Were the female guards indicted in Baltimore prison scheme predators or prey?


The Baltimore City Detention Center is the site where scores of crimes allegedly were committed by a prison gang and correctional officers. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 25, 2013

Tavon White’s loyal women brought him anything he wanted — drugs, money, the latest cellphones, tobacco and food, federal prosecutors say. They even bought him luxury German cars.

In the past four years, four of these women allegedly gave him five children. One tattooed “Tavon” on her neck; another has “Tavon” on her wrist.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

White was an inmate in the Baltimore City Detention Center. The harem? His jail guards, according to an indictment.

Thirteen female corrections officers essentially handed control of the jail over to White and other members of the Black Guerilla Family, prosecutors say, allowing gang members to sell drugs and other contraband from behind bars. The jaw-dropping allegations left plenty of people wondering: Do women have any business being guards in a men’s jail?

Here’s something you might not know. In Baltimore’s jails, which are run by the state, more than 60 percent of the guards are women, Maryland corrections officials estimate. And nationwide, their numbers are rapidly approaching parity with male guards. Women made up about 37 percent of the corrections force in 2007, according to the American Correctional Association.


Tavon White (Courtesy of Anne Arundel County Police Department)

It makes sense. Our incarceration rate has skyrocketed over the past 25 years, and most of those caught up in the criminal justice system are men. Fewer men than ever can pass the background check to become corrections officers. Women have filled the gap, applying in droves for stressful but stable jobs that pay an average of $40,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now get ready for my next bombshell. According to a frequently quoted report by the Justice Department on sex in prisons and jails, most of the guards having sex with their charges are women. “Among the 39,121 male prison inmates who had been victims of staff sexual misconduct, 69% reported sexual activity with female staff,” according to the 2008-09 Bureau of Justice Statistics study.

It’s even higher in juvenile detention facilities, where 90 percent of the boys who said they were victims of sexual advances by officers said they were approached — and frequently raped — by women.

Sometimes we can make our pedestals a little too high. When women assume positions of power over the lives of others, they can become predators just like men can.

“There’s an assumption that women won’t do this, can’t do this, that it’s not in our nature,” said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who has written extensively about sexual assault in jails and prisons. “But it is in our nature.”

What about the female guards who are targeted by cunning and charismatic inmates? The women who are loveless, lonely and easily seduced? Are they predators or the prey?

In Montana, jailhouse lothario Michael Murphy seduced at least five female prison guards a few years ago. He was known for staging pornlike scenarios.

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. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

In February, two female corrections officers in New York were arrested after getting pregnant by inmates. One of them, Nancy Gonzalez , was having sex with Ronell Wilson, who is on death row for killing two police officers.

“I took a chance because I was so vulnerable and wanted to be loved, and now I am carrying his child,” Gonzalez was recorded saying.

Lt. Col. Kim Spadaro, president of the American Jail Association, has seen her share of corrupted correctional officers, both male and female.

“In general, when the men do these things, the men do it to make the money,” said Spadaro, who is the head of the Broward County (Fla.) Department of Detention, where about 34 percent of the officers are female. “The women do it because they’ve fallen in love.”

There was surely some of that in this Baltimore case. According to the indictment, investigators found an operating manual of sorts used by BGF that detailed “how new BGF recruits are taught to target a specific stereotype of a CO [correctional officer], specifically women with low self-esteem, insecurities and certain physical attributes.”

Once seduced, the women saw themselves as the wives and girlfriends of White and his associates.

In a jail like Baltimore’s, where local convicts are guarded by local officers, there’s a toxic social dynamic, Smith reminded me. On the outside, in these communities where women far outnumber men, the men have all the cards, she said. But when the men are locked up and women have the keys, the scenario is flipped.

Seduction may be about power, Smith said. A woman can have any man she wants. And he’s usually begging for her attention.

Remember Abu Ghraib and Army Pfc. Lynndie R. England , who was a 21-year-old reservist when pictures surfaced of her holding a leash tied to the neck of a naked Iraqi prisoner?

What was missing there is the same thing that has been missing at the Baltimore City Detention Center: oversight.

Female guards aren’t really the problem; incompetent bosses are. If women weren’t there, White and BGF might have been trying to figure out a way to use money and power to corrupt male guards.

As long as there has been work, there have been men who have screwed it up. Dirty cops, corrupt bankers, shady businessmen, filthy politicians, molesting dentists. At no point do we say, “Men don’t belong in this field.”

Quite simply, corrupt people don’t belong in this field. And these female guards need to get booted as far and as hard as any man would.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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