Maryland could have acted quicker to prevent Baltimore jail scandal


The Baltimore City Detention Center is the site where scores of crimes were committed by a prison gang and correctional officers. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Robert McCartney
Columnist June 8, 2013

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration is sticking to its story that it deserves a hero’s acclaim for helping the FBI crack down this spring on brazen abuses at the Baltimore jail.

But a high-level legislative briefing on the scandal in Annapolis on Thursday undercut that self-serving argument.

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

Speakers and legislators identified numerous, common-sense steps that authorities could have taken sooner to prevent a violent gang aided by alleged corrupt guards from effectively seizing control of the facility.

O’Malley and his hand-picked state prisons chief, Gary Maynard, could have raised training requirements for corrections officers to meet national standards.

They could have strengthened the internal investigations team that hunts down crooked guards.

And demanded that guard applicants take polygraph tests.

And required guards to pass through full-body scanners before entering the Baltimore City Detention Center to keep out contraband.

All of that is now being planned, or is under consideration. But it’s too late by several years, at least.

After the three-hour session, even some of O’Malley’s fellow Democrats faulted the slow response.

“It was known there were problems in the system early on in the administration. I don’t think they were addressed,” said state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore). He is president pro tempore of the Senate, and the jail is in his district.

“It obviously wasn’t a high priority in issues facing the state over the last several years,” McFadden said.

The foot-dragging rebuts the narrative offered by O’Malley and Maynard. They are asking the public to hail their courage for inviting federal investigators to pursue the case despite the risk of major embarrassment when the story became public.

“Obviously, it’s easier to work internally . . . given intense public criticism that you have to face when you’re shining the spotlight on corruption,” Maynard told the legislators.

It’s a twisted argument. Since when do our public servants merit major kudos for exposing the alleged crimes of their own employees?

On the contrary, we have every right to demand that they account for their failure in allowing such malfeasance to occur at all.

The dramatic alleged wrongdoing at the Baltimore jail was discussed at a briefing chaired by House Speaker Mike Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Mike Miller (D-Calvert). It included presentations by Maryland law enforcement officials and national corrections experts.

In April, a federal grand jury indicted 13 guards at the jail and 12 others for drug trafficking, money laundering and other crimes. The indictment said the head of the Black Guerilla Family in the detention center impregnated four guards.

Nobody is pretending the state’s leaders learned of the problem just recently. Maynard told the briefing that a longtime colleague begged him in 2007 not to take the job as secretary of corrections because Maryland had “a dangerous system” with “a corrupt culture.”

Both a 2009 investigation and a 2011 report suggested strongly that collusion was rife between jailers and jailed in the state, including at the Baltimore facility.

Given all that, one would think the men in charge would use every available tool to keep the Baltimore jail secure. They didn’t.

For instance, most states demand more hours of in-service training for corrections officers than Maryland does. It requires just 18 hours a year for almost all of its facilities, compared with the national standard of 40 hours set by the American Correctional Association.

Maynard asked the General Assembly just this year to change the policy so Maryland would meet the training standard throughout it system. (The legislature did so.)

The authorities decided just now, after the burst of publicity, to use the legal power they’ve had since 2010 to require guard applicants to take polygraph tests. They demanded such tests of the Baltimore jail’s supervisors after the indictment; the security chief failed and lost her job.

The state is moving just now to expand the internal investigations unit by 50 percent, adding eight detectives and four technicians. Its caseload has doubled since 2006.

“Why did it take them so damn long? It took them until after the FBI got involved,” said state Sen. David Brinkley (R-Carroll-Frederick) .

O’Malley and Maynard need to answer that question fully and concede they could have done better. Meanwhile, they should mute the crowing about how they helped stop their own staff from allegedly breaking the law.

Guys, it’s part of the job description.

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

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