Inmates running the jail

The federal racketeering and drug charges unveiled this week against 25 inmates and guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center raise serious questions about the state's management of the facility. Investigators detailed a pattern of corruption and criminal behavior that was so widespread that for much of the last few years, the inmates were literally running the asylum. It will take drastic action to root out the crooked corrections officers and incompetent higher-ups responsible for this debacle, but that's only a start. Authorities also need to determine how such gaping security holes were allowed to fester at the jail and find a way to convince the public that it won't happen again.

According to the indictment unsealed Tuesday by U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, 13 female guards employed by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services effectively handed control of the facility over to a violent prison gang known as the Black Guerrilla Family. Gang members allegedly persuaded the women to use their positions of trust at the jail to smuggle in cellphones, narcotics and other contraband that gang members then used to run an extensive and highly profitable drug-trafficking and money-laundering scheme from behind bars that allowed them to secure a monopoly on contraband goods in the facility. In return, the women received cash, jewelry, access to cars and sexual favors from the gang's leaders.

State corrections officials point to the indictments as vindication of corrections secretary Gary D. Maynard's decision in 2011 to enlist a federal drug task force to investigate criminal activity by gangs at the detention center. They say they were aware of corruption among some of the 450 corrections officers who oversee the facility's 3,000 inmates and that they brought in the feds because the state didn't have the resources to handle such an investigation its own. But while it's true that federal investigators are generally better equipped to carry out the kind of painstaking, long-term probes required to uncover prison corruption — which often rely heavily on information developed through telephone and cellphone wiretaps — it raises the question of how this corruption was allowed to flourish in the first place.

Some of the most glaring security gaps were detailed in the indictment. For example, federal investigators found that the female corrections officers guards who colluded in smuggling contraband into the facility were easily able to bypass security procedures by avoiding the main entrance or using other entrances where they were much less likely to be searched. The indictment alleges that "even entry through the main entrance ... posed little difficulty to COs who were members and associates of the [criminal] enterprise, since the procedures and personnel there were completely inadequate to prevent smuggling."

Federal investigators also cited a lack of enforcement of security policies that allowed even those corrections officers who were suspected of participating in criminal activity to keep their jobs. "Corrupt COs who were members or associates of [the Black Guerrilla Family] were able to smuggle contraband and maintain sexual relations with inmates because there was no effective punishment for persons suspected of such offenses," the indictment alleges. "Although the offenses were clearly prohibited, administrative hurdles made the prospect of actual punishment very remote. Often suspected COs were merely transferred to another facility in the immediate vicinity."

Why weren't corrections officials aware of these failings even before the federal investigation began, and why didn't they move to correct them immediately rather than wait for Mr. Rosenstein to unseal his indictment? State officials say the feds didn't notify them of details of the case as the investigation proceeded, and in some instances asked them to wait before transferring prisoners or guards to avoid interfering with the investigation. But that doesn't begin to explain why security at the jail was so porous for so long.

It's hard to believe such a massive criminal enterprise could have gone on under officials' noses without anyone higher than the rank of sergeant being involved, yet even with this week's indictment the only state employees charged with a crime are the 13 relatively low-level female corrections officers accused of participating directly in the scheme. Their superiors must have known about it as well, and we fully expect further indictments will be announced as the investigation continues.

This episode has given the department of corrections a black eye and raised disturbing questions about how many other Maryland prisons are similarly besieged by violent prison gangs and corrupt prison officials. It's not enough for the state to claim it initiated the investigation that brought the wrongdoing at BCDC to light; it's got to show that it is doing something about it besides relying on the feds to solve its problems for it. The public's trust in Mr. Maynard's management of the prison system has been shaken, and it may be difficult to restore.

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