April 27, 2013

ONE FEMALE corrections officer had the name of an inmate tattooed on her wrist. Another had the same inmate’s name tattooed on her neck. Both guards, who worked at Baltimore’s main jail, were in long-term sexual relationships with the inmate, Tavon White; he is described in a federal racketeering and drug indictment as the kingpin of a ruthless gang that ran roughshod over the jail, peddling contraband in collusion with corrupt guards.

The indictment, unsealed Tuesday by U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, paints a troubling picture of inmates, the Black Guerrilla Family, who literally took over the asylum — the Baltimore City Detention Center. And it raises unsettling questions about policies, procedures and personnel at the Maryland Department of Corrections, which lost control of the facility and was forced to appeal to the feds for help.

Seven inmates, 13 officers and five outside accomplices were charged in the indictment, which described a wide-ranging conspiracy dating from 2009 to smuggle into the jail and distribute narcotics, cell phones and other contraband. Gang members allegedly bribed female corrections officers with cash, jewelry and other items and ran things in the jail while engaging in robbery, assault, extortion, witness retaliation, money-laundering and obstruction of justice.

As Mr. White put it in a conversation with one of the indicted jailers, which was secretly recorded by the FBI, “My word is law.”

Gary D. Maynard, the Maryland corrections secretary, turned to the feds in 2011. That was the right call. But how did things spin so badly out of control before that?

Although corrections officials were aware of problems for some time, they appear not to have taken effective steps to discipline guards or tighten security procedures to stop the flow of drugs and other contraband into the facility. Guards allegedly smuggling the goods easily eluded detection at the jail’s entrances. Given that failure, it’s reasonable to expect that senior figures at the jail, and possibly higher-ups in the corrections department, should also be held accountable.

Senior lawmakers in Annapolis are calling for scrutiny of the state’s entire corrections system, including its system of hiring and recruiting guards. They might also examine whether state laws affording protections to corrections officers have been used to shield them from effective disciplinary measures. According to an FBI affidavit, jail guards suspected of wrongdoing were often transferred but faced no harsher sanction.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), having won virtually every major legislative initiative on his agenda, says he is turning his attention to making state government work better in his last two years in office. He should start with a thorough review of the corrections department. Marylanders deserve to know whether the corruption that enveloped the jail in Baltimore has infected facilities around the state.