BALTIMORE (AP) — Inmates often complain of idleness, but Tavon White apparently had no trouble keeping busy behind bars.
Investigators say the man nicknamed “Bulldog” impregnated four female corrections officers at the Baltimore jail while running a sophisticated criminal organization that smuggled in drugs and cell phones and employed guards as gang associates. A federal indictment charging White and two-dozen others in a contraband-smuggling conspiracy has offered an embarrassing glimpse into a jail where inmates stand accused of controlling the very officers hired to guard them.
Effects of the scandal have been widely felt, and state lawmakers plan to hold a hearing Thursday to discuss problems at the state-run jail.
The state prisons director has moved his office into the jail to offer closer oversight, the jail’s security director has been dismissed and top administrators there have undergone polygraph tests to determine what they knew about the criminal activity. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a potential Democratic presidential contender in 2016, announced a task force last week to fight corruption at the jail but has also been criticized by Republican lawmakers about the detention center’s conditions.
The indictment alleges widespread dysfunction at the Baltimore City Detention Center, a downtown jail that holds thousands of defendants awaiting trial or serving short sentences.
It accuses female corrections officers of sneaking in drugs and cellphones — sometimes in their shoes or in food — to incarcerated members of the Black Guerilla Family, a gang formed in California’s San Quentin prison in the 1960s. The inmates in turn distributed the drugs to fellow detainees and used the contraband phones to arrange sexual encounters, spread the word about impending cell searches and conduct gang-related business with members on the streets, prosecutors say. They used reloadable, pre-paid debit cards to pay for their purchases, launder funds and transfer proceeds to gang members on the outside, the indictment alleges.
“There are impacts on the outside world of this activity that’s going on in the inside,” Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, said in an interview. “There’s crime going on outside the jail as a result of people inside continuing to engage in gang activity.”
Prosecutors say the man at the center was White, a 36-year-old with a long rap sheet who was being held on an attempted murder charge. He ascended to a gang leadership position — acquiring the title of “Bushman” — soon after arriving several years ago, investigators say. He impregnated four female guards, one twice. Two had his name tattooed on their bodies.
“This is my jail, you understand that,” White told a friend in a January call recorded by investigators, court papers allege. “I make every final call in this jail, everything come to me. Before a (expletive) hit a (expletive) in the mouth, guess what they do, they gotta run it through me. I tell them whether it’s a go ahead and they can do it or whether they hold back.”
White’s lawyer declined to comment on the allegations. The defendants face charges including money laundering conspiracy and drug possession or distribution.
At least some of the jail guards seem to have reveled in their sexual relationships, acquiring money and status as high-level gang associates.
Inmates posted graffiti on the wall listing corrections officers they said were willing to trade sex for money. Internal gang documents recovered by investigators reveal that members were instructed to target guards with insecurities and low self-esteem, authorities say.
“I love money. I love it. I swear to God. Where there’s a will there’s a way. You hear me? I got to get it. So I had to figure out how I was going to come at you,” one female corrections officer is recorded as telling White.
Corrections department spokesman Rick Binetti said that although the indictment “reads like a Hollywood script,” the number of correctional officers implicated represents a small fraction of the workforce. He said the department proactively requested the investigation to help root out corruption and has made progress in efforts to seize contraband cellphones and disrupt gangs.
“This is a question of integrity here,” Binetti said. “Ninety-nine percent of our (correctional officers) understand that this isn’t kosher activity.”
The defendants appear to have exploited the vulnerabilities of a jail culture that cycles detainees in and out, lacks the more defined structure of federal prisons and draws underpaid, sometimes apathetic, staff into an inherently challenging environment, said gang expert Jorja Leap, a social welfare professor at UCLA.
“You’ve got chaos, violence, a porous environment and law enforcement who doesn’t want to be there,” she said.
Another jail scandal took place in New Orleans, where 14 inmates were indicted last month in connection with videos showing them with drugs, beer and flashing a loaded gun behind bars. The images prompted the mayor to call for federal oversight for the facility.
The allegations in Maryland have stirred responses from the highest levels of state government.
“The indictment that came down makes us look like a third-world nation,” said Republican Del. Michael Smigiel, who recently toured the jail and called it a “kennel for humans.”
“It’s in such poor shape,” he added. “I’m not a bleeding heart — people who do crimes should be willing to do the time — but you have people down there who have never stood trial yet, and they’re in subhuman conditions.”
Republican lawmakers have suggested that O’Malley is too focused on national politics at the expense of local problems like the jail. The governor, who has called the allegations ugly and shocking, has called for reforms in the hiring and screening of corrections officers and has also formed a task force to focus on inmates’ access to drugs, cellphones and fraternization with corrections officers.
The department says all jail staff is in the process of being interviewed and workers will undergo polygraph tests if needed, and officers from other facilities are being rotated in to work shifts at the jail. State officials are also discussing expanding the use of technology to be able to block cellphone calls from inside the jail.
“I think jail management — not just in Baltimore, but nationally — has probably not caught up with technology,” Rosenstein said. “Because the existence of technology has really changed that dynamic, where somebody gets one smart phone in the facility, you’ve completely lost the ability to cut people off from the outside world because they can use that phone for all the things we use phones for in the outside world.”
Still, it’s hard to know how much impact any one reform can make.
“I think there’s something no one wants to accept, which is that there are some criminals and gang members — and in particular gang leaders — who are very smart people,” Leap said. “Those who get into leadership positions are extremely intelligent people that, had they been in another time and place, would have been MBAs and CEOs of major corporations.”