Md. prison gang leader pleads guilty in drug-smuggling, bribery scheme

Correction: A previous version of this article

The Maryland prison gang leader who bragged about taking control of a state-run jail admitted Tuesday directing a drug-smuggling operation that he said involved more than a dozen corrections officers.

In pleading guilty to a racketeering conspiracy, gang leader Tavon White also indicated that the number of corrupt corrections officers engaged in drug-trafficking and sexual relationships with inmates at the pretrial detention center in Baltimore far exceeded the 13 female guards charged in an indictment in the spring.

White’s admission in federal court marked the first guilty plea since the sweeping case became public in April and could lead to more, according to legal observers. One corrections officer charged in the case intends to plead guilty at a hearing next week, her attorney confirmed Tuesday.

The allegations of lax security and oversight that prosecutors said allowed White to essentially take charge of the jail have rocked Maryland’s prison system. The federal probe has prompted legislative hearings in Annapolis and tough questions for Gov. Martin O’Malley and state corrections leaders, who have since changed the way the department handles prison investigations.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein’s office said in a statement that the federal investigation is continuing


Tavon White. (Courtesy of Anne Arundel County Police Department )

The developments in court follow a recent spike in gang-related assaults on corrections staff at a maximum-security facility near Cumberland. Union officials representing state corrections officers called Tuesday for the resignation of three high-level administrators who oversee security.

In the latest attack Monday, an officer was stabbed five times by an inmate and suffered injuries that were not life-threatening; it was the eighth attack on an officer by inmates at North Branch Correctional Institution since the end of June.

The attacks are not related to the investigation at the Baltimore jail, but a union spokesman said this week that they are the result of similar problems, such as inadequate staffing and security.

Dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit, White, 36, conferred quietly with his attorney in the courtroom Tuesday as Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Harding detailed a racketeering conspiracy that allegedly involved two dozen inmates, corrections officers and other associates of the Black Guerrilla Family — the state’s largest prison gang.

Police say BGF’s vast and violent operation in Maryland detention facilities has spilled onto the streets of Baltimore.

As part of the plea agreement signed last month, White admitted using corrections officers to smuggle in cellphones, tobacco, prescription pills and other drugs that he and fellow gang members sold at a huge markup.

In one phone call recorded by investigators, White said he made more than $15,000 during a slow month behind bars. White also admitted bribing corrections officers by sharing the profits and giving them gifts, including luxury cars.

More Post coverage of the Maryland jail scandal.

He admitted in court papers to having sex with four corrections officers who became pregnant.

Most of White’s co-defendants have pleaded not guilty at initial court appearances. But corrections officer Jennifer Owens, who allegedly had two children with White in two years, is scheduled to plead guilty next week, her attorney said.

Owens, 31, had White’s name tattooed on her neck and drove two Mercedes-Benz vehicles paid for by White, according to court filings.

In addition to confirming allegations set out in the indictment, White has also told prosecutors that he knew “many other correctional officers involved in contraband trafficking and sexual relations with inmates,” according to the plea deal.

White, who said he went as far as eighth grade in school, first joined the Black Guerrilla Family in 2000 before he was locked up on attempted murder charges for more than three years at the Baltimore City Detention Center. He became “commander” at the city jail in 2011, according to court filings.

White faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. His sentencing is scheduled for early next year.

Later in the day, White also pleaded guilty in a separate state case to attempted second-degree murder and a related gun charge. He was sentenced in that case to 20 years, White’s attorney said.

“He realized the damage his actions have caused him, his family and the Maryland correctional system and wished to accept responsibility at the earliest possible juncture,” White's attorney, Gary Proctor, said in a statement.

At the Baltimore City Detention Center, corrections department spokesman Rick Binetti said the agency’s top-down review continues. No additional personnel ­changes have been made since the head of security, Shavella Miles, was removed in May after she failed a polygraph test. She has denied any wrongdoing. Secretary Gary D. Maynard has maintained support from the governor.

In a news conference Tuesday, union officials called on three prison officials to step down in light of the violence in Cumberland: James Michael Stouffer, deputy secretary of operations; Jon Galley, north region executive director; and Rod Sowers, north region director. Representatives from Council 3 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees accused prison officials of failing to warn the officer attacked Monday that inmates four days earlier had threatened in a letter to harm him.

Binetti said a preliminary investigation has revealed that the employee was not notified of the threat as required by department policy, but he declined to disclose any further information until the probe has been completed.

He also declined to identify the gang affiliation of the inmates involved in the assaults.

Union officials also accused corrections officials on Tuesday of chronically undercounting the number of violent assaults on officers. Binetti said the agency has tracked assaults on staff using the standards of the Association of State Correctional Administrators since 2003.

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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