In federal prison, Baltimore cops get no breaks

Fifteen officers convicted in kickback scheme

August 19, 2012|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Police officers convicted of a crime in Maryland and sentenced to state prison are typically housed in segregated areas for their safety, far from most other inmates.

But those prosecuted in U.S. District Court and sent to federal prison — like the 15 Baltimore officers recently convicted in a kickback scheme — will, for the most part, be thrown in with the rest of the convicts.

"Whether [inmates are] high profile, law enforcement, whatever the case may be, we aim to treat them like anybody else," said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Baltimore cops, who accepted money for steering drivers involved in accidents to a Rosedale auto repair shop, could be among the more unpopular prisoners during their stays, which range from eight to 42 months.

Most of the other inmates were put there by officers of some sort. And this particular group of police has the added disadvantage of being largely made up of so-called "snitches" who outed corrupt colleagues when making their plea deals with the Maryland U.S. attorney's office — a trait punishable by death in some criminal circles.

Defense lawyers expressed concern about the arrangement. They said the officers should be safe if they conduct themselves well, but there are no guarantees.

"In prison, you're going to have a high concentration of bad actors, so there is certainly" reason for concern, said Baltimore attorney Peter D. Ward, who represented former officer Jerry Diggs Jr. The bureau will do its best to mitigate risk, he said, adding, "They don't want to have anybody hurt any more than the person himself wants to get hurt."

Burke couldn't recall any recent retaliation against former officers, but he said the possibility is something the bureau considers. "Individuals that may have some sort of vendetta against one of our inmates, whether [it's because they have] a law enforcement background or they're someone who testified against others is a concern," he said.

Still, the federal system prefers to keep all inmates among the general population if possible, to streamline their management and allow them to take advantage of various programs, from educational and vocational opportunities to counseling.

The Baltimore 15 will be assessed and sorted like other prisoners, with most landing in "prison camps" if space allows, such as the one in Butner, N.C. — nicknamed "Camp Fluffy" — where money manager Bernard Madoff is serving time. At least one will wind up at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center, where some of the most notorious federal criminals are held while awaiting trial (think Gotti family).

But none is likely to get segregated housing unless there is an identifiable danger.

That's very different from the state system, where "protective custody" has become the norm for officers.

"It really makes it easier for us," said Wendell France, executive director for the central region within Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "The chance of them being victimized is minimized. It's a safety issue."

Before trial, that means officers are often kept out of the central booking facilities. Baltimore officer Gahiji Tshamba, who shot a former Marine to death during a bar fight, was housed in the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center while awaiting trial, for example.

"We moved him to the segregated unit at MRDCC basically for his protection as a police officer, so that he not be housed in the booking system with folks constantly coming and going who had new charges, and also to separate him from any potential involvement with staff he may know," France said.

After Tshamba was convicted of voluntary manslaughter last year, he was moved to the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, which has protective custody provisions, as does the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. Police sentenced to prison are usually housed in one of these facilities, though they can also be sent out of state under an agreement known as the Interstate Corrections Compact.

In protective custody they get the same privileges and activities as other prisoners, but they're among a smaller group. France said.

"It goes to potential vulnerability, it goes to intimidation that can occur sometimes at correctional facilities. We try to remove those elements to ensure that they and the staff are not drawn into conflicts," France said.

One officer is rumored to be held in a prison hospital wing for his safety and to receive mail addressed only to "John Doe," according to one criminal defense attorney. France said he "couldn't speak to that" but acknowledged that he knew who the officer was.

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