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Corrupt to the Core

The Black Guerrilla Family scandal shines spotlight on the prison system’s culture of corruption

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Tavon White

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The litany of evidence the feds have on Baltimore inmate Tavon White and his Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang describes a conspiracy of sex, drugs, money, and fancy cars involving a harem of correctional officers (COs) at a jail that White, dubbed a “Bushman” in the BGF hierarchy, believed he ruled. On April 29, White and CO Tiffany Linder pleaded not guilty, with arraignments of the 23 other co-defendants expected in the days and weeks to come.

Not surprisingly, with so many buttons pushed, the media firestorm over subsequent days tossed this narrative into national discussion, where it joined one that was already there: Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s potential presidential ambitions.

Prison-corruption stories have been a pretty regular feature of Maryland’s media mill, yet bureaucratic reaction to this one was swift. The national spotlight will do that.

By Friday, three days after allegations of White’s fabulous inmate lifestyle were exposed by the April 23 unsealing of the indictment and search-warrant affidavit in the BGF case, Gary Maynard, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), moved his office to the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC). He started a top-to-bottom integrity review of his staff, including lie-detector tests, as the Maryland General Assembly pounced, announcing a May 8 hearing and promising to set up a commission on correctional issues.

As the story settled in, with flames being fanned under the O’Malley angle, coverage shifted as the media spotlight panned for context. It was quickly found: White’s story is a virtual repeat of another series of BGF indictments, in 2009 and 2010, involving corruption among COs. What’s more, stories about gang-tied COs facilitating inmate crimes had been a consistent part of the Baltimore media landscape since then, including coverage that unearthed prison-agency documentation of gang-tied COs dating back to 2006. This background only made White’s story more embarrassing for those in charge, since it suggested the long-festering, well-documented problem of CO corruption wasn’t being solved by Maynard and O’Malley.

“I can’t believe that Maynard ignored this,” says a law-enforcement source familiar with the prior federal BGF investigation that ensnared COs. “The people in charge did nothing to change it,” says the veteran agent, who agreed to discuss the case in exchange for anonymity.

Maynard, however, claims some credit for White’s indictment. Though he admitted the situation was “on me” and said he didn’t “make any excuses” at the press conference when the indictment was announced, a few days later Maynard tweaked his tune, saying to the Daily Beast that “we asked for this investigation because we knew this was an issue” and that the feds “bring some power to the investigation, but once that investigation becomes public, people are going to look at it and say, ‘What is going on here?’”

So Maynard had every expectation that DPSCS would look bad, and that’s just part of fixing the problem—a new dynamic for Maynard, who’s accustomed to getting credit and praise as federal prosecutors continued to target CO corruption in recent years.

“I want to commend” Maynard “for his commitment to rooting out crime in his facilities,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said at the April 2009 press conference announcing the first round of BGF indictments. A month later, Rosenstein, reporting progress in the case of a CO who helped run an extortion scheme involving contraband cellphones, was again lavish in his praise. “I am grateful to [DPSCS] for combatting contraband cellphones that allow jailed gang members to endanger public safety,” Rosenstein said in a statement, adding that “our ability to prosecute important cases has been enhanced” thanks to “Maynard making it a priority to increase the department’s intelligence capabilities.”

In July 2010, when another CO was indicted in the mushrooming BGF prosecution, bringing to light more details of the depth and breadth of corruption, Maynard promoted the idea that it was evidence of the department’s years-long track record of tackling the problem.

“Today’s indictment shows that developing our intelligence capabilities has become a top priority in the last three years,” he said in the 2010 statement, adding that while “our unprecedented cooperation and intelligence sharing with our local and federal partners has enabled us to root out illegal activities of a few bad apples, 99 percent of our correctional officers and custody staff continue to work hard, maintaining the high levels of integrity and honor standard among our employees.” Maynard also used the occasion to stress that it serves “notice to those employees who would break the law that you will be caught.”

Now it’s nearly three years later, with plenty of intervening news about COs getting caught for corruption, and 13 more are charged for conspiring with the BGF. So does Maynard deserve credit or scorn for the proliferation of corruption cases involving his department? Answers will emerge supporting each contention as this story continues to unfold, pulling public perception this way and that while Maynard’s overseers—O’Malley and the Maryland legislature—try to assess and shape repercussions as facts both newly alleged and already proven continue to inform the debate.

Many proven facts emerged in the 2009/2010 federal cases, showing how DPSCS personnel helped the BGF deal drugs, launder money, engage in extortion, and smuggle contraband into prisons—virtually the same conduct as this month’s indictment. Others come from court records showing that DPSCS, back in 2006 and 2007, had the names of 16 BCDC COs believed to be tied to gangs, and that some helped facilitate prison violence, yet the lieutenant who’d developed the intelligence was ordered to stop writing such reports. These facts emerged in a settled lawsuit brought against one of White’s co-defendants, Antonia Allison, and the fact that she stayed on as CO for seven more years is a measure of the problem’s stubborn fortitude.

More cases emerged—including the one involving Lynae Chapman, a CO who smuggled phones into prison to a BGF member accused of murder who was the father of her unborn child. Yet, despite the mounting evidence that DPSCS had an integrity problem, in 2010 the Maryland General Assembly passed a law giving COs a “Correctional Officer Bill of Rights” (COBR) to invoke when they are accused of wrongdoing. The FBI, in the affidavit against White, invokes the COBR as a factor that worked in favor of White’s “takeover” of BCDC.

The latest BGF charges add 13 more COs to the 15 already charged in another Maryland case being investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. While corruption in the White case surrounds the prison system’s black-market economy, the civil rights case has targeted a “culture” of illegal beatings and subsequent cover-ups in Maryland corrections, in which COs and their supervisors allegedly conspired to undermine efforts to prosecute the assaults. This adds to what the law-enforcement source familiar with the 2009-2010 BGF investigation calls a “culture of corruption” among COs that has been obvious in jails and prisons for years. The DPSCS became “so immune to it that they didn’t do anything about it” until now, when it’s suddenly become an urgent public-corruption emergency.

With court documents citing “the power that White and the BGF are granted by staff at all levels” as an “important cause” of the conspiracy and revealing details about a lieutenant who promised White’s heir-apparent as BGF’s ruler at BCDC that he would have the same arrangement that White had—free-flowing contraband in exchange for BGF’s efforts to keep prison violence down—Maynard’s top-down review seems likely to explode the careers of more than the 13 defendants charged.

“The investigation is ugly,” Maynard told the Daily Beast, adding, “it is not the end though—it is the beginning. It is where I start to take action.”

If so, then Tavon White’s emergence as a notorious public figure may have prompted what all that came before it couldn’t: a demonstrable, from-the-top effort to address the widely known and long-documented problem of corruption at Maryland’s prisons.

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