Maryland officials on Wednesday approved a $40,000 settlement with a former inmate who alleged that he was repeatedly assaulted after trying to back out of a smuggling operation with a prison gang that included a corrections officer.
The drug-dealing scheme, which involved heroin and such contraband as tobacco and cellphones, was allegedly hatched in 2006 while Michael Smith was awaiting trial at the Baltimore jail that was at the center of sweeping federal indictments last week. Those indictments accuse 13 guards of colluding with another gang, the Black Guerilla Family, which authorities said had essentially taken over the institution: trafficking in drugs, laundering money and having sex with guards.
The settlement with Smith, approved on a 2 to 1 vote by Maryland’s Board of Public Works, comes as spotlights have already shone on deep-rooted gang activity as well as a recent spate of violence in the state’s prisons system. Seven inmates have been killed in Maryland since September.
Gary D. Maynard, the state’s corrections secretary, who has been under fire since last week’s indictments were announced, told the board Wednesday that with additional investigators, the department has been able to “root out” 89 corrections officers since 2010 for fraternizing with inmates or smuggling contraband. Some have been fired, he said, and others have resigned.
Maynard, who arrived in 2007, said that since the assaults against Smith, a great deal of work has been done to tackle corruption and improve management at what had been “one of the most violent prison systems in the country.”
A “hyperfocus” on gangs also includes a new database that has identified nearly 7,400 gang members since 2007, he said.
Smith said he was beaten three times in early 2007, once while restrained in a prison van, the others at the state prisons in Hagerstown and Jessup. The assault in the van was committed by an inmate who got free with the help of a corrections officer who later admitted to being a member of the Bloods gang, according to state lawyers. Smith initially sued for $1 million.
Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), the member of the board who voted against the settlement, said reforms have fallen far short.
“This is a systemic rot that existed not just at the Baltimore facility,” Franchot said. “It has festered apparently for six years. . . . I have relatives from all over the country calling me up and saying, ‘Wow, what’s going on in Maryland?’ ”
Franchot said prison personnel, not Maryland taxpayers, should be held responsible for any payout to Smith, who was released from prison last year.
The two other two board members, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), voted for the payment to Smith.
O’Malley, who took office in 2007, reiterated his continued support for Maynard, saying that he has his “full backing to do everything and anything” to combat gangs operating in state prisons. Earlier this week, O’Malley said the recent indictments were a “positive development” that reflected state and federal officials’ efforts to tackle corruption.
He also acknowledged that there are areas where the department can improve, including doing a better job “vetting” the guards it hires.
Kopp said that she found the allegations surrounding Smith’s beatings “very troubling” but that the settlement was in the state’s best interests. A memo by a state lawyer concluded that if the case was not settled, “a trial is likely to result in a verdict for the plaintiff.”
After the third attack, Smith received stitches in an eyelid and was treated for a concussion. After two days in the hospital, he stayed in a prison infirmary for two weeks, the memo said.
Smith alleged that while he was awaiting trial on a firearms charge at the Baltimore City Detention Center in late 2006, he entered into an arrangement with a corrupt corrections officer to smuggle in drugs and other contraband.
Smith alleged that the corrections officer threatened to put a bounty on him when he backed out of the deal. Attempts to reach an attorney for Smith were unsuccessful.
Maryland lawmakers have scheduled a hearing on persistent troubles in the state prison system for next week.
That move was prompted by the indictments, which allege that 13 female officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center smuggled in cellphones and drugs for gang members and even had sex with them. Four officers became pregnant as a result of trysts with one detainee, prosecutors said.
Members of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee have said they want to examine corruption at the Baltimore jail as well as violence in the system more broadly.
Daniel B. Vasquez, an expert in prison practices who worked as warden or deputy warden at several California facilities, said the seven inmate killings in Maryland facilities since September is “a lot in not quite a year.”
He said that because many of the cases occurred inside cells, possibly perpetrated by the slain men’s cellmates, prison officials should take a hard look at how they classify those who enter their facilities.
“His crime, the nature of his crime, the circumstances, his behavior during jail time or in other prisons,” Vasquez said. “You take a look at all of that. . . . More guards — it’s not really the complete answer to it. It’s the policies that you use to classify the inmates.”
Despite the recent increase, Maynard said Wednesday that the work of his department has made Maryland’s correctional facilities “one of the safer systems in the country” after a stretch where two officers were killed shortly before he took over.
During O’Malley’s first six years in office, there were 19 inmate deaths in prisons, compared with 25 in the preceding six years, according to department data.
Maynard said serious assaults on both inmates and prison staff have decreased significantly in recent years.
And he said the department has stepped up efforts to capture more contraband, including cellphones. Last year, he said, 1,312 cellphones were seized in Maryland prisons, a 77 percent increase from 2007.