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Mobtown Beat

Inmate’s Lawsuit Claiming Guard Ordered Gang “Hit” Gains Traction

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Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Photographs of the aftermath of Brian Medlin’s March 15, 2007, attack on fellow inmate Michael Smith in a Baltimore prison transport van.

For a prisoner without a lawyer, Michael Smith has done pretty well as a civil plaintiff in federal court. His civil-rights claim is that numerous Maryland prison officials failed to protect him from a series of attacks by other inmates arising from a “hit” put on his life by a correctional officer (CO) he says is tied to the Bloods gang (“The Big Hurt,” Aug. 4, 2010). Thanks to the thoroughness with which Smith has documented and argued his case in motions before U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, it has survived two rounds of efforts by the Maryland Attorney General's Office to have it thrown out.

Smith's most recent victory came on June 6, when Messitte ruled that six Maryland prison officials will not yet be let off the hook in the case, as they'd requested. It follows an earlier one in February, when Messitte ruled against another official's attempt to have the case dismissed (“Staying Alive,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 16). The June 6 opinion came with an added bonus: Messitte granted Smith's longstanding request—first made last year, when it was denied—to have the court appoint an attorney to represent him for free. On June 10, Philip C. Smith of the Salisbury firm Long Badger Sheller and Smith LLP, won the honor—though he first heard of it the same day from a reporter and said, “I don't know anything about [the case] yet.” (Neither the plaintiff nor the plaintiff's attorney is any relation to the writer of this article.)

The gravitas of Michael Smith's case lies not only in the facts he alleges, but in the context in which they've arisen. Since the three attacks on Smith took place in 2007 over a three-week period at three separate correctional facilities, public concern has heightened over the successful criminal prosecution of gang-tied COs working in Maryland prisons (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12, 2010).

The issue first took hold in 2009, when federal authorities' clampdown on the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) prison gang in Maryland (“Black-Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009) included prosecuting prison employees for joining in the BGF's criminal conspiracy. In all, five have been convicted, and the latest to be sentenced was former CO Alicia Simmons, who received a 37-month prison term for her part in the BGF's racketeering operation. When Simmons was arrested last summer, investigators detailed her drug-dealing and contraband-smuggling activities and also described how she facilitated prison assaults and tipped the BGF about an inmate believed to be working as an informant (“Working Overtime,”Mobtown Beat, July 14, 2010).

In late 2009, two other cases involving allegations of gang-tied COs emerged. One involved a CO who later pleaded guilty in Baltimore City Circuit Court to smuggling a cell phone and drugs into prison to an alleged BGF member accused of murder who was the father of her unborn child (The News Hole, June 8, 2010). The other was a federal civil-rights lawsuit brought by an inmate, Tashma McFadden, who accused a CO of being a Bloods gang member and arranging for a group of Bloods to attack him in his cell (“Ganging Up,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 21, 2009). The McFadden case was settled last summer, but not before evidence was filed in court revealing that a prison investigator, Santiago Morales, had documented internal suspicions in 2006 and 2007 that 16 COs at the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC) were tied to gangs.

(Last fall, former CO Semelda Haynes, one of the 16 guards named in the Morales report as being suspected of gang ties, sued the Maryland prison system, City Paper, Morales, and this writer for defamation. The defendants have filed motions to dismiss the case, which was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, and are awaiting a ruling.)

Michael Smith's filings make reference to this context, noting that the McFadden case shows that “at least as far back as 2006,” prison officials were aware that “a significant number” of correctional “officers were corrupt, gang-related predators.” Rather than undertaking a “reasonable response to the matter” of suspected gang-tied COs, such as better pre-employment screening, tighter security, and “staunch officer accountability,” Smith wrote that his case is “proof positive” that “nothing was done” about the problem.

In his February ruling, Messitte emphasized Smith's allegations that the defendants in the case were “aware of a long-standing gang issue at BCDC,” including “the fact that some staff members are loyal to some of the gangs” there. He also stated that “the Court takes judicial notice of the numerous reports in the press” regarding prison staff “cooperating with gang violence and smuggling contraband into correctional facilities on their behalf.”

The CO who Smith accuses of putting a “hit” on him is Duwuane Crew, who resigned about two months after the 2007 attacks. Crew's attorney, David Williams, says his client” didn't participate in any criminal activity” and “will be vindicated.”

Smith, who is being held in protective custody at Eastern Correctional Institutions on the Eastern Shore, could not be reached for comment. His mother, Brenda Smith, says her son has been “having me call around to try to get a lawyer,” but “nobody would take” the case, so she was pleased to hear about the court-appointed attorney.

In a February letter from Michael Smith to City Paper, after his first victory in the case, Smith's strong will shined through. “I won't settle. I'm going all the way with this,” he wrote, adding that “these people TRIED TO KILL ME . . . They showed me NO MERCY, so why should/would I?” He also indicated that he hopes success in his case will force prison reforms. Writing that “I now see what I'm capable of,” he asserted that there are “some things that need to change in the way things operate in MD.”

Division of Corrections spokesperson Rick Binetti declined to comment on Smith's litigation, but said in an e-mail that it be put in context of “improved indicators” with regard to a new program for screening prospective COs for gang membership, the prison systems' success in intercepting of contraband entering prison facilities, and the declining numbers of assaults on inmates and prison staff.

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