By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009
Eric Brown wanted lobster, and as a gang leader in a Maryland state prison, he seemed to think he was entitled to it. After all, with the help of prison employees, the inmate already had access to champagne and Grey Goose, federal prosecutors said yesterday.
In a phone call this month to his wife, as investigators secretly listened in, Brown complained that his smuggling operation had come up short -- that he had to settle for salmon with shrimp and crab imperial. And, prosecutors said, he asked her for a "good cigar" to go with his top-shelf vodka.
Brown is among two dozen defendants, four of them current or former state prison employees, charged with drug conspiracy and other offenses in indictments unsealed yesterday. U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein called the investigation the biggest federal probe of prison corruption in Maryland in recent memory.
Prosecutors said the gang known as Black Guerilla Family recruited prison employees and used hidden compartments in shoes to smuggle heroin, ecstasy, tobacco, cellphones and other contraband into prisons in Maryland and elsewhere.
The gang members sold the drugs to other inmates, prosecutors said. They allegedly used the cellphones to communicate with associates outside, approving targets for robberies and arranging attacks on cooperating witnesses.
Rosenstein said he expected the prosecution to send a powerful message. "I think it will be a warning to corrections employees about the potential consequence if they start working for the inmates," he said.
At a news conference in Baltimore, Rosenstein said more than 100 federal, state and local agents had carried out a series of searches and arrests this week. Led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, teams descended on homes and prisons cells in coordinated raids intended to prevent targets from tipping off others in the gang.
Prison guard Asia Burrus, 22, was arrested while on duty at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore. Guard Musheerah Habeebullah, 27, was arrested at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. Both were in uniform when they were brought to federal court in Baltimore for their initial appearances before a magistrate judge.
Standing beside Secretary Gary D. Maynard, the head of the state agency that oversees prisons, Rosenstein said the facilities present a massive challenge for law enforcement.
"It's like having a city where a hundred percent of the residents are criminals," he said. "The challenges that our corrections officials face . . . are tremendous."
Maynard said gang activity in Maryland's prisons is more pervasive than what he encountered in the three other state prison systems he has run. Even so, he said he thinks the alleged corruption uncovered here among prison workers, while serious, is not widespread.
A 98-page affidavit filed in connection with the indictments appears to implicate at least a half-dozen unnamed guards who have not been charged; the investigation is continuing.
Also indicted was Terry Robe, 26, a prison guard who officials said was fired recently for trying to smuggle a phone into the Baltimore prison where Brown, 40, was being held. Takevia Smith, 24, a kitchen employee at the same prison until she resigned amid suspicions of smuggling contraband, was also indicted.
The investigation, which began in September, involved surveillance of eight cellphones used by the gang members and their associates, according to the affidavit.
Rosenstein said inmates are cautious about using monitored prison phones to run criminal enterprises and intimidate witnesses. He said they have been less careful about cellphones. The investigation represents the first time the DEA office in Baltimore has provided real-time inside intelligence to the state department of corrections, officials said.
In a conversation recorded last month and excerpted in the affidavit, Brown and Habeebullah discussed the number of corrupt guards at an unnamed prison.
"You know, down there, there are so many people who doing [expletive], you know it's impossible, it's impossible to be the only one," Habeebullah is quoted as saying. "It's impossible. It's impossible."
"Right, right," the inmate replied, "everybody going to get their thing on."
Habeebullah is quoted as saying it used to be that just one officer on a shift might smuggle contraband.
"Now you got, like, seven, eight people," she said. "Soon it's the whole [expletive] shift."