Inside a gray brick fortress, past a barbed-wire fence, two women in prison guard uniforms traded words about their pregnancies.
“Did he tell you we was having a son?” Tiffany Linder asked, according to court documents recounting the conversation. “Did you know about our baby?”
Chania Brooks said she didn’t care about that baby. That was their child, not hers.
“We having one, too,” she said. “So what?”
The two 27-year-old corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were sparring over an inmate who prosecutors said left both women with a permanent reminder of their allegiance to him.
To investigators, Tavon White is a thug who has been in and out of jail since he was 18, most recently on charges that he shot a fellow drug dealer four times. He is allegedly a high-ranking “bushman” in the Black Guerilla Family, a gang with a reputation for not just killing its enemies but also burning down their homes.
But during his three years at the state-run detention center, White, 36, was allegedly a figure who commanded respect, not only from fellow inmates in jumpsuits but also from many of the women in blue collared shirts and pressed slacks guarding him. Thirteen of them allegedly smuggled cellphones and drugs inside their hair, lunches and underwear for the man they called “Bulldog” or “Tay.” One tattooed his name on her neck, another on her wrist. Four have carried his children.
Through court documents, an affidavit from an FBI agent that contains transcripts of wiretapped conversations, and interviews with people familiar with White, the 13 officers indicted in April and the jail, a portrait emerges of a place where sex and drugs were swapped with stunning casualness, where thousands of dollars flowed in and out each week, and where one man’s power was, by all accounts, no match for a badge.
Just weeks before the two pregnant guards talked about the children they were expecting, a third allegedly pondered possible names for her son.
“What if I name the baby King?” Katera Stevenson, 24, asked in a wiretapped call to her sister recounted in the affidavit. “I like the name King. King Tavon White.”
The Baltimore City Detention Center takes up most of a city block in East Baltimore, a little more than a mile from the Inner Harbor. The warren of seven buildings houses 2,000 or more prisoners awaiting trial for everything from writing bad checks to rape and murder.
It is a miserable place, with some parts more than 150 years old and conditions that state and local officials have been trying to fix for the past four decades. Its well-documented shortcomings have included rodent-infested cells, a lack of medical care for inmates and extreme temperatures.
In the winter, everyone shivers, former inmates say. In the summer, the heat can become unbearable in the parts of the facility that lack air conditioning. One former prisoner blogged about running a T-shirt under cold water, putting it on for a bit of relief, then within 15 minutes having to do it again.
In 1991, the state took over the detention center. In 2002, the Justice Department concluded that conditions there violated the constitutional rights of inmates.
“I hate going over there to visit clients, because it is so depressing,” said defense lawyer Warren A. Brown. The ventilation inside is so bad, he said, that past clients have told him what they appreciate most upon their release “is not their mama’s cooking but fresh air.”
The inmates vastly outnumber the 625 guards, who make a base salary of $35,000 to $45,000 a year but can earn considerably more through overtime. They receive five to six weeks of training before entering — without any weapons to protect themselves — what one former guard calls “a city within a city.”
“It has its own government. It has its own rules. It has its own understanding,” said James McEachin, a former detention center corrections officer turned pastor. As a guard, he said, “once you go behind that door, it closes for you, too.”
It was here, in this troubled place, that White seized an opportunity. He used the jail’s lax security, its female guards and his unusually long three-year stay at the facility to build what prosecutors described as a lucrative drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation, complete with a “minister of finance.”
Some of the guards who allegedly conspired with White said they were in it solely for the cash.
“I am just about my money,” 25-year-old corrections officer Adrena Rice told White during a wiretapped call Feb. 10. She had no interest in relationships with inmates, who would want a cut of what she was earning by working for him. “Nah. I love money, Tay. I want my own money.”
The corruption extends far beyond the 13 women charged, the affidavit suggested, with one inmate estimating that as many as 70 percent of the corrections officers were compromised.
Gang members have long manipulated guards at Maryland’s prisons. Since 2010, 89 officers across the state, including five at the Baltimore detention center, have been terminated or forced to resign for fraternization or contraband, said state corrections spokesman Rick Binetti.
Gary D. Maynard, who was appointed head of the state’s troubled prison system by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2007, acknowledged how deeply rooted the problems at the jail are. “The collusion, corruption, riots were part of this system for a long, long time,” he said. “We have exposed it now.”
What investigators found at the Baltimore jail astounded law enforcement officials across the country, who described it as “bizarre” and “unbelievable.”
“In all my years, and I’ve been in the business since 1960, I have never heard of this level of complicity,” said Arnett Gaston, the former commanding officer of New York City’s Rikers Island detention facilities and a retired University of Maryland criminal justice professor.
With the ease of ordering takeout, White used a smuggled cellphone to arrange exchanges between outside drug dealers and corrections officers, who brought the contraband to him to be sold inside the jail at huge markups, the affidavit alleged. Percocet went for $30 a pill; one-gram bags of marijuana sold for $50. The gang’s control was so complete that any non-member who tried to get in on the action had to pay a tax or risk physical harm.
In one taped conversation, White boasted that he made $15,800 that month, less than normal. “This is my jail. You understand that?” he said to a friend. “I’m dead serious. . . . I make every final call in this jail. . . . Everything come to me.”
Chania Brooks’s hands were shaking. She had just seen an inmate get attacked by a fellow gang member, blood spilling from his head, the affidavit said.
She needed advice, so she went to get it. Not from a supervisor. From White.
“I abandoned my post,” Brooks said in an intercepted call between her and White. “I said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I thought he was going to have to go 911.”
Brooks has denied the charges against her, including the allegation that White fathered her child. When a reporter went to her home after the indictment was unsealed, she peeked out a partially open door and said, “I don’t have a story to tell.”
Calls to the other women were not returned, and attorneys for some of them declined to comment. Among the guards, only Linder has entered a plea. She told a judge last week that she is not guilty.
Documents that investigators recovered from the Black Guerrilla Family detail how its new members are taught to target specific officers. Look for women, they are told, with “low self-esteem, insecurities, and certain physical attributes.”
The manipulation of young female officers often starts with a smile or a brief conversation, said a former inmate very familiar with the gang’s tactics. Then the inmate slips the guard a few hundred bucks in exchange for bringing him a pack of cigarettes.
“Once that door is open, you find your way in,” said the former inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns. “It’s a hustle game.”
The gang also recruits relatives, girlfriends and fellow gang members without criminal records to apply for positions as corrections officers to establish a network of operatives within the prison walls, he said.
As many as 80 percent of corrections-officer applicants in the central region, which includes Baltimore, do not make it through the background investigation, said Binetti, the corrections spokesman.
Among those who do, women seem to dominate. More than 60 percent of the corrections officers in Baltimore’s jails are women, Maryland officials estimate. By comparison, women make up 37 percent of the guards in the District, a D.C. Corrections Department spokesman said.
Regardless of the jurisdiction, officials say, all guards receive training on how to deal with the con games they will encounter inside prisons. They are warned how easily a compliment can turn into a favor, which can turn into an obligation.
Jon Galley, a top Maryland corrections official, said he likes to show trainees a copy of a how-to guide, confiscated from an inmate’s cell, that lays out how to win over guards. The two pages of tips include dropping a “kite,” or love note, confessing to the officer that the inmate “felt a connection to her, that she was beautiful.”
James Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional Association, said he has little sympathy for the officers who ignored their training. They knew better.
“If they danced to the fiddler, they’ve got to pay the price,” he said. “And they danced to the fiddler.”
They danced, prosecutors said, to Tavon White.
Soon after White was born, court records show, his father began serving a life sentence for murder, and his mother struggled with drugs. He was raised largely by his grandparents and lived for a time in McCulloh Homes, a bleak public housing project in West Baltimore, said one family member.
His own troubles began early, court records show. He was expelled from middle school in eighth grade. By 19, he was a convicted murderer who would spend seven years behind bars.
It isn’t clear when his alleged gang ties began. His most recent charge — attempted murder — stems from a fight with one of his “boys” over a cocaine sale in 2009, according to court documents. White was charged with firing four bullets at close range into the man’s ankle, thighs and buttocks.
White, prosecutors said during his trial in December, wanted to make sure there was no doubt about who was in charge.
“Lesson learned: One shot at Tavon White’s ego gets you four in the body,” Assistant State’s Attorney Katie O’Hara told a Baltimore jury as White watched calmly from the defense table.
But White’s attorney, Melissa Phinn, raised doubts about the credibility and consistency of testimony from key witnesses, and the jury deadlocked on the attempted-murder charge. They had done the same in an earlier trial.
Now White is awaiting a third trial, scheduled for June, at the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland. Last week, he pleaded not guilty in federal court to racketeering, money-laundering and drug-dealing charges.
What his criminal history doesn’t reveal, a family member said, is the loyal grandson and doting father who attended PTA meetings, accompanied his children to church and took them to Six Flags and Sesame Place. (In January, White called his grandmother Bessie Timmons from the detention center to tick off the due dates of the guards he had impregnated, according to the affidavit.)
In jail, he played chess and read novels, court records show. Between prison stints, he cleaned swimming pools and packed boxes for a moving company. That is what he was doing when he met Danielle Hall at a Wendy’s down the street from McCulloh Homes. The two moved in together and had a daughter, who is now 7.
“Tavon will always be a good guy in my book,” said Hall’s mother, who asked not to be identified by name, because of safety concerns. She said she was floored by the allegations that White was a gang leader at the detention center but not by his appeal to so many of the female corrections officers.
“He’s a hunk,” she said. “He’s got a mean-looking body, a body that’s all that, that says, ‘Catch me if you can.’ ”
Jennifer Owens had her diamond ring and her flashy cars and the name of the man who had provided them tattooed on her neck, according to the indictment. The 31-year-old corrections officer, who lives in Randallstown, drove around in two Mercedes-Benzes — one black and one white — allegedly financed by the gang leader.
In return, she gave him two children in two years.
“Like really, who the [expletive] does that?” Owens said in an intercepted call to an unidentified woman in October. She called herself dumb but also said, “I don’t regret it.”
Several former detention center guards said White could not have run such a large criminal enterprise without the help of higher-ups, tacit or explicit. But none have been implicated.
Maynard, the prison system chief, said that may change. State corrections officials are interviewing everyone to “cleanse” the detention center’s officer ranks. Some people will be polygraphed.
“They need to dig deep” to hold jail managers accountable, said Patrick Moran, president of Maryland Council 3 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents the corrections officers.
The challenge will be changing the culture of a place where, according to the affidavit, the names of 14 female guards were scrawled on a wall along with the price they allegedly charged for sexual favors: $150.
It is an environment, former corrections officers said, where it is hard to know whom to trust among the keepers and the kept.
When corrections officers report to work, they have to pass through a metal detector and receive a pat-down from a colleague, the affidavit noted. But they could simply wait for a friendly face before bringing in contraband.
At the detention center, corrections officers also had little fear of losing their jobs if they were caught smuggling. In one wiretapped call, an officer told an inmate about getting transferred from the jail to the intake center next door: “It ain’t nothing new. I got moved over there basically because I’m dirty.”
At least one of the 13 officers charged had been accused of gang ties at the detention center before. In 2008, inmate Tashma McFadden sued officer Antonia Allison, 27, for allegedly allowing a group of inmates who belonged to the Bloods to attack him in his cell. McFadden was stabbed 32 times; Allison, who denied having gang ties, remained on the job. Allison could not be reached for comment.
“We let her get a second chance. Why?” asked McFadden, who is no longer incarcerated and settled his suit with Allison. “The average guy in there, we’re not giving him a chance.”
Investigators were told that White and other gang leaders had informal agreements with jail officials: They would reduce violence inside the detention center and, in exchange, officials would “turn a blind eye to contraband smuggling and actively protect White and the [Black Guerilla Family] by warning them of investigations,” according to the affidavit.
One such warning allegedly came from Tiffany Linder, who had worked at Wal-Mart and Panera, her uncle said, before she was hired to be a guard three years ago. Investigators say the pregnant guard alerted White in January that cells were going to be searched.
“I just got a message saying they going to pull a shake-down tonight,” White said in a phone call afterward. “Let me call all these dudes in my phone and let them know.”
He quickly passed along the news to men with nicknames such as Hammer, Fatboy, Ack and Flatline.
In February, White was transferred out of the detention center. Last week, Maynard moved his office into the warden’s conference room.
On Friday, the prison chief arrived at the detention center at 6:30 a.m. so he could watch the morning shift report to work and go through security. Then Maynard went off to meetings with a leather folder tucked under his arm. Inside were business cards and important papers, including one sheet titled, “Why did this happen?” He said he intends to find out.
“If you have an issue and you fire somebody here or there and move on, you haven’t really solved the problem,” Maynard said. “Exposing ourselves to an internal investigation is risky and difficult, but it was the only way to get at the core problem.”
All 13 corrections officers who are awaiting trial have been suspended without pay. The case against them could take two months to lay out for a jury, prosecutors say.
No matter what happens in court or at the jail in the months to come, one fact remains indisputable: Tavon White ensured his legacy.
Tiffany Linder is due any day.
Peter Hermann and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.