Martin O’Malley tries to spin away jail failures

May 4, 2013

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley spent 40 minutes in his State House office Thursday trying to convince me that the dramatic revelations of sex, drugs and racketeering in a Baltimore jail weren’t a flagrant outrage but a major advance in the struggle against the state’s deadliest gang.

He didn’t succeed.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The governor doesn’t seem to understand that once gang members are behind bars, the public expects the authorities to ensure that they stop committing crimes. He ought to express embarrassment and acknowledge shortcomings over a federal indictment that accuses inmates at the state-run institution of laundering money and smuggling contraband and the gang leader of impregnating guards.

Instead, O’Malley (D) stuck to his spin that the indictment of 13 corrections officers and 12 inmates and outside suppliers at the Baltimore City Detention Center should be viewed as “a very positive development.” He said it could lead to new arrests of members of the Black Guerilla Family, who prosecutors said were effectively running the jail.

“This is a beachhead. This case is very active. We will take this as high and as wide as it goes,” O’Malley said in the interview, which his staff had called me to propose.

“It might well prove to be one of the most significant prosecutions against the Black Guerilla Family that we’ve ever been able to make,” O’Malley said.

I accept the obvious that it’s a good thing to bring significant charges against a murderous gang. I acknowledge that the state took the initiative early last year by inviting the FBI to help it crack down on corruption in the jail.

I even concede that the governor and his public safety chief, Gary Maynard, apparently have made progress in improving conditions in the state’s prisons and jails since O’Malley took office in 2007. The state says serious assaults by inmates on inmates are down 47 percent over the period. Serious inmate-on-staff assaults have dropped 65 percent.

But none of that explains away the shocking disclosure that the gang was able to take over the jail at all. Some of the guards were corrupted, but where were the others?

The jail’s top official was quietly replaced six months ago for bad management. How was such an evidently incompetent person allowed to get the job?

Keep in mind that these people ultimately work for Martin O’Malley.

“While it is good news that this very long investigation has returned indictments, the other question is how was it allowed to happen in the first place?” said Bill Bratton, a former top police official in New York and Los Angeles who now heads a law enforcement consulting firm. “You obviously have a management failure of monumental proportions,” Bratton said.

(I called Bratton for comment after O’Malley repeatedly praised his leadership on law enforcement and called him a kind of mentor.)

None of the jail’s troubles should have been a surprise, including to O’Malley.

The jail “is a place that has been plagued, for as long as anybody in modern times can remember, of allegations of collusion between inmates and corrections officers,” said the governor, who previously was Baltimore’s mayor.

So why wasn’t more done to prevent the problem? That’s the biggest outrage of all, and it doesn’t apply only to O’Malley or Maryland.

Gang criminality in prisons, fostered by corruption of guards, is pervasive nationally. Politicians pay little attention, because it can be expensive to fix and there are no votes in doing so. The public, including the media, doesn’t care.

“The only time that people want to talk about their jails is when there’s a great titillating story like this, and therein lies the problem,” said Martin Horn, the former head of corrections for Pennsylvania and New York City who is now managing director of a criminal justice consulting firm.

“We shouldn’t be surprised,” he said.

“The scale of this and the involvement of the female officers who got pregnant make this story different, but not entirely unusual.”

Maryland has taken some positive steps such as introducing a system to help identify and track gang members within the corrections system. More needs to be done, including providing more training and stronger oversight for guards.

Increased pay would attract a higher caliber of candidates for the dangerous jobs. The starting annual salary for state corrections officers is about $36,500.

Above all, we need to stop ignoring the conditions in which 2 million people live in our prisons and jails.

“The people in those jails, the inmates, are the flotsam and jetsam of post-industrial society,” Horn said. “We are perfectly happy to keep them out of sight and out of mind.”

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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