More than two dozen Maryland corrections officers and staff were indicted on charges they used excessive force, intimidation, evidence tampering and other criminal measures to ensure their special tactical unit maintained “dominance of its operational territory” within state-run jails, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said Tuesday.
The indictment of 25 members of the Baltimore Central Regional Tactical Unit on 236 criminal counts — including first-degree assault, participation in a criminal gang and misconduct in office — pushes to more than 200 the number of corrections officers, inmates and civilian accomplices who have been criminally charged in prison corruption cases in the state in the past four years.
Those indicted Tuesday include the tactical unit’s supervisor and about half its membership. The group is tasked with responding to incidents and maintaining order in state facilities.
Mosby said the latest charges stemmed from an investigation state corrections officials launched last year, after “rumors and anecdotes” were relayed regarding abuses by the unit.
“While the investigation revealed a series of seemingly isolated incidents dating back to 2016, further examination divulged multiple examples of excessive force utilized against detainees at different facilities, which ultimately led to the discovery of a criminal enterprise functioning within the tactical unit," Mosby said.
Corrections officials then worked with prosecutors to build a case against the officers, many of whom were placed on administrative leave last year but only arrested Tuesday, officials said.
Those indicted included supervisors, officials said. Some of the officers charged face up to 150 years behind bars. Corrections officials said all would be suspended without pay pending trial.
At least 25 detainees have been identified as victims, with investigators gathering information from surveillance footage and interviews with corrections staff, officials said. The 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.
Among those charged was acting Capt. Kevin Hickson, 49, the tactical unit’s supervisor. The indictment 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 used “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.
Neither Hickson nor an attorney for him could immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
Robert Green, secretary of the state corrections department, called the allegations “disturbing" and noted the investigation is ongoing. He also credited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for the priority his administration has placed on confronting corruption in the corrections department.
“This case represents our strong effort to root out people who don’t belong in the field of public safety and rehabilitation,” Green said. “This is a disturbing case, but it does not and should not cast a shadow on the commitment and integrity of the exceptional correctional professionals in this department.”
Hogan, in a statement, also touted the arrests as the result of the state’s “anti-corruption actions.”
“We are again making clear that we have absolutely no tolerance whatsoever for corruption of any kind in our state prison system or anywhere else in state government,” Hogan wrote.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents corrections officers in the state, said in a statement that it had only learned of the indictment Tuesday, and had “no independent knowledge about the facts alleged” in the case.
“The correctional officers charged today should receive the process and rights that they are due under Maryland law and the US Constitution. They are innocent until proven guilty,” the union said. “AFSCME does not condone any unlawful acts or any mistreatment of detainees, inmates, or any individual. ... Safety for officers and inmates is a top priority.”
The union said the “vast majority” of officers it represents “perform their duties admirably and tirelessly each day," and the “actions of any few officers should not be held against, or diminish the work, of those many who serve with honor.”
Mosby made the announcement in an administrative building on the massive Baltimore jail complex downtown. The jail became notorious in 2013 when federal prosecutors indicted 25 people, including corrections officers, in a smuggling scheme. Prosecutors said the Black Guerrilla Family had gained control behind bars and turned the jail into a gang stronghold.
Tuesday’s announcement represents the latest case by authorities trying to crack down on rampant corruption in Maryland’s 24 prisons and detention centers.
In April, federal authorities arrested 19 people — including three prison guards — and charged them with running a smuggling ring at the state’s medium-security prison in Jessup. They allegedly smuggled inside heroin, cellphones and pornography-loaded flash drives in exchange for sex and wire payments.
In January 2018, 18 people — including two guards — were charged with smuggling heroin, cocaine and cellphones into the nearby maximum-security prison at Jessup. A yearlong wiretap investigation led authorities to that smuggling ring. The guards were sentenced to serve three years in prison.
Two months before that case, officials arrested and imprisoned a sergeant who worked at the prison and who they say ran the Crips street gang inside the walls. He pleaded guilty to state charges of participating in a criminal gang.
And in October 2016, federal agents indicted 80 people in the largest prison corruption case in Maryland history. Corrections officers and inmates were charged with smuggling heroin, cocaine, cellphones and pornography into the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. Seventy-seven people were convicted, officials said, including 16 correctional officers who were sentenced to as much as six years in prison.
Green on Tuesday denied that the long line of prison corruption cases in the state indicated a failure on the part of state officials to get a handle on the problem with better training and vetting of hopeful officers.
“I don’t see it as a failure. Evidence here today is that we investigated this case, we brought this forward,” Green said. “It is a committed effort to be excellent.”