Maryland corrections job applicants to get polygraphs

Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to beef up the internal investigations unit at the state corrections agency and subject all prospective officers to polygraph tests, according to a summary of reforms his administration will discuss at a legislative hearing Thursday on problems at the Baltimore jail.

The state has been trying to crack down on corruption since 13 female corrections officers were indicted this spring. Federal authorities say the officers had been working since 2009 with Black Guerrilla Family gang members to smuggle contraband, including drugs, phones and cigarettes.

O'Malley's office announced the reforms as Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, prepares to face questions from lawmakers. The Legislative Policy Committee called the Thursday hearing amid questions over how the department allowed the alleged gang activity to continue for so long.

Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, the Republican leader in the House and a member of the committee, said he has been encouraged by the department's actions following the indictment, but he wonders why they weren't put in place sooner.

He hopes the hearing will pin down a timeline of who knew what, when. And if Maynard did know and informed the governor's office, Kipke said, he wants to know why the state did not step in.

"They've been telling us they have been doing all they can all along," he said.

The FBI laid out a series of management failures that contributed to the gang's operation as part of its case. Federal authorities pointed in particular to a weak internal discipline system that let bad apples stay on the job.

In a statement, O'Malley said the state had been working effectively with federal authorities to "combat gangs, reduce violence, and root out corruption."

"Like all Marylanders, I am outraged by the criminal wrongdoing at the Baltimore City Detention Center," he said. "We understand there is more work to do — and we are working every day — to build the public's confidence in our prison system."

The corrections department has 25 of its own detectives to investigate crimes committed by staff and inmates alike. The state plans to hire eight more, as well as four intelligence officers, according to the governor's office.

The General Assembly authorized the department to polygraph applicants in 2010. An earlier version of the bill would have required the state to use the tests, but that provision was removed, legislative records show.

Baltimore County, which runs its own jails, screens applicants using polygraphs, but state officials recently questioned whether they could afford to adopt the practice. The process would have cost the department $375,000 a year, according to an analysis conducted in 2010.

Kipke said Republicans in the General Assembly will likely be able to rally behind spending to improve the quality of the state's corrections facilities. He said his colleagues support "spending money on essential state government."

"It needs to be run well," he said.

In addition to the polygraphs, officials plan to broaden background checks on new applications and hire eight new internal affairs detectives and four intelligence analysts to investigate gangs and corrupt officers.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., another member of the committee, said the O'Malley administration's proposals are "all positive."

"This jail didn't get this way overnight," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said. "It's probably going to take some time to get it totally straightened out, but I think we're on the right track."

The governor's office said it has been aggressive in rooting out corrupt officers, removing on average 18 corrections officers from their jobs each year.

Since the federal indictment, the department has also started fingerprinting visitors to the jail to confirm their identities. The agency has also upgraded its security cameras, according to the governor's office.

In the immediate aftermath of the federal indictment, senior administrators at the jail were subjected to lie detector tests as part of an internal investigation. Shavella Miles, the security chief at the detention center, was forced out as part of that inquiry but is fighting to get her job back.

The department has said further employees are subject to polygraphs.

Archer Blackwell, a representative with AFSCME council 67, said it makes sense to screen applicants with lie detectors before they start work.

"We have advocated for more stringent background checks," he said. "This will be just another piece in supporting that in terms of screening out those people who might not be so qualified to be in that setting."

The legislative committee will hear testimony Thursday from Maynard, state prosecutors and prisons experts. Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, declined an invitation because of the investigation.

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

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