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New corrections secretary says corruption battle at Baltimore jail continues

The receiving area of the Baltimore City Detention Center.
The receiving area of the Baltimore City Detention Center. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The courtroom drama from the Black Guerrilla Family's lust- and drug-fueled reign at the Baltimore jail is all but over, now that the last of 40 convictions was secured last week.

But Maryland's new corrections secretary says the battle against crime and corruption at the state-run facility hasn't ended. Even as jury verdicts were being announced Thursday, he was across the street from the courthouse, meeting with the federal agents and prosecutors who took down the gang.

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"[I] told them I wanted to be briefed on everything," said Stephen T. Moyer, Gov. Larry Hogan's nominee to run the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. In his first interview since accepting the job in December, Moyer vowed to keep his eyes on the sprawling downtown jail complex, where two dozen corrections workers were implicated in the scandal.

"There is something wrong when you have that many employees that ended up being indicted," said Moyer, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled for Monday.

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Corrections experts say it could take years to eliminate corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Court records show that corrections officers are still being prosecuted in the smuggling of drugs and other contraband.

It has been nearly two years since federal authorities unveiled the first round of charges, drawing international attention amid revelations that Black Guerrilla Family leader Tavon White had impregnated four corrections officers at the jail.

Wendell M. "Pete" France, a corrections department veteran whom Moyer picked to be one of his deputies, said officials knew as early as 2011 that corruption was a problem at the jail and devised a strategy to work with federal authorities to build a case against the gang.

The FBI tapped phones that Black Guerrilla Family members had smuggled into the jail, piecing together the gang's structure and gathering evidence from the conversations. In one call, White, who was being held there on an attempted-murder charge, declared his position at the pinnacle of the criminal organization.

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"This is my jail," he boasted.

The phones were illegal lifelines to the outside world. They enabled gang members to coordinate smuggling activities that brought tobacco, marijuana and prescription pills into the jail, and to exchange details of the prepaid Green Dot cards they used to transfer money in the scheme. The enterprise generated thousands of dollars a week in revenue, and White bestowed luxury cars and diamond jewelry on his favorite corrections officers, according to court documents.

When the case exploded in public with the unsealing of indictments in April 2013, some corrections officials were surprised by the scope of the problems, France said.

"Did the department realize the extent of it? Not in the beginning," he said. "We knew we had a problem. We didn't know that 44 people would be indicted."

White quickly admitted his role, pleading guilty before anyone else, and agreed to testify. In court, he described his rise to power, and said it took him about a week to figure out the power dynamics at the jail.

Nearly all of the defendants implicated in the scandal pleaded guilty or were convicted in trials. On Thursday, a federal jury convicted five more people and acquitted three others. (One person who was charged died before trial.)

Some sentencing hearings are still to come, but prison records show that defendants are being scattered to federal institutions across the country.

White is scheduled to be sentenced Monday, and according to evidence from the federal trial, he has struck a deal with prosecutors. He is expected to serve 12 years concurrently with the 20 years he received for the attempted murder.

"Mr. White has never wavered in his acceptance of responsibility," said his attorney, Gary Proctor. "He is anxious to be sentenced and begin serving his time in the Bureau of Prisons."

France said the Baltimore case is a model for showing how federal prosecutors can tackle corruption at jails. But corrections veterans who have followed the scandal said criminal prosecutions can only do so much; really cleaning up the jail could take five years or more.

While Maryland officials say the situation at the jail has stabilized, they have continued to see attempts to smuggle in contraband, the fuel for gang activity, according to court cases filed in 2014.

In one case, a corrections officer was caught with heat-sealed packages of contraband in his shoes and groin area.

At the nearby Maryland Reception, Diagnostics and Classification Center, a corrections officer was caught with a package of tobacco in her groin area and acknowledged that she had been smuggling items into the facility for an inmate in exchange for cash.

In general, though, corrections department figures show improvements. Charges against inmates dropped from 418 in 2011 to 157 last year. Officers searched an average of 75 cells a day at the jail last year, almost eight times more than in 2010 — but found far fewer cellphones, according to the department.

The department also pledged a thorough internal investigation of all jail staff and a hunt for signs of further corruption. While a few officers resigned after the probe began, a spokesman said no employees other than the ones indicted were terminated.

After the scandal broke, a joint legislative commission issued a battery of recommendations for fixing the jail and improving the management of Maryland's prisons. Among the proposals were more training for officers and better screening of people coming into facilities.

Moyer said he has studied the commission's report and believes that most of its recommendations have been addressed.

New surveillance cameras have been installed at the Baltimore jail, a useful intelligence-gathering network. And technology has been activated to block the contraband cellphones that gang members used to coordinate their activities.

Still, there is a large gang presence in Maryland's prisons — more than 3,300 inmates are affiliated with gangs, according to corrections department data.

Arnett Gaston, a former official at the Rikers Island jail in New York, said they can only be held in check if corrections staff are kept in line.

"If the staff gives any indication that they're not in control, the inmates are going to fill that void," said Gaston, a criminology professor on leave from the University of Maryland to write a book.

For Moyer, the biggest challenge is figuring out how to attract good employees and make sure they are not predisposed to fraternizing with inmates.

"I've got to come up with a way to offer better pay," he said, adding that if another public agency is offering $2 more an hour, employees will leave.

Pay for state corrections officers starts at around $36,000.

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Screening new hires will play a big role in improving the corrections department's defenses against corruption, Moyer said. State lawmakers have urged the agency to submit jail officer candidates to a lie detector test and the General Assembly granted the power to do so, but the process has yet to begin.

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Moyer said he has told his hiring team to find polygraph operators and to fill vacancies in the department's internal investigations unit.

As he gets to work on reforms, Moyer has to contend with Hogan's requirement that state departments trim their budgets by 2 percent.

"I'm not cutting front-line staff," Moyer said, adding: "I have no intentions of cutting front-line staff."

Instead, the agency has frozen equipment purchases and plans to put off maintenance to help meet the spending targets, officials wrote to the General Assembly. Moyer has directed staff to look for other areas where they can pinch pennies, according to the documents.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., a member of the joint legislative commission, questioned the extent to which officials were committed to making fixes toward the end of Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration. He said he has met with Moyer to express his concerns and is confident that the new appointee is up to the job.

"He has the management skills necessary," the Baltimore County Republican said.

Moyer, a veteran of the Maryland State Police, has limited experience in corrections, but has been called by governors looking for a troubleshooter.

In 1999, Gov. Parris N. Glendening asked him to serve as deputy head of the juvenile justice department after The Baltimore Sun uncovered brutality at state-run boot camps. He returned a few years later and handled the fallout after the U.S. Justice Department found serious problems at a detention center for children in Baltimore.

"Every time I've been asked to come in I've been given the latitude to do my job," Moyer said. "I don't think it's an issue of politics. I think it's 'We have an issue and we have to fix it.'"

Sen. Guy J. Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who was on the legislative commission, said the Black Guerrilla Family scandal showed that the state cannot treat its jails as something to be left out of sight and out of mind. He said officials must be on the lookout for inmates seeking to make a buck or subvert the system.

As for Moyer, Guzzone plans to urge him on: "I'll give him every opportunity to succeed; I want him to succeed."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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