Lawmakers seek scrutiny of prisons in wake of Baltimore contraband case

April 28, 2013|By KAUSTUV BASU |
  • A poster displayed at the U.S. Attorney's office April 23 shows how investigators allege a prison gang arranged for contraband to be delivered to gang members in the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Associated Press

HAGERSTOWN — Some Washington County lawmakers are calling for another look at the state prison system and how the prisons are run after federal charges were filed against 13 female corrections officers, seven inmates and five others with alleged gang ties last week at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

The charges centered around an alleged plot to smuggle cellphones and drugs into the jail and other correctional facilities.

Leaders in the Maryland General Assembly were moving to address the issue, with the House Judiciary Committee scheduled to hold a hearing May 8.

Two local state lawmakers — Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, and Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick/Washington — serve on that committee and Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, is a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in the Maryland General Assembly.

The committees enact measures dealing with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Shank said he had been in touch with Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for a possible hearing. It was unclear last week whether the Senate committee would meet separately or if a joint hearing was being planned with the House committee.

A news release from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services after the indictments were made public said the investigation was launched after the department reached out to federal agencies.

“During the last five years, the department has focused its efforts on identifying and reducing gang activity behind prison walls,” the release said. “After a spate of violence in 2006, the department shut down the House of Correction and led a wide-reaching gang and intelligence-sharing initiative.”

The Associated Press reported that the indictment detailed alleged activities, including sex between inmates and guards that led to four of the officers becoming pregnant, one of them twice, by a man said to be a leader of the Black Guerilla Family.

Washington County lawmakers said they were aghast at the scale of gang activity detailed in the indictment.

“We need a hearing because we need to know what the plan is to address the issue,” Shank said.

He said the concentration of inmates at a prison or jail can lead to corruption.

“Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the business,” Shank said. “But we need a system and policies in place that discovers and prevents these incidents and ultimately punishes those responsible.”

Although incidents such as those being alleged in Baltimore are not alien to the criminal justice system, Shank said the specific allegations that surfaced last week seem to be a “concentrated problem” when it comes to officer misbehavior.

Shank praised Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, for exposing his department to “this level of scrutiny.”

“The other alternative was to pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said.

Shank, who served on a state task force dealing with prison violence in 2010, said gang activity in prison continues to be a statewide issue, including at the three state prisons south of Hagerstown — Maryland Correctional Training Center, Maryland Correctional Institution and Roxbury Correctional Institution.

“They have tried to get a handle on it,” Shank said. “But it is a difficult task to stamp out such activity.”

As for corrupt officers, he said “there is absolutely no doubt that there continues to be dirty (correctional) officers throughout the state.”

Shank said a few corrupt officers give the majority of officers who are honest and hardworking a bad name.

“But what happened in Baltimore goes well beyond anything that happened here,” he said.

Hough said he felt the problems with the state’s correctional system might be more deeply rooted.

“It is not something that is new,” Hough said, adding that what happened at Baltimore “might just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Although he, too, praised Maynard, Hough said he was frustrated by the Maryland General Assembly.

He gave an example from the recently concluded legislative session in Annapolis, during which a bill sponsored by Shank and Sen. Joseph M. Getty, R-Baltimore County/Carroll, that would have resulted in harsher penalties for those trying to smuggle or smuggling cellphones into jails and prisons stalled after a cross-filed version in the House failed by one vote to pass in committee.

“The contraband issue needs to be addressed,” Shank said.
Parrott questioned the wisdom of having female correctional officers in charge of male inmates.

“We should rethink the issue and see if there should be male correctional officers guarding male inmates. Maybe that is one way of trying to address the problem,” Parrott said.

“I’m not going to point fingers right now ... but we do need to look at the system and how this tragic situation was allowed to occur,” Parrott said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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