Who's in charge? [Commentary]

Back when Robert Ehrlich was governor of Maryland, I was interviewing men newly committed to state prison and suspected of gang affiliations. After years in denial, Maryland was just beginning to realize that gangs were very active behind the walls. Among them was a "new" incarnation of BGF (Black Guerrilla Family) that had taken its name from, but was not otherwise beholden to, the BGF that dated from the 1960s.

I got to know Lt. Santiago Morales, an astute gang investigator at Baltimore City Detention Center, and we shared information. Lt. Morales did not let on to me at the time, but, as was later reported in Baltimore's City Paper, he was on the case against the new BGF, and eventually told by his superiors to stand down. It's never been clear why.

We have since learned that BGF so greatly expanded its power at the detention center that its leader, Tavon White, was essentially the peer of the warden. Some staff were completely corrupted — some women officers were actually impregnated by Mr. White — and intimidated. The story has been told in considerable detail in the pages of this newspaper, with one July article outlining how management at the detention center liked to get together with resident members of BGF in the hope of achieving a more efficient and peaceful way of life for all.

No wonder Lieutenant Morales was told to stand down. Instead of cracking down on BGF, we thought that if we could just get the gang to buy into the management of the joint, we would achieve the Peaceable Kingdom.

I am reminded of a similar effort years ago at the now-dismantled Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. Richard A. Lanham Sr. was then commissioner of corrections, and he used Dennis Wise, a convicted robber and killer, to keep the lid on a very dangerous institution. Mr. Wise was "old" BGF. In exchange for our looking the other way at his rackets inside the walls, he promised relative peace for inmates and staff alike.

One method for disciplining unruly white inmates was to move them into dormitories controlled by black prisoners. There they could count on losing their commissary (items purchased at the prison store) and their peace of mind.

When William W. Sondervan came to Maryland as Commissioner of Correction, he didn't like what he saw. In 1999 he exiled Dennis Wise to Arizona, in exchange for a white supremacist convict whom Arizona was anxious to be rid of. Mr. Wise remains in exile from his home state.

So Maryland has a history of failure at letting inmates have a hand in running the lockup. Nonetheless we tried again.

It gets worse:

As The Sun wrote on April 26, 2013, Lieutenant Morales filed a report on corruption of staff in 2006, when Mr. Ehrlich was still Governor of Maryland, naming a dozen correctional officers suspected of gang ties — five of whom were still working for the corrections department as of last year.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Corrections Secretary Gary Maynard therefore inherited the mess at the Detention Center, and that report. Their belated acknowledgment of what was going on reflects either a monumental, vicious and unforgivable ignorance of what was true at the start of the O'Malley regime or a willingness to look the other way.

As Mr. O'Malley prepares a campaign to lead the country, his stewardship of public safety as governor of Maryland ought to be called into question. Not only did he turn a blind eye for years to the horrors at the Detention Center, he also transformed the Parole Commission into a catch-and-release operation.

With the exception of the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility, recently opened to replace the old Jessup Pre-release Unit, the capital budget under Mr. O'Malley has not been burdened with new prisons. Maryland's solution to prison overcrowding has been to let inmates out on discretionary parole — even violent ones — as fast as others are coming in.

It's a story that remains to be told.

Hal Riedl worked mainly with new inmates and parole violators during twenty years of service in the Maryland Division of Correction. He retired in 2010. His email is halriedl@msn.com.


To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.