May 27, 2013

TAVON WHITE, the imprisoned gang leader who allegedly treated Baltimore’s main jail as his fief, its guards as his concubines and his fellow inmates as enforcers, has been transferred to federal custody; for now, he is no longer Maryland’s problem.

But the revelations (and an indictment) related to Mr. White’s alleged jailhouse criminal enterprise continue to embarrass the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Repairing their reputation will depend largely on how seriously they undertake muscular reforms.

So far the signs are mixed. Despite Mr. O’Malley’s insistence that he has “zero tolerance for corruption,” he has called for nothing beyond a “review” of an elaborate code of workplace protections for corrections officers that the FBI says shielded crooked officers from being disciplined, transferred or fired at the Baltimore jail. The so-called corrections officers’ “bill of rights,” enshrined in legislation pushed by the guards’ union and backed by Mr. O’Malley, was enacted in 2010.

Nor has the governor ordered the state police to replace corrections officers at the entrances to the jail in Baltimore. Those entrances have proved exceptionally porous in recent years as corrupt guards, acting at the behest of inmates, turned a blind eye to cellphones, narcotics and other contraband being smuggled into the facility.

Other moves, both symbolic and practical, appear more promising. Gary D. Maynard, Maryland’s corrections chief, has been working out of the jail for the last month, theoretically giving him a closer look at the Baltimore facility’s operations. Corrections officials have also studied technological means to tighten their grip on contraband, especially cellphones.

Cellphones, allegedly used by Mr. White and his gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, to run a narcotics ring, are as subversive as they are pervasive in jails and prisons. In the fiscal year that ended last July, officials seized more than 1,300 of them from inmates at various facilities — and probably only scraped the surface of the problem. They are now looking to expand a pilot project that enables authorities to block cellphone service unless devices are on an approved list. Lawmakers should also toughen penalties on inmates caught with phones; bills to do just that have failed in recent years in Annapolis.

At the Baltimore facility, the chief of security has been removed from her job — and has said she will fight to regain it — but no other heads have rolled since the federal indictment was unsealed last month. Given the scale of the rot at the jail, that seems an anemic response.

Mr. O’Malley has cultivated an image as a wonkish technocrat intent on fine-tuning and finding efficiencies in state government. But the evidence suggests that he has not made a priority of the state’s troubled network of corrections facilities, despite well-publicized federal investigations dating to early in his first term.

The governor has enjoyed enormous success in pushing his legislative agenda in Annapolis. In the absence of a vigorous campaign to clean up the state’s jails and prisons, however, they will remain a stain on his legacy.