Maryland lawmakers reacted coolly Tuesday to news that Gov. Martin O’Malley named a task force to weed out corruption and gang problems at the state’s jail in Baltimore, saying the legislature had not been consulted and would take cues about reforms from its own probe, beginning next week.
The task force is the second initiative announced by O’Malley (D) since a federal indictment unsealed last month alleged that a violent prison gang had all but taken over Maryland’s largest state-run jail. With a steady stream of cellphones and drugs smuggled into the facility by state corrections officers, members of the Black Guerilla Family ran a vast criminal conspiracy inside the Baltimore City Detention Center, the indictment alleged. It also alleged that one incarcerated gang member fathered five children with four female guards.
O’Malley’s 10-member task force — composed of corrections investigators, Maryland State Police and a Baltimore prosecutor — would increase sweeps of prison cells for contraband, review jail correspondence and phone calls, and step up more complex investigations, including wiretaps, stings and grand jury investigations. Previously, O’Malley said the state would accelerate a pilot program to block cellphone calls inside the facility.
Plans for the task force, however, became public the same day The Washington Post reported that the state has fewer than one full-fledged investigator per corrections facility and no investigators on site with arrest powers. The Post also reported that the department has relied heavily on forced resignations to push out allegedly corrupt officers and that one of the 13 guards indicted last month had been allowed to resign during a previous investigation into her role in a prison stabbing by gang members. She returned to work in 2007 with no mark on her personnel record.
“It’s ugly, and the deeper you get, the worse it gets,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), a member of the rarely used Legislative Policy Committee, which is scheduled to convene next week to hold a hearing on the jail issue.
Alexandra Hughes, spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said in an e-mail that the corrections department’s disciplinary and hiring processes would be addressed next week at the hearing. She stressed that the hearing is the first step. After the hearing, the legislature will set up a task force of its own to determine policy and budgetary fixes that can be put into motion during next year’s General Assembly session, which begins in January.
Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. (Baltimore County), a retired police officer and one of several House Republicans who have seized on the failures at the jail, said O’Malley’s task force was insufficient for the challenge at hand.
“They are taking these investigators from the prisons, which are already short-staffed,” Cluster said, “and it’s not just about the jail. We need to expand this investigation statewide and make sure that all of our prisons are clean” of corruption.