Getting answers in Md.'s jail corruption scandal

When federal authorities announced a sweeping indictment alleging widespread corruption by 13 guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center, members of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee were quick to call for a hearing so they could demand answers from corrections chief Gary D. Maynard. They were much quicker to do that, in fact, than they have been to approve legislation designed to crack down on the very offenses that are at the heart of the indictment.

We will never know whether tougher penalties for bringing cellphones, narcotics and other banned items into the state's prisons and jails would have prevented the scandal now enveloping the Baltimore City Detention Center, where the 13 guards are accused of allowing members of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang to essentially take over the facility and run a lucrative business selling contraband goods under the authorities' noses. What is certain, however, is that in recent years lawmakers have had a number of chances to find out whether more vigorous enforcement measures would have been effective in stanching the flow of illegal phones, narcotics and other items, but they blew it every time.

That's why it's important for lawmakers at a joint House and Senate briefing scheduled for next month to take a hard look at the corruption uncovered by federal and state investigators in order to determine what if any role they can play in fixing the mess at the jail. The planned meeting replaces one that was to be held tomorrow by the House Judiciary Committee, and not without reason. Judiciary has been where most of those corrections bills met their fate, and it would be more than rich for its members to be the only ones questioning the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services now.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller announced last week they will set up a special task force to examine a broad range of issues related to the indictments, including the hiring, training and disciplinary procedures applied to corrections officers and efforts to combat gang violence in prisons. The groups will be tasked with coming up with recommendations for legislative and budgetary measures lawmakers can enact to limit the flow of contraband to inmates, and it's essential that the inquiry involve more than just one committee. If this is to be a sustained and effective effort, it makes sense to bring in the top leaders from both parties and both chambers of the legislature from the start.

It's clear that there's much more to this story than what was contained in last month's federal indictment. It's easy to point to the 13 female corrections officers charged with colluding with gang leaders in exchange for cash, flashy cars and sexual favors as the main culprits in this sordid drama, but they were only able to get away with the alleged misbehavior for as long as they did because of the glaring security lapses and shamefully incompetent management practiced by top officials at the facility.

After all, the Black Guerrilla Family gang reportedly was earning $15,000 a month from its illegal activities even when business was slow. So how could it be that no one except the 13 guards accused of participating in the scheme knew what was happening? Did none of their supervisors ever bother to question how they could afford to drive Mercedes Benzes to work every day on a prison guard's salary — or find it strange that two of them had the name of the gang's ringleader, Tavon White, tattooed on their bodies? If the 13 allegedly corrupt guards were indeed the only prison staffers in on the scheme, the 437 other state employees at the facility would have had to have been deaf and blind.

The evidence of a systemic, institution-wide failure is overwhelming, and solving it will require sustained scrutiny by the General Assembly. It's understandable that some lawmakers want to call Mr. Maynard onto the carpet as soon as possible, and certainly he has much to answer for. But this situation is going to require a lot more than a quick "gotcha" hearing. Gov. Martin O'Malley has sought to put a happy face on this affair by pointing to the cooperation between state and federal officials during the investigation. If we are to get to the bottom of this, the legislature will need to act as a sufficient counterweight. The creation of a joint task force is a good start.

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