Maryland’s prison system struggles to police thousands of guards and inmates

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post - The Baltimore City Detention Center is seen earlier this year after several crimes allegedly were committed by a prison gang and correctional officers.

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She could have been fired years ago for allegedly letting gang members stage a brutal attack on an inmate in his cell. Instead, corrections officer Antonia Allison was allowed to resign from her job at the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2006 without any mark on her personnel record and then return to the state-run jail nine months later, prison system officials acknowledge.

Last month, Allison, 27, became one of 13 corrections officers indicted in a corruption case so widespread and brazen that it astounded law enforcement officials across the country. The guards are accused of helping a violent prison gang operate a drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation that involved smuggled pills and cellphones, sexual liaisons and thousands of dollars in cash payments. Allison plans to plead not guilty to the charges, said her lawyer, Chris Purpura.

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Sex, drugs and prisoners were all involved in this recent FBI sting. The Washington Post’s Ann Marimow explains what was happening behind the prison walls.

Sex, drugs and prisoners were all involved in this recent FBI sting. The Washington Post’s Ann Marimow explains what was happening behind the prison walls.

How Allison wound up being rehired — even as she later agreed to pay a settlement to the inmate attacked on her watch in 2006 — is emblematic of a Maryland correctional system that has struggled for years to police its 7,500 guards and nearly 26,000 inmates.

A review of court records and interviews with current and former law enforcement officers, jail administrators, state officials, union representatives and corrections experts paints a picture of a failed disciplinary system, with little if any deterrent for corrections officers who smuggle contraband or even have sex with inmates.

The prison system’s small cadre of full-time permanent investigators — just 19 in a state with 24 corrections facilities — has remained virtually the same since Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) took office more than six years ago.

Their ranks did not grow after a report, issued the month O’Malley was elected to his first term, warned that there were nearly 300 gang members inside the detention center. Nor were more full-fledged investigators added after a 2009 investigation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found a hive of corruption and flagrant gang activity at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup and the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore. Evidence from that probe suggested the problems were just as serious at the detention center, the state’s largest jail and long one of its most troubled.

“There was a sense that this isn’t going to get fixed until we get a case so big, so shocking that it would reallocate resources or change laws,” said a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the current investigation. “We figured we needed national attention to force the Maryland legislature to act.”

The problems appear to be deeply rooted.

Allison, who could not be reached for comment, might have faced criminal charges in the assault on inmate Tashma McFadden, who was stabbed 32 times in July 2006, said one former jail supervisor, who agreed to discuss the incident only on the condition that he not be identified by name. But an internal investigation was derailed when a sympathetic supervisor suggested she quit after the attack, he said.

Allison, who denied any role in the assault, later attributed her resignation to injuries suffered in a car accident, according to a court deposition she gave in 2009.

Prison system officials said guards who resign in lieu of dismissal are supposed to be “red-flagged” and barred from being rehired. They said that there was no explanation in Allison’s personnel file for her 2006 departure and that they could not explain why she was able to return. But they confirmed that by July 2007, she was back in uniform at the jail, where prosecutors allege she eventually went to work for Black Guerilla Family operative Tavon White smuggling marijuana and prescription pills.

The jail supervisor said he was astounded when Allison was rehired. “Dishonest officers feel empowered” when they beat the system, he said. “And you see what happened.”

A dysfunctional system

Allison and the 12 other indicted officers operated in an environment where there was “no effective punishment,” federal investigators said in charging documents. The guards allegedly served as drug mules and, in several cases, had sex with inmates, with little fear of serious consequences. Four of the indicted officers became pregnant by White, and two tattooed his name on their bodies. Only one of the guards has entered a plea on the charges, saying she is not guilty; Allison and the others have yet to be arraigned.

O’Malley and Gary D. Maynard, the head of the prison system, have expressed revulsion at the allegations, while defending their record of rooting out corruption.

Statistics show the department’s disciplinary system does work, said Rick Binetti, state corrections spokesman.

Since O’Malley took office, 112 corrections officers have been fired or forced to resign because of alleged wrongdoing, Binetti said. When officers challenge the dismissals, judges uphold the firings three-quarters of the time.

But departmental records also show that Maryland relies heavily on forced resignations: 41 of the 112 resigned in lieu of dismissal or charges being filed in court. Maryland, in fact, rarely prosecutes officers for offenses short of violent abuses of inmates, state and court records show. By comparison, Virginia fired nearly 100 of its 12,000 guards last year, state officials there said.

Maryland officials acknowledged that changes are needed, especially at the detention center. The governor’s office said Monday night that O’Malley will soon announce the creation of a task force to investigate and prosecute gang activity and corruption at the jail. The 10-person task force will be made up of corrections investigators, Maryland State Police officers and an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore.

The chief of security at the Baltimore jail has been replaced. This month, Maynard moved his office into the detention center and vowed to cleanse the jail of its culture of complicity.

The head of the prison system’s internal investigations unit announced his resignation two weeks ago, though officials maintain that his departure is unrelated to the probe at the jail. And O’Malley has ordered a review of the disciplinary process, which was altered three years ago to give corrections officers the right to appeal certain suspensions, firings and other punishments to a board of their peers. The Correctional Officers’ Bill of Rights was criticized by federal investigators last month for making it too hard to weed out compromised guards. But, as the Antonia Allison case demonstrates, the disciplinary dysfunction at the jail existed long before those protections were signed into law.

It isn’t clear whether the extraordinary scope of problems at the jail exists anywhere else in the prison system. But the system’s internal investigation and disciplinary process is undermanned, undertrained, and underfunded statewide, a review of policies, staffing levels and caseloads shows.

While the number of full-time investigators has stayed the same, their caseload has doubled over the past six years, from 700 to 1,400 — part of an effort to prosecute inmates who obtain cellphones and use them to conduct criminal business behind bars.

Although investigators are supposed to police both corrections officers and inmates, the vast majority of the state’s resources are devoted to convicts. Last year, more than 90 percent of the cases pursued by investigators involved crimes committed by inmates.

The unit also does not have enough staff to keep investigators on shifts overnight or on weekends. Investigators are on call for major cases but have to come in from home.

Asked if they have pressed for more resources in a system with an operating budget of $1.3 billion, two corrections officials sidestepped the question.

“If you ask any police force, they’ll tell you they could use more officers,” said one of the officials, both of whom were made available to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity. “We are trying to do our best to investigate all criminal and administrative cases that come across our table.”

The efforts of the investigators can be hampered by the frontline corrections officers assigned by wardens to police their fellow guards.

Those officers often perform the initial legwork that can make or break a case. Yet they are not given polygraph tests to ensure their integrity, and they get almost no additional training. They also have no police powers. As a result, when corrections officers are caught smuggling contraband into the jail, there is no one on-site who can make an arrest.

That’s different from most big-city jails, including the District’s central detention facility and New York’s on Rikers Island, where the jails maintain closer ties with local police forces and have sworn officers on-site. Internal affairs investigators in the District work at the jail.

At the Baltimore detention center, even if guards or other employees are caught with drugs that would be illegal to possess outside the jail, they can simply leave the premises before law enforcement arrives, current and former officers said.

“A supervisor can say, ‘I order you to stay in that chair,’ but if the employee says, ‘Oh, I’m sick, I have a fever,’ they can’t stop that person from going home,” one of the corrections officials said.

Afterward, it becomes far easier for prison administrators to seek resignations from the accused than to pursue criminal charges, current and former officers and jail officials said.

Investigators often encounter a code of silence among the guards, criminal justice experts and former corrections officers said. “You are fighting that culture of people not wanting to testify or provide information against another officer,” said former federal prison warden Peter Carlson.

Jail officials aren’t always eager to expose corruption inside their walls either, said Frank A. Colaprete, an expert on internal investigations in corrections.

“Everyone is trying to keep their jobs,” he said. “They don’t want publicity or embarrassment.”

Increasing caseloads

The prison system’s Internal Investigative Unit is tucked at the end of an office park in Savage, a half-hour south of Baltimore.

Its 19 investigators are the only ones wearing a corrections badge who have passed a polygraph exam and received police academy training.

The investigators have had ­notable successes, including the 2006 second-degree murder conviction of a corrections officer for stomping to death an inmate at Baltimore’s central booking facility next to the detention center.

Another investigation into a 2008 assault of a single inmate at a state prison in Hagerstown led to the termination of 26 officers. In that case, an inmate who assaulted an officer was later beaten by guards repeatedly over three consecutive eight-hour shifts. Fourteen of the fired guards faced criminal charges. Six were convicted and three went to prison.

But in between such big cases, the unit has struggled to keep pace with a mounting and increasingly complex caseload, driven largely by the emphasis on prosecuting inmates for having cellphones.

The effort is the result of the 2009 investigation into corruption and gang activity. Using cellphones smuggled in by corrupt officers, Black Guerilla Family leader Eric Brown orchestrated drug deals and initiated violent attacks on adversaries from behind bars. He spent some of the profits on crab imperial and Grey Goose vodka, which he had delivered to his cell at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore with room service-like ease.

In the wake of that scandal, the unit hired two technicians to collect evidence from cellphones recovered from the state’s prisons. They also stepped up their partnerships with federal and local law enforcement agencies.

As cellphone cases have taken up more of the investigators’ time, current and former officers said the department has been less focused on fraternization and other misconduct by officers that allegedly fed the criminal activity inside the detention center.

Inmates at the Baltimore jail reported the second-highest rate of sexual contact with guards of any jail in the country, according to a federal survey released this month. Nearly 7 percent reported having sexual contact with officers. Nationwide, the rate was less than 2 percent.

Black Guerilla Family members at the detention center allegedly used sex to secure the allegiance of some of the 13 indicted corrections officers, all of whom were women.

Allison is not among the corrections officers accused of having sex with inmates. But her name was added to a confidential list of officers suspected of gang ties after she allegedly let members of the Bloods stab McFadden on July 6, 2006, according to court documents that contain the internal memo prepared for the warden.

She resigned in the middle of an internal investigation. McFadden, who was serving jail time for a drug-dealing conviction, sued her in federal court in 2008, seeking damages for his injuries.

In a court deposition she gave in 2009 in connection with the lawsuit, she said a prison system investigator interviewed her about the incident shortly after she returned to work and read her her rights. She invoked her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, she said, because “I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

The prison system’s investigative unit then sent the case on to the state’s attorney’s office, but nothing happened, according to court records.

In the 2009 deposition, Allison denied being part of the attack or being a member of a gang, maintaining that she resigned from her job because of injuries to her back and wrist from a car accident.

Allison, the daughter of a police officer, was taking college classes in hopes of becoming a forensic pathologist. She tried unsuccessfully to have the lawsuit dismissed. Just before the trial was to begin, McFadden learned from corrections officials that Bloods inmates were planning to assault him over the case. He settled.

Allison paid him restitution for several years, his attorney said, while she continued to work at the jail. She was earning almost $42,000 a year when she was charged last month with working for the inmates she was supposed to be guarding.

Ann E. Marimow and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report

 
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