Maryland state prison officials said Wednesday that they approached federal investigators more than a year ago seeking help uncovering corruption and gang activity they suspected was going on in a jail.
As recently as three months ago, Maryland prison chief Gary D. Maynard said, his staff wanted to remove an alleged gang leader, Tavon White, from the Baltimore City Detention Center. But Maynard said his department agreed to keep White in place so as not to disrupt an FBI investigation.
“It was a calculated risk to leave him there so they could finish their investigation and move forward,” Maynard said in an interview Wednesday. “We knew that with him there, we could get more corrections staff who were involved with him and that we might be able to prosecute more people.”
The explanation came a day after a far-reaching prison corruption investigation became public, accusing more than a dozen Maryland corrections officers of helping a prison gang run a drug-trafficking operation from behind bars. Maynard appeared to be taking credit for helping launch the FBI investigation, but he offered little additional detail about what else state officials were doing — besides wanting to remove White from the facility — to end the corruption or make changes to prevent it from recurring.
Thirteen guards were charged this week with helping the Black Guerilla Family gang by smuggling cellphones, prescription pills and other contraband into the city jail in their underwear, shoes and hair. Four of the guards allegedly became pregnant by White, the central figure in the case.
Twelve of the guards were released from custody after their arrests and court appearances Tuesday. Several were reached at home or by phone but declined to comment. Friends and relatives of the accused guards said they were afraid for the officers’ safety.
In Cockeysville, Md., an accused officer, Chania Brooks, denied the charges and denied having had a child with White. Peeking out from a partially open door at her second-floor apartment, she smiled but said she couldn’t talk. “I don’t have a story to tell,” she said. Asked whether any colleagues were involved in the alleged corruption, she said, “I can’t speak for them.”
A second accused officer, Tiffany Linder, pulled up to her Severn townhouse Wednesday afternoon in a gray Dodge Charger, with a pink decal that read “Ms Pretty,” and walked straight into her home. Linder, who according to law enforcement officials is eight months pregnant with White’s child, was not taken into custody Tuesday. She is scheduled to appear in court next week.
Her uncle, James Linder, became emotional as he talked about the ordeal for his family. He called his niece “a beautiful person” who always worked hard to finish school and had never been in any kind of trouble before. He remembered warning her that she might come across “snakes” in the jail.
“I said to her, ‘Don’t pick up the snake even if he says, “I’m not going to bite you. I just want warmth.” ’ ” He expressed concern for his niece’s safety, given the violent reputation of the BGF.
Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, whose office is prosecuting the case, said that if officers are concerned about their safety, “that is certainly an issue their attorneys can discuss with our attorneys.”
Rosenstein confirmed that the FBI asked the corrections department to refrain from moving White while the wiretap investigation was underway. White was eventually moved in February.
Rosenstein called Maynard and his staff key partners in addressing prison gangs.
“Much of the information federal agents know about gang activity in the correctional facilities comes directly from” the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, he said in an e-mail. Maynard has “taken important steps to address problems arising from gang activity and cell phones in state correctional facilities. I am confident that he will continue to do so in response to this case.”
Despite the explanation from Maynard, scrutiny of the system continued Wednesday with Maryland’s elected leaders expressing a range of reactions — from outright anger to qualified support for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration. One question dominated above others: what to do about the problems the federal racketeering indictment exposed.
Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore) called the charges “just horrific” and asked for further explanation by O’Malley (D) and Maynard. “I think the governor needs to have a long conversation with Maynard and find out what the hell went wrong. There need to be some changes.” Other lawmakers said they would look for ways to tighten prison hiring standards and crack down on contraband brought into prisons.
Some were more sympathetic, and Maynard received votes of confidence from other Democrats and some Republicans. Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the administration deserves credit for taking part in a “very bold, aggressive and appropriate” prosecution.
“I wish all that stuff weren’t going on in Maryland prisons, but I’m glad that the U.S. attorney and the governor are pursuing it aggressively,” said Frosh, who is considering a run for attorney general next year. “Jails are full of criminals, and they engage in criminal activity. The question is how you best manage it.”
Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington), a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee who has worked on several issues related to prisons, called the corruption case “very disconcerting.” But, he added, “until I hear otherwise, I have full confidence that Gary Maynard is going to get to the bottom of this. I know he’s a committed reformer.”
White, the alleged gang leader, appeared in state court in Baltimore on Wednesday to face attempted murder charges in a separate case that was postponed until June. Jurors deadlocked in two previous trials .
Inside the city jail, union representative Archer Blackwell of AFSCME Council 67 said corrections officers still on the job are disappointed by the alleged behavior in the indictments. They are also concerned about their reputations and their own security, he said.
“It makes them wonder about whether their backs are covered and who’s doing what.”
Jennifer Jenkins, Theresa Vargas and John Wagner contributed to this report.