O'Malley can't spin his way out of the jail corruption scandal

Give Gov. Martin O'Malley points for chutzpah.

Just back from a weeklong trip to Israel, during which he was inexplicably unable to comment on the goings-on back home, he gave his first response today to the federal indictments unsealed a week before that revealed a total breakdown of security, management and order in the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center. It was a masterpiece of political spin. The indictments are, he said, "a very positive development" in the state's effort to eliminate gangs behind bars.


Let's get something straight: There is nothing positive about the indictment of 25 inmates and guards in a wide-ranging corruption scheme that involved the free flow of money, drugs, cellphones and other contraband in and out of a jail. There is no good face that can be put on an inmate bragging, with no small justification, that he ran the jail. There is no way to find a silver lining in four guards being impregnated by a prisoner.

Mr. O'Malley's sunny assessment is based on the fact that it was the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services that called in the Justice Department in the first place. Indeed, it would be worse if the state prisons system had ignored the problem or failed to cooperate with federal investigators. But there is no getting around the fact that department of corrections allowed the Black Guerrilla Family gang to flourish in the first place through negligence, mismanagement, corruption or some combination of the three.

Conspirators in this scheme were allegedly able to smuggle contraband into the jail by taking advantage of multiple entrances and lax security procedures. Shouldn't a competent jail administrator have been able to discover that without the benefit of FBI wiretaps? Mightn't someone have noticed when two guards got tattoos of the name of alleged gang mastermind Tavon White, one on her neck, the other on her wrist?

One of the guards indicted last week was tied to a gang as long ago as 2006. Then, Antonia Allison was accused in a civil suit of holding open the door of a cell so a group of inmates could assault its occupant. Last week, she was indicted on charges of smuggling drugs into the jail for Mr. White to sell. Five other corrections officers identified in the civil suit against Ms. Allison as having gang ties still work for the prison system.

On Sunday, prison officials began administering polygraph tests to top administrators in the city jail and "integrity reviews" for all employees there. Why were those steps not taken years ago? Given that state officials knew they had a problem with gangs in the prisons, shouldn't that have been standard procedure?

The federal indictment of the guards and inmates reads, at times, like an indictment of the administration of the detention center. The Black Guerrilla Family had become the dominant gang in the city detention center by 2006 — before the tenure of Mr. O'Malley or prisons chief Gary D. Maynard — and was able to use contraband cellphones to coordinate activities inside and outside the jail. The jail was "replete" with drugs that were freely sold to gang members and nonmembers. "Procedures and personnel ... were completely inadequate to prevent smuggling," and the chances that guards would be searched effectively upon entry were "remote." There was "no significant penalty for arriving late to work," so corrupt guards would wait to enter the facility until fellow conspirators were on security duty. The whole enterprise was able to continue because there was "no effective punishment" for guards suspected of such offenses.

After all that, Mr. Maynard, a corrections professional with decades of experience in four states, should be hanging onto his job by a thread. He appears to recognize that, having moved his office into the Baltimore detention center until further notice. He has achieved a number of notable successes while in Maryland, including the shuttering of the dangerous and outmoded House of Correction in Jessup within months of his arrival, but the breakdown at the detention center casts a pall over his entire legacy. He's the kind of person who doesn't need to be told that.

But evidently Governor O'Malley is. So let's put it plainly: This is an embarrassing failure of management. It reflects badly on the entire administration of the state corrections system and ultimately on the governor, no matter how thoroughly state officials cooperated with the FBI. The only possible "positive development" at this point would be for Mr. O'Malley to take full responsibility for this fiasco, but a chipper assessment a week after the fact doesn't cut it.