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Fixing the jail [Editorial]

The report this week by a legislative panel on the troubled Baltimore City Detention Center paints a picture of an institution in deep crisis, and it offers a list of common-sense suggestions for how to clean up the mess that need to be taken seriously. The recommendation that the state prioritize its long-range plan to replace the antiquated facility at a cost of $533 million has gotten much of the attention, but fortunately, most of the items in the report are easier to implement — and possibly more consequential.

Indeed, things like enhancing the corrections department's ability to suspend officers suspected of smuggling or standardizing security procedures can be accomplished almost immediately. In fact, one wonders why, given that officials knew about the existence (if not the extent) of the corruption at the city jail years ago, many of the suggested changes weren't put into place before now.

The legislative report recommends beefing up security procedures, updating or replacing the jail's aging physical plant and obsolete design and adopting more stringent checks to screen out job applicants with gang ties in their backgrounds, among other changes. Its analysis of security threats in the prison system is thorough and provides a solid road map for the corrections department to follow. But what it doesn't address — and what was beyond its mission — is the more fundamental question of how such a pervasive culture of corruption and criminal activity was allowed to take root.

Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard announced his resignation from the department to take a job in the private sector this week, but he insists his departure was not prompted by the panel's report. Indeed, given the commission's charge to examine "the laws, policies, procedures and practices affecting safety and security at state prisons and jails," it provided him no reason to do so. The work of figuring out who is to blame is happening largely out of the public eye, through the ongoing criminal probe by the U.S. Attorney's office and an internal corrections department investigation.

The problems at the jail first came to light when prosecutors unsealed indictments earlier this year alleging that members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang had virtually seized control of the facility and were running it as a lucrative criminal enterprise dealing in smuggled drugs, cell phones and other contraband. Twelve inmates and 13 low-level guards were initially charged with participating in the scheme in exchange for gifts of jewelry, luxury cars and sexual favors. Since then, prosecutors have charged 14 more jail employees with wrongdoing. Other staff members — including supervisors — have been allowed to resign, but it remains unclear whether all the corrupt officers have been removed.

Getting to the bottom of what happened and why is important if the legislative commission's recommendations are to be effective. After all, giving the corrections department more authority to temporarily suspend guards suspected of wrongdoing is only helpful if the corrections department knows which guards to suspect. Increasing penalties for sneaking cell phones into jail only helps if potential smugglers have a realistic fear of getting caught.

Some technological solutions outlined in the report — like expanding a system that effectively blocks inmates cell phone calls or employing full-body scanners — could help, but ultimately, there is no substitute for ensuring all those responsible for the mess are held accountable. To that end, the legislature needs to keep the pressure on the corrections department to ensure that its investigation is thorough and unsparing and that there is a full public reckoning for what happened at the city jail.

Maryland is hardly alone in facing these problems; organized prison gangs pose an increasing challenge to corrections officials across the country. The kind of sophisticated operation the Black Guerrilla Family was running was typical of what has been happening in many other large prison systems where incarcerated gang members generate profits from behind bars for their peers on the street.

As such, it's important to put Mr. Maynard's leadership in some context. He executed an administrative coup almost immediately upon his arrival here with the rapid closure of the troubled House of Correction in Jessup, an action he executed flawlessly. He oversaw a decline in violent assaults on correctional staff and inmates and a drop in the state's recidivism rate. And he got his department to work more closely than before with local law enforcement, which helped drive declines in crime statewide. How the city detention center could have gotten so out of hand under the watch of someone who was otherwise such an able, professional and thoughtful administrator remains a mystery.

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Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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