, Mr. White boasted that nothing happened at the jail without his say-so and that his operation generated more than $15,000 a month in revenues.
We know some of that money went to buy off corrupt corrections officers with gifts of cash, jewelry and cars. But did some of it make its way to their supervisors as well in order to get them to turn a blind eye to the corruption in their midst?
Four of the indicted officers had sexual relations with Mr. White that resulted in their bearing his children. Didn't their supervisors ever notice that two of them had the BGF leader's name tattooed on their bodies, that they brought suspicious packages into the facility at odd hours or that they arrived at work driving luxury cars they never could have afforded on a prison guard's salary?
State corrections chief Gary D. Maynard sought federal help when it became clear that the situation was out of control, and the indictments so far are the fruit of that partnership. That's commendable, but it doesn't explain how things got so bad in the first place. How much of what was allowed to go on there was the product of incompetence and how much the product of corruption? That's the question we hope Mr. White's cooperation will help answer.
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