A federal grand jury has indicted 80 defendants for racketeering conspiracy operating at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Maryland. (Baltimore Sun video)
With the latest round of federal indictments against Maryland corrections officers, top law enforcement officials are again touting their efforts to root out corruption while facing questions over why such misconduct continues.
This week's indictment of 80 people, including 18 corrections officers, at the state prison on the Eastern Shore outlined exchanges of hundreds of dollars at a time between inmates and officers. The inmates wanted heroin and cocaine to deal inside. The officers were smuggling the drugs in.
The case comes three years after an indictment at the state-run Baltimore city jail depicted a gang takeover of the facility. A few years before that, similar allegations were raised in another indictment at a prison in Baltimore.
"There's ample evidence that Maryland is troubled, going back to the stuff at the House of Correction," said Martin Horn, a John Jay College professor and former New York City corrections official, referring to the state prison in Jessup that was shuttered in 2007. "But it's equally true that Maryland [and] Baltimore are not the only places that are experiencing this. This is an increasing problem throughout the country."
Arnett Gaston, a clinical psychologist and prison gang expert who rose to the top ranks of the New York and Maryland corrections systems, said it's a "good thing" that state officials say they were proactive about launching the investigation at the Eastern Correctional Institution.
But Gaston said the continued reports of widespread corruption in state-run facilities points to a deeper problem in Maryland.
"There's been mismanagement in the state system for quite some time, and unfortunately there's been no major concerted efforts to revamp the system," said Gaston, a former University of Maryland professor. "As long as you don't do that, it should come as no surprise that you're going to have recurrent situations."
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein characterized the indictments as a sign that his office and Maryland's senior corrections officials — who were not implicated in the schemes — are dedicated to rooting out corruption in a system that provides high financial incentives for criminality.
"Some people assume that a prison is like an island, and you can lock people inside and prevent all contact with the outside world. But one of the things that you learn about prison management in the course of these investigations is that it doesn't work that way," Rosenstein said.
"You have three shifts of employees coming in and out of facilities. You have contractors, delivery people, maintenance people, repairmen, visitors, prisoners themselves coming in and out. And this poses a significant challenge for the Department of Public Safety in trying to maintain the integrity of the facility."
Stephen Moyer, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, said he took over in December 2014 with a specific goal of fighting corruption.
Moyer said there are open corruption investigations in facilities across the state, showing his agency is determined to build cases against those who are bent on using their government position to commit crime.
"We're going to do everything humanly possible to keep this contraband out," Moyer said, but quickly added that there are limits. "When 30 to 40 suboxone strips are secreted within the body cavity somewhere, no, we're not going to be doing strip searches of the employees coming through," he said. "But that is how a lot of this contraband is getting into these facilities."
To fight the problem, Moyer said, he assigned investigators from his agency to the FBI and the offices of the U.S. attorney, the attorney general and the Baltimore state's attorney. He launched new "contraband interdiction teams" to perform "more unannounced interdictions than ever before."
He began requiring applicants to the agency to submit to polygraph tests, as he staffed his human resources office with "retired police officers who worked as executives in major police departments."
Officials with the union that represents Maryland prison employees stressed that the investigation began three years ago with a tip from a corrections officer concerned about the misconduct. The overwhelming majority of officers want to work free of concern about colleagues conspiring with inmates, they said.
"Our officers are people of honesty and integrity, and they want to continue working with people of honesty and integrity," said Pat Moran, president of a local office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Ron McAndrew, a retired Florida warden, said correctional officers are "a very honorable people," but he believes "there's a dirty, rotten 5 percent" in every correctional facility in the country.
Of the series of indictments in Maryland, he said, "It says something to me in very loud terms. It says that if this is the third or fourth time that large-scale operations have been uncovered, someone at the top is not doing his or her job."
If the person at the top is relatively new, like Moyer, it means he has his hands full and lots of improvements to make, McAndrew said.
"You've got to walk, you've got to talk, you've got to keep your ear to the ground and you have to talk to prisoners and your staff to find out what's going on in your institutions," he said.
The union pointed to a large number of open positions within the corrections system, vacancies that strain the existing workforce.
"We understand they're trying to hire good people, but you've got to do a better job," said Jeff Pittman, a spokesman for AFSCME. "By their own admission, they've pulled in 15 new officers who've gone through the [training] academy, out of 700 positions that they admit that they're down."
Horn, the John Jay professor, said Maryland should treat corrections officers like its state troopers. The starting salary for a corrections officer in Maryland has been $38,000. State troopers start at $35,000 but jump to $46,000 after completing the training academy.
After the city jail scandal, some experts said the local staff was more susceptible to colluding with inmates who came from the same neighborhood or ran in similar social circles. That's not the case at ECI, the state's largest prison, where local prison guards oversee inmates brought there from across the state.
Gaston points to a closing gap between the socioeconomic status of inmates and corrections officers.
He said from a sociological standpoint, there are benefits to having inmates and officers share similar backgrounds. "But it also diminishes some of the barriers that once were in place," he said, and brings risks.
"There's a closer identity between the keepers and the kept than there has ever been before," Gaston said.