In federal prison, Baltimore cops get no breaks

Police officers convicted of a crime in Maryland and sentenced to state prison are typically housed in segregated areas for their safety, far from most other inmates.

But those prosecuted in U.S. District Court and sent to federal prison — like the 15 Baltimore officers recently convicted in a kickback scheme — will, for the most part, be thrown in with the rest of the convicts.

"Whether [inmates are] high profile, law enforcement, whatever the case may be, we aim to treat them like anybody else," said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Baltimore cops, who accepted money for steering drivers involved in accidents to a Rosedale auto repair shop, could be among the more unpopular prisoners during their stays, which range from eight to 42 months.

Most of the other inmates were put there by officers of some sort. And this particular group of police has the added disadvantage of being largely made up of so-called "snitches" who outed corrupt colleagues when making their plea deals with the Maryland U.S. attorney's office — a trait punishable by death in some criminal circles.

Defense lawyers expressed concern about the arrangement. They said the officers should be safe if they conduct themselves well, but there are no guarantees.

"In prison, you're going to have a high concentration of bad actors, so there is certainly" reason for concern, said Baltimore attorney Peter D. Ward, who represented former officer Jerry Diggs Jr. The bureau will do its best to mitigate risk, he said, adding, "They don't want to have anybody hurt any more than the person himself wants to get hurt."

Burke couldn't recall any recent retaliation against former officers, but he said the possibility is something the bureau considers. "Individuals that may have some sort of vendetta against one of our inmates, whether [it's because they have] a law enforcement background or they're someone who testified against others is a concern," he said.

Still, the federal system prefers to keep all inmates among the general population if possible, to streamline their management and allow them to take advantage of various programs, from educational and vocational opportunities to counseling.

The Baltimore 15 will be assessed and sorted like other prisoners, with most landing in "prison camps" if space allows, such as the one in Butner, N.C. — nicknamed "Camp Fluffy" — where money manager Bernard Madoff is serving time. At least one will wind up at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center, where some of the most notorious federal criminals are held while awaiting trial (think Gotti family).

But none is likely to get segregated housing unless there is an identifiable danger.

That's very different from the state system, where "protective custody" has become the norm for officers.

"It really makes it easier for us," said Wendell France, executive director for the central region within Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "The chance of them being victimized is minimized. It's a safety issue."

Before trial, that means officers are often kept out of the central booking facilities. Baltimore officer Gahiji Tshamba, who shot a former Marine to death during a bar fight, was housed in the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center while awaiting trial, for example.

"We moved him to the segregated unit at MRDCC basically for his protection as a police officer, so that he not be housed in the booking system with folks constantly coming and going who had new charges, and also to separate him from any potential involvement with staff he may know," France said.

After Tshamba was convicted of voluntary manslaughter last year, he was moved to the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, which has protective custody provisions, as does the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. Police sentenced to prison are usually housed in one of these facilities, though they can also be sent out of state under an agreement known as the Interstate Corrections Compact.

In protective custody they get the same privileges and activities as other prisoners, but they're among a smaller group. France said.

"It goes to potential vulnerability, it goes to intimidation that can occur sometimes at correctional facilities. We try to remove those elements to ensure that they and the staff are not drawn into conflicts," France said.

One officer is rumored to be held in a prison hospital wing for his safety and to receive mail addressed only to "John Doe," according to one criminal defense attorney. France said he "couldn't speak to that" but acknowledged that he knew who the officer was.

Western also holds Michael Edward Thompson, a former Baltimore officer serving consecutive life sentences for murdering a woman who was pregnant with his child and her 5-year-old daughter. And it previously held Michael Dennis Feeney, a former Anne Arundel County officer sentenced in 1997 to 18 months in prison for sexual offenses.

Eastern is home to Reginald Watson, a Baltimore school police officer given a five-year sentence in 2010 for sexually abusing a student at Masonville Cove Community Academy, and Keith Washington, a former Prince George's County officer who got a 45-year sentence in 2008 in the slaying of a furniture delivery man.

Lawyers for the Baltimore officers convicted in the kickback scheme largely said they expected their clients' clean records to keep them out of the high-security federal facilities, and for the most part, that's what has happened.

Of the 12 officers already assigned to prison or serving their terms, 11 were sent to facilities that have minimum-security, satellite prison camps attached. It's unclear if they are actually in the camps, though it's likely they are, attorneys said. Such camps have dormitory housing, a low staff-to-inmate ratio and "limited or no perimeter fencing," according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The camps are typically filled with those who "defrauded on a mortgage or stole someone's ID and are doing a very short amount of time," Baltimore attorney Gary Proctor said. He represented Officer Rafael Feliciano Jr., who pleaded guilty to extortion and conspiracy in the kickback case and is serving his two-year sentence in Atlanta, which has a satellite camp.

The officers will be expected to work while imprisoned, and will have free time for recreation and educational opportunities in the evenings and on the weekends, unless their assigned jobs give them different schedules.

"I am sure [the officers] would do OK" in the camps, Proctor said. "No one in there is trying to lose their privileges, and they all generally behave themselves. At the other end of the spectrum" are high-security penitentiaries that can be extremely violent, he said.

Although most of the Baltimore officers were sent to penitentiaries with satellite camps, there is one exception so far. Henry Yambo is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where infamous mob bosses are frequently housed while awaiting trial.

It "houses some of the worst of the worst," said Yambo's attorney, Nicholas J. Vitek. He asked the Bureau of Prisons why his client is there, but said they won't give him any information. "For security reasons, they don't reveal their decision-making process, and I respect that," Vitek said.

Prior to sentencing, Vitek had asked U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake, who presided over the kickback cases, to consider alternatives to prison, based on other cases where courts have bowed to concerns that officers "could face danger" while incarcerated. But she set prison terms of varying lengths for all of the officers.

"Thankfully" in these cases, Vitek said, "I don't think there are going to be any officers who come into interaction with anyone who they helped put into" prison.



Examples of police officers sentenced to prison

2012: Richard Delabrer, Prince George's County PD, 46 months in federal prison for conspiracy to traffick in contraband cigarettes.

2011: Gahigi Tshamba, Baltimore PD, 15 years in state prison for voluntary manslaughter and a handgun violation in the shooting death of a former Marine during a bar fight.

2010: Reginald Watson, Baltimore City School PD, five years for sexually abusing a 16-year-old student at Masonville Cove Community Academy.

2006: James Blankenship Jr., Baltimore County PD, 18 months for sexually abusing a 7th-grade boy (released after one year).

2005: Keith Jennings, Baltimore PD, three years for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman in a vacant row house.

1997: Michael Feeney, Anne Arundel County PD, 18 months for sexual offenses linked to an encounter with a Rite Aid manager at a Parole store.

Source: Baltimore Sun research