The scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where 13 female guards were indicted in April for essentially handing over control of the jail to gang members, may be partly the legacy of a short-lived state experiment of hiring corrections officers as young as 18.
Seven of the 13 officers accused of smuggling drugs and cellphones for the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) were barely out of high school when they became corrections officers, court records and information provided by corrections officials show.
Youth and inexperience may have marked some officers as easier prey for the highly organized prison gang, corrections experts said, thus adding age to a broken disciplinary system, ineffective training and poor supervision as factors making the detention center fertile ground for corruption.
The seven indicted officers who went to work behind bars guarding hundreds of inmates before they were legally able to drink were hired over a six-year period that began in 2002, when the state lowered the hiring age from 21 to 18. The change was suggested by local jailers in more rural parts of the state such as St. Mary’s and Cecil counties who were having trouble finding qualified candidates, said William Sondervan, a former top corrections official who was involved in the decision and worried that 18 was too young.
A number of county jails in Maryland still hire officers younger than 21, including Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. But jails in many cities, including the District, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles, require corrections officers to be at least 21.
Verjeana M. Jacobs, a former president of the Prince George’s Correctional Officers Association and former chairman of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, said that younger guards are more easily manipulated by inmates.
“Clearly, age matters,” said Jacobs, who spent 23 years in corrections before retiring last year. “Right out of high school, they don’t have the maturity to process and distinguish when people are trying to influence you.”
Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, has been a longtime backer of the higher minimum age because “he believes that additional maturity is better for both correctional officers and the organization, in terms of understanding the complexities of the correctional profession,” spokesman Rick Binetti said.
But corrections officials are reluctant to point to age as a factor in the Baltimore City Detention Center scandal.
“To be clear, the issues with the 13 indicted BCDC officers have to do with their own personal choices and integrity,” Binetti said. “Regardless of how old they were when they were hired, they are adults. As adults, they allegedly made terrible choices, and they are being held accountable.”
The American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association do not offer guidelines for minimum age requirements for corrections officers.
“Maturity, not age, is a qualifying factor that law enforcement agencies look for in an individual during the hiring process,” said Esteban Gonzalez, president of the jail association.
Corrections experts said there is little research on what role age may play in an officer’s vulnerability to corruption. Federal investigators said in charging documents that BGF members are taught how to prey on female officers based on the officers’ appearance, low self-esteem and other insecurities. More than 60 percent of the officers at the detention center are female.
Herbert Berry Jr., who represents the Maryland Correctional Law Enforcement Union, which sometimes represents officers in disciplinary cases, said corruption has less to do with age and gender than with training.
Prison guards in Maryland don’t receive enough training, he said, a problem that state corrections officials have been trying to address for several years. Most of the indicted officers were hired before 2010 and spent just four weeks in corrections officer academy training. The academy has since been extended to six weeks.
Once on the job, American Correctional Association standards dictate 40 hours of in-service training, compared to the 18 that Maryland corrections officers now receive. Binetti said an effort is underway to raise that figure to 40.
“It’s not a problem bringing in young people. You can go into the military at 18,” Berry said. “The problem is giving them cursory training. Then they threw them to the wolves.”
Last month, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced a series of measures aimed at combating corruption at the jail, including enhanced security procedures, polygraphs for officers and a review of disciplinary policies.
The scope of the collusion at the detention center astonished law enforcement officials around the country. Four of the indicted officers became pregnant by Black Guerilla Family leader Tavon White and two had his name tattooed on their bodies.
The minimum age for Maryland corrections officers was dropped to 18 in 2002 by the Maryland Correctional Training Commission, which sets hiring practices and training standards for state, local and privately operated prisons and jails. At first, the proposal split the commission, recalled Sondervan, director of criminal justice, investigative forensics and legal studies at the University of Maryland University College, who represented the state prison system on the commission.
“I talked to wardens” at the state-run prisons, he said. “It was pretty unanimous that 18 was too young and that it should stay 21.”
Sondervan and other opponents eventually signed off on the age change with the understanding that the wardens would not have to hire anyone younger than 21 if they didn’t want to. After the commission approved the change, however, the state attorney general’s office issued a legal opinion saying that every correctional institution in the state had to abide by it.
The effect was obvious to one state lawmaker after touring correctional facilities across the state. Del. Charles E. Barkley (D-Montgomery) said he was struck by how young the guards were.
That was also true inside the Baltimore jail, where the 625 guards are vastly outnumbered by more than 2,000 inmates awaiting trial for everything from murder to drunk driving.
In 2007, nearly one in five new hires at the detention center and the central booking office next door to the jail were under 21, according to a report prepared by legislative staff.
That year, the General Assembly had already raised the minimum age for officers in most state prisons back to 21, with the exception of honorably discharged veterans and reservists. But the detention center and a few other facilities were not affected by the shift.
In 2008, Barkley backed a successful bill to raise the age to 21 at the Baltimore jail. The change took effect in October 2008, corrections spokesman Erin Julius said.
By then, Ebonee Braswell, who’d been hired at 19 in the fall of 2005, had been a corrections officer for three years. Federal prosecutors allege that Braswell smuggled prescription pills into the detention center for gang members.
Among the other indicted young officers, Antonia Allison, Kimberly Dennis, Jasmin Jones and Vivian Matthews were also 19 when they started. Chania Brooks, one of the guards who allegedly became pregnant by gang leader White, was 20. So was Adrena Rice.
Attorneys for Braswell, Dennis, Jones, and Rice declined to comment on how their clients intend to plead. Brooks, Matthews, and Allison intend to plead not guilty, their lawyers said.
In hindsight, several current and former corrections administrators said, hiring teenagers to guard seasoned criminals was never a good idea.
“Most of us were not happy about it. The wardens, they just sucked it up and dealt with it,” Sondervan said. “If I had been advised that we’d all be stuck with it, I would have voted against it.”