SORDID BARELY describes recent happenings at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where a joint federal-state investigation revealed a virtual takeover of the facility by violent inmate gang members and corrupt correctional officers. Guards smuggled in drugs — to supply the gang’s trafficking business on the inside — as well as cellphones and debit cards. Female officers frequently had sex with inmates; four guards even bore gang leader Tavon White’s children.
Maryland’s U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein has indicted 44 people so far, including 27 correctional officers. Fifteen of the accused have pleaded guilty to various charges; seven are guards. And now comes the General Assembly with its proposals to prevent any repetition of a scandal that shocked the country — and embarrassed the legislature and the governor, Martin O’Malley (D), on whose watch it occurred. A joint commission made up of delegates and senators issued its report on Wednesday, urging the state to replace the decrepit and dangerous Baltimore facility, hire hundreds of officers, give new hires more training, weed out gang members from the pool of guard applicants with lie detector tests, and increase the penalties for smuggling contraband.
These recommendations and others in the report are helpful, as far as they go. Certainly the ancient Baltimore jail, with its bad plumbing and poor internal sightlines, could not have been better designed to demoralize staff and facilitate inmate misconduct; proposals to replace it are not new. Coming up with the half-billion dollars or so that it would take to construct a new jail is a long-term proposition, however, not a deterrent to corruption in the here and now.
And the commission mostly ducked a key short-term issue — rebuilding management’s power to discipline unionized correctional officers, which was eroded by the enactment of a 2010 law known as the “correctional officers’ bill of rights.” FBI wiretaps and agent affidavits in the case showed that corrupt guards felt protected by the elaborate procedural protections against administrative discipline in the law, which sailed through the General Assembly thanks in large part to Mr. O’Malley’s election-year support and that of the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The “bill of rights” proved “ineffective as a deterrent to [guards] smuggling contraband or getting sexually involved with gang members,” according to an FBI affidavit.
The commission’s report did not even address that explosive contention, except implicitly, by urging the General Assembly to permit emergency suspensions of officers without pay in cases of alleged contraband smuggling; incredibly, such suspensions are not allowed under the bill of rights. The panel balked at more ambitious changes, such as extending the period for which an officer may be suspended pending investigation from the current 90 days to a year. The General Assembly should take that proposal up next year, with the backing of the O’Malley administration, we hope. Someday Maryland’s taxpayers can, and probably should, build a new jail for Baltimore. In return, they’re entitled to a facility where management is fully empowered to keep order among inmates and officers alike.