A group of correctional officers found themselves shackled and dressed in orange jumpsuits while being escorted into a Baltimore Circuit courtroom Wednesday.
A day after the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office announced indictments against 25 people working in the correctional system, they appeared in court where a prosecutor sought to have some held until trial.
Circuit Judge Karen Friedman declined as the defendants were called briefly to stand before her alongside a temporary defense attorney, freeing them on their own recognizance. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said a lengthy investigation “ultimately led to the discovery of a criminal enterprise functioning within the tactical unit."
The elite tactical unit worked at the Metropolitan Transition Center, the Baltimore Pretrial Facility, the state Corrections Department’s Jail Industries Building and Baltimore City Booking and Intake Facility, officials said.
At Wednesday’s hearing, an agent from pretrial services provided the court details of their personal and work background to help the judge decide whether they should be released or held on bail.
Most had never been charged with any crimes before this week; one had a prior DWI offense. At least one had prior military experience. Most had lived in Maryland their entire lives. Many of the men are married with children. Several of the defendants’ spouses, who are also correctional officers, sat inside the packed courtroom watching the proceedings.
Among the defendants called by Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Hudak was Capt. Kevin Hickson, 49, whom Hudak sought to have held in jail until trial.
"He’s the leader. That’s what separates him from everyone else,” Hudak told the judge, adding that Hickson was responsible for serving as the supervisor of the group.
The indictment also accused Hickson of being the “organizer, supervisor, promoter and manager” of the criminal enterprise, and outlined 47 incidents in which they alleged he or other members of his team assaulted detainees.
Hickson and those under him are accused of using “illegal and excessive force through assaults of inmates, use of threats against inmates, and various retaliatory tactics to assure complete compliance with [the tactical team’s] authority, which bolsters [its] overall reputation within the territory and suppresses any dissension and discord among the overall prison population," prosecutors wrote.
Friedman said she understood the seriousness of the charges but pressed Hudak, saying her decision was to decide if the defendants were flight risks or posed a public safety risk.
The brief exchange with defendants was repeated in the packed courtroom where family members and colleagues huddled together on benches.
Defense attorney Warren Brown, who said he is representing Darnell Slacum, was in the courtroom even though his client is not expected to surrender to authorities until Thursday.
Brown said he hasn’t received a copy of the indictment but pulled up a copy on a local news website after hearing about the case Tuesday night. He said he was surprised, saying there’s “not much, quite frankly” regarding the allegations. He said his client is accused of two incidents of second-degree assault, which he said can include someone shoving a person.
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“I was looking at it and thinking ‘where’s the beef?’” Brown said of the indictments. Brown noted that the defendants are members of the Baltimore Central Regional Tactical Unit, which he said was called into serious incidents.
The indictment says the group is tasked with responding to incidents and maintaining order in state facilities.
The unit are the ones “called when there’s trouble in prisons. This is the bomb squad so to speak. They are called to diffuse bombs” or violent incidents, Brown said.
His client left the department in January to pursue other opportunities, but was not forced out of the job because of the case, he said.
When the judge ultimately found Hickson did not pose a greater risk and ordered his release, several women in the back of the courtroom softly cried out, and held their hands to their faces.
Jessica Anderson started at The Baltimore Sun 2010 and currently covers the Baltimore Police Department. She's mostly covered crime and breaking news. She graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. and grew up in Baltimore County.