Youth and inexperience may have marked some officers as easier prey for the highly organized prison gang, corrections experts said, thus adding age to a broken disciplinary system, ineffective training and poor supervision as factors making the detention center fertile ground for corruption.
The seven indicted officers who went to work behind bars guarding hundreds of inmates before they were legally able to drink were hired over a six-year period that began in 2002, when the state lowered the hiring age from 21 to 18. The change was suggested by local jailers in more rural parts of the state such as St. Mary’s and Cecil counties who were having trouble finding qualified candidates, said William Sondervan, a former top corrections official who was involved in the decision and worried that 18 was too young.
A number of county jails in Maryland still hire officers younger than 21, including Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. But jails in many cities, including the District, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles, require corrections officers to be at least 21.
Verjeana M. Jacobs, a former president of the Prince George’s Correctional Officers Association and former chairman of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, said that younger guards are more easily manipulated by inmates.
“Clearly, age matters,” said Jacobs, who spent 23 years in corrections before retiring last year. “Right out of high school, they don’t have the maturity to process and distinguish when people are trying to influence you.”
Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, has been a longtime backer of the higher minimum age because “he believes that additional maturity is better for both correctional officers and the organization, in terms of understanding the complexities of the correctional profession,” spokesman Rick Binetti said.
But corrections officials are reluctant to point to age as a factor in the Baltimore City Detention Center scandal.
“To be clear, the issues with the 13 indicted BCDC officers have to do with their own personal choices and integrity,” Binetti said. “Regardless of how old they were when they were hired, they are adults. As adults, they allegedly made terrible choices, and they are being held accountable.”
The American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association do not offer guidelines for minimum age requirements for corrections officers.
“Maturity, not age, is a qualifying factor that law enforcement agencies look for in an individual during the hiring process,” said Esteban Gonzalez, president of the jail association.