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Halfway house let 10 inmates leave at night

The Baltimore Sun

Employees at a privately run Baltimore halfway house have allowed federal defendants to leave the secured facility at night in violation of court-ordered restrictions.

Officials at the nonprofit Volunteers of America suspect that two employees - who have subsequently been fired - accepted bribes in exchange for letting the defendants out. But despite questions about the integrity of the program, judges continue to send defendants there because there are few other places in Maryland to house minimum-security defendants awaiting federal trials.

"The situation is not ideal," U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz, co-chairman of the court's committee on pretrial services and probation, said yesterday. "But we don't really have any other place to send them."

Residents at the horseshoe-shaped facility in the 4600 block of E. Monument St. in Baltimore are usually allowed to work and attend appointments during the day but are supposed to stay put at night.

The FBI investigated the matter but no charges were filed, according to two law enforcement sources familiar with the probe.

It was unclear whether the discovery of 10 missing detainees on a single night in April will have any effect on the federal Bureau of Prison's future use of the facility. The multiyear contract is expiring, and a proposed 10-year renewal is pending, according to Volunteers of America's top official. The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement yesterday that its contract monitoring reports and investigations are not public information.

Because of the security breach, which was discovered in April, the federal office of pretrial services declined last year to recommend the facility to judges at the U.S. District Court, according to a published report. Reached this week, Bill Henry, the chief federal probation officer in Baltimore, who is also in charge of pre-trial services, refused to comment on the facility.

But Motz said Henry's office quickly investigated the allegations and tried to keep federal defendants out of the facility for several months. Only when Henry was satisfied that the halfway house had been secured did he again allow his pretrial officers to recommend the facility to judges, according to Motz.

The allegations quietly surfaced in Defense News, a newsletter for attorneys in Maryland who represent indigent clients, which is published by the Federal Public Defender for the District of Maryland.

"Although beds are still available and judges can place clients at VOA, Pretrial Services will not 'recommend' Volunteers of America (VOA) because of BOP's inadequate response to the recent incidents where VOA staff accepted bribes to allow detainees to leave the facility at night," the August 2007 newsletter says.

Maryland Federal Public Defender James D. Wyda said he was unaware of the details of the investigations. He wrote in an e-mail this week that he believed that the federal Bureau of Prisons "found that the problem had been self-reported, folks were fired and nothing more was done."

Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said yesterday that his office has no significant concerns about security at the Volunteers of America's halfway house.

Volunteers of America Chesapeake CEO Cecilia Griffin Golden, who oversees the Baltimore facility, confirmed this week that two employees were fired after a supervisor's overnight spot-check on April 28 showed that 10 residents were missing about 2 a.m. The employees were new-hires and were still on probation, she said.

But Golden said an in-house investigation was unable to establish whether the employees were bribed, though she and other officials suspect that the workers were given something to allow the release of the semi-confined residents.

"After the incident, we did some retraining, beefed up some of our security measures and increased the screening of new employees," Golden said. "But you can never guarantee that something like this isn't going to happen. You just have to have assurances that you have people of integrity working for you."

With a full-time staff of 25, the motel-like halfway house along an industrial stretch of Monument Street holds up to 90 people, including defendants waiting for trial and those coming out of federal prison, according to Golden.

Over the years, the halfway house has received little public notice. But in 1999, it attracted a media spotlight when lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano slept there for five months after being convicted of mail fraud but continued to buttonhole legislators in Annapolis during the day.

In federal courts, magistrate judges have several options for defendants awaiting trial. Those accused of serious felonies or those with violent histories are usually incarcerated at the state's super-maximum-security prison in Baltimore or in county jails. On the other end of the spectrum, a judge may release a defendant with certain conditions, including home confinement and electronic monitoring.

In between are defendants who are released to a halfway house such as Volunteers of America.

In an interview, Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar said that there are only two halfway houses in the region used by the U.S. District Court in Baltimore - Volunteers of America and Hope Village in Washington.

While not commenting specifically on the security breach at Volunteers of America, the judge lamented the performance and administration of halfway houses as part of a larger criticism about the lack of adequate bed space, including the need for a federal pretrial detention facility in Maryland.

"We don't do a very good job of this intermediate level of supervision," Bredar said. "But the problem is with the whole system. ... We've been pennywise and pound foolish when it comes to alternatives to incarceration."

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