When State Del. Luke Clippinger heard that half of an elite tactical unit tasked with maintaining order in Maryland jails had been indicted on charges of excessive force, assault and conspiracy, he immediately thought of the laundry list of other prison scandals that have played out in the state in recent years.
“It is outrageous that this continues," the Baltimore Democrat said. “I want to learn more about how the lack of supervision of this independent group was allowed to happen. I mean, who was supposed to be overseeing this and fell down on the job?”
With the state repeatedly confronting unprofessional guards who break the law, he said, more questions must be asked about the recruitment, training, staffing and oversight failures that may be contributing.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s indictments of 25 members of the Baltimore Central Regional Tactical Unit have been met by state leaders and advocates with approval of the uprooting of the alleged corruption, outrage over its existence in the first place, and questions over how to prevent misconduct in the state’s sprawling corrections system — rather than prosecute it after the fact.
Some, too, have noted how the latest charges are distinct from those of the past — related this time to an alleged violent oppression of inmates and detainees by guards, rather than criminal coordination between guards and inmates to smuggle contraband, as has been alleged in past scandals.
Most stakeholders agreed that, in order to prevent such abuses from occurring again, policymakers must focus on systemic changes. The goal must be to prevent bad actors from entering and flourishing within the state’s corrections facilities, instead of relying on law enforcement efforts to extract those bad actors after they’ve already committed crimes.
But they don’t all agree on how to get there — or on the scope or causes of the problem.
Clippinger, a prosecutor by profession, recalled a trip he led to several state corrections facilities this summer as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the state corrections department. There, guards had told him and other lawmakers of long hours and forced overtime, of not being paid enough given the dangerous conditions they worked in.
Such conditions “don’t give them permission to beat the crap out of people,” Clippinger said, referring to the assaults alleged in the latest indictments.
Still, “What are we doing to get the best possible people to work in extremely difficult environments with extremely difficult people?” Clippinger asked. “We have to continue to raise the standards for those people that we hire to work at our correctional institutions across the state, and we also need to make sure that these jobs are competitive with other law enforcement jobs.”
"It’s outrageous that this continues. ... I mean, who was supposed to be overseeing this and fell down on the job?”— State Del. Luke Clippinger
Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said Hogan “has made cleaning up corruption in the correctional system a priority since day one” of his administration, including by “closing the scandal-ridden Baltimore City Detention Center, providing funds for more prosecutors, and doubling the number of internal investigators.”
While “changing any entrenched culture takes time,” Ricci said, Hogan has not been waiting around. He noted correctional officers under Hogan “have received significant raises — above and beyond other state employees — including a total salary increase of 10 percent in the last year alone,” and said more new officers were hired in 2019 than in the past three years.
“We’re making good progress — the critics just refuse to recognize it,” Ricci said.
State Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat tapped to serve as the next chair of the Maryland Senate’s judicial committee, said more answers are needed, and that the General Assembly would “take a hard look this session” at officer shortages and disciplinary actions.
For jail reform advocates, the indictments were the latest evidence of an unjust system, especially for black inmates and detainees, and the need for a complete re-imagining of a system they say has grown rotten to the core.
“Maryland is the worst state in the nation when it comes to incarcerating people who are black,” said Marc Shindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which recently released a report showing Maryland’s proportion of black inmates was twice the national average. "This is a racial justice crisis that Maryland’s leaders must tackle head-on.”
The group wants to prevent the incarceration of detainees, particularly kids, through community programs and diversion options. That’s in addition to improving the conditions for detainees once they are behind bars and the pathways for them to successfully return to society after serving time.
A 2018 report out of the Office of Legislative Services recommended the General Assembly focus on reducing the corrections department’s staffing shortage by filling more than 900 vacant correctional officer positions. Officials with the union that represents corrections officers in the state said lawmakers keen on preventing abuses should take note.
Joseph Cox, a field director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional officers at the state’s 27 institutions and 45 parole and probation offices, said all of the institutions have staffing shortages, and the state must focus on attracting, hiring and retaining quality applicants.
Cox said the state has a $5,000 signing bonus but struggles to compete with other jurisdictions. Frederick County, for example, has higher pay and the population is considered less dangerous. The state hiring process also takes too long, he said, with some recruits waiting months for a background check to be completed.
“I believe hiring more officers will solve the vacancy issues and help mitigate many other issues,” Cox said.
Oluwadamilola Olaniyan, an officer at Jessup Correctional Institute for nine years, said staff shortages cause him and others to regularly work 40 hours of overtime per week. Not only does that create fatigue and reduce family time, he said, but adds stress in an already stressful environment.
“You don’t know when you are going to be attacked by inmates. The only thing we have is pepper spray,” Olaniyan said. “You’re working with inmates that can make a knife out of anything.”
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Defense attorney Warren Brown, who represents one of the indicted officers, said the recent indictments are distinct from other prison cases in the state, where correctional officers have been accused of smuggling illicit items, including drugs, into facilities to inmates.
Brown said the allegations against his client, which included second-degree assault charges, appeared relatively “benign,” given that the tactical team, not equipped with guns, is tasked with diving into the middle of serious altercations among a dangerous, often violent population.
Corrections officials “know it’s going to be physical,” he said of the team’s work.
David Jaros, a University of Baltimore Law School professor, said he expects defense counsel like Brown to tell jurors about the dangers tactical officers face in doing their sometimes physical jobs. But he said no one should “let those arguments in any way cloud the fact that the state’s attorney should of course take seriously the possibility that there has been a criminal assault by a corrections officer, and that the people who are incarcerated by the state are entitled to be safe from criminal assault" — particularly by their overseers.
“My big concern is that people are going to say, ‘Well, maybe he hit him a little hard, but you have to maintain discipline in these very fraught circumstances.’ The answer to that is, ‘No, that is not right at all,’” Jaros said. “We should in no way accept that there is a degree of violence that is part and parcel to managing a prison population.”
State officials are “never going to fix the system with occasionally identifying some bad actors and prosecuting them," Jaros said. “It’s a much deeper problem that requires the state to commit some real resources to improve our recruitment, our training, and to allow for officers within the system to support and monitor each other.”
“There should be a conversation about resources,” Jaros said. “It’s just not an excuse for criminal behavior.”