By Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner, Published: April 23
More than a dozen Maryland state prison guards helped a dangerous national gang operate a drug-trafficking and money-laundering scheme from behind bars that involved cash payments, sex and access to fancy cars, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Thirteen female corrections officers essentially handed over control of a Baltimore jail to gang leaders, prosecutors said. The officers were charged Tuesday in a federal racketeering indictment.
The indictment described a jailhouse seemingly out of control. Four corrections officers became pregnant by one inmate. Two of them got tattoos of the inmate’s first name, Tavon — one on her neck, the other on a wrist.
The guards allegedly helped leaders of the Black Guerilla Family run their criminal enterprise in jail by smuggling cellphones, prescription pills and other contraband in their underwear, shoes and hair. One gang leader allegedly used proceeds to buy luxury cars, including a Mercedes-Benz and a BMW, which he allowed some of the officers to drive.
“The inmates literally took over ‘the asylum,’ and the detention centers became safe havens for BGF,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen E. Vogt, using shorthand for the prison gang’s name.
The indictment, unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, puts the spotlight on the enduring power of gangs in jails and prisons. In particular, prosecutors were highly critical of Maryland’s facilities in Baltimore, with procedures and personnel that were “completely inadequate to prevent smuggling” and lacked “effective punishment.”
The Black Guerilla Family was founded in California in the 1960s but now operates nationwide in prisons and on the streets of major U.S. cities, including Baltimore. It arrived in Maryland’s prison system in the 1990s, according to the Justice Department, and is increasingly involved in narcotics trafficking, robbery, assault and homicides. By 2006, federal authorities say, the BGF had become the dominant gang at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Gary D. Maynard, head of the Maryland agency that oversees the prisons, appeared at the Baltimore news conference where prosecutors announced the charges, and took responsibility for ongoing problems.
“It’s totally on me. I don’t make any excuses,” said Maynard, who was appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2007, when the prison system was experiencing a spate of inmate violence and corrections officers’ complaints of staffing shortages. “We will move up the chain of command, and people will be held accountable.” A spokesman said late Tuesday that all of the officers have been suspended without pay and that the department will recommend that they be fired.
In a statement Tuesday, O’Malley said the indictment arose in part from the efforts of a Maryland prison task force that includes state and federal officials.
It comes at a sensitive time for the Democrat, who is weighing a 2016 presidential bid. Aides have said that part of O’Malley’s political pitch would be his record as a “performance-driven” manager of state government. “We have zero tolerance for corruption among correctional officers, and we will continue striving to make all correctional facilities as secure as they can possibly be,” the governor said.
State Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Carroll), a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the revelations, coupled with a recent string of inmate killings at Maryland prisons, were “a pretty harsh indictment” of O’Malley’s prison policies.
“This is frightening to us as legislators — the level of collusion that has existed between the correction officers and inmates,” Getty said.
At the center of the investigation was an alleged leader of the Black Guerilla Family, Tavon White, who prosecutors said fathered five children with four of the corrections officers — Jennifer Owens, 31, of Randallstown; Katera Stevenson, 24, of Baltimore; Chania Brooks, 27, of Baltimore; and Tiffany Linder, 27, of Baltimore — since his incarceration on attempted murder charges in 2009.
In one wiretapped cellphone call in January, White, 36, of Baltimore, told an acquaintance: “This is my jail. You understand that? I’m dead serious. I make every final call in this jail.”
The prison guards were among 25 defendants, including inmates and outside suppliers, charged with racketeering and drug conspiracy. Twenty of the defendants are also charged in a money-laundering conspiracy. Defendants made initial appearances in court Tuesday; they face maximum prison time of 20 years on the racketeering and drug conspiracy charges. The online court docket did not list attorneys for the defendants. One of the defendants was killed in a robbery, prosecutors said, in the hours before the April 2 indictment was filed.
Four years ago, federal authorities in Baltimore targeted the BGF gang at the state prison in Baltimore, sending its reputed leader to prison for 12 years. In that case, prosecutors alleged that gang members, along with four prison guards who were also implicated, ordered hits from their cellphones and enjoyed salmon and Grey Goose vodka that had been smuggled in.
But the scope of corruption in the current case, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said, was stunning.
“Correctional officers were in bed with BGF inmates,” he said. “We need to be able to rely on people within law enforcement — to make sure they are on our side.”
Court papers that were made public Tuesday point to a highly organized, profitable smuggling enterprise within the Baltimore City Detention Center and several connected facilities, including the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.
According to an affidavit for search warrants for the homes of the prison guards, who were arrested Tuesday, gang leaders strategically recruited female officers who they thought had “low self-esteem and insecurities.”
Gang leaders also relied on other inmates, known as “working men,” whose jobs throughout the prison gave them greater flexibility to pick up and deliver contraband. Inmates then paid for the drugs and cellphones using 14-digit numbers from prepaid debit cards that had also been smuggled into the prisons.
Within Maryland’s detention facilities, staff workers are generally free to move within their assigned areas, according to department spokesman Rick Binetti. With identification, they can often move freely outside of their assigned locations.
In one instance, prosecutors described Officer Jasmin Jones allegedly standing guard outside a closet while Officer Kimberly Dennis had sex with inmate Derius Duncan.
Maynard said department policy prohibits such relationships between inmates and correctional officers but added that he was unaware of the specific allegations until the court documents were made public Tuesday.
Corrections officers also allegedly warned inmates about impending searches of cells, according to prosecutors. In January, White spread the word to other inmates in a cellphone call recorded by law enforcement: “I just got a message saying that they was going to pull a shakedown tonight. Let me call all these dudes in my phone and let them know.”
In prison, prosecutors said, White bragged about earning $16,000 during a slow month. Percocet pills that cost $10 outside the prison walls, for instance, went for three times as much behind bars. One-gram bags of marijuana sold for $50, a profit of about $1,000 per ounce, according to court documents.
White is also accused of using the money to buy cars for corrections officers to use.
Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), who works as a public defender in Baltimore when the legislature is not in session, said the large percentage of female corrections at the detention center contributed to the problem. “A lot of times, they become smitten with the inmates. [The inmates] talk really sweet and say really nice things, and the CO’s fall for them. You need to have a bunch of rough, ugly men.”
But Maynard, the state prison chief, said that the sex of the officers was not the issue. It is not uncommon, he said, for detention centers across the country to employ women. The issue, he said, was this particular group of “bad actors,” who were strategically targeted and were willing to break the law.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.