Corrections reform never an O'Malley priority

Before BGF scandal at jail, there was another on his watch

May 01, 2013|Dan Rodricks

With a straight face, the Maryland governor says the sex-and-drugs scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, including the alleged corruption of 13 corrections officers, is a "positive achievement." He claims his corrections secretary, Gary Maynard, established a state-federal task force to investigate the corrupting influence of the Black Guerrilla Family while some of the gang's members, including Tavon "I'm Your Daddy" White, were in the BCDC, a state-run facility.

"We initiated this task force with this goal in mind of going after gangs," Martin O'Malley says.

Pardon me, but I tend to be a little skeptical about what this governor says when it comes to matters of criminal justice. And, of course, when you're running for president, you have to spin anything that looks as if it has a remote chance of tarnishing your record.

So let's go over a couple of things.

First, last week's indictment of 25 people, including the corrections officers, was not the first time federal authorities have busted BGF members and their jailers for allegedly running a criminal enterprise in a state institution during the O'Malley administration.

O'Malley took office in January 2007. He brought Maynard from Iowa shortly thereafter. In 2009, the feds charged 24 people, including four corrections officers, on narcotics and weapons charges after a seven-month investigation of the Metropolitan Transition Center, the former Maryland Penitentiary, in Baltimore.

From their cells, members of the Black Guerrilla Family, including its leader, 40-year-old Eric Brown, dined on salmon, shrimp and crab imperial, sipped Grey Goose vodka and enjoyed cigars, according to federal court documents. It was how they relaxed after directing drug deals, extorting protection money from other inmates and arranging attacks on witnesses and rival gang members — all with the help of prison officers. One was accused of selling sex to inmates in the prison kitchen. (Brown pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy that included extortion and smuggling.)

At the time, there was talk of joint state-federal cooperation, but the 2009 bust was mostly a federal show. At the time, Maynard said: "I have worked in prison systems in three other states, and I have not [before] been faced with the challenges we have here," a statement that, in retrospect, suggests he might not have been qualified for the job O'Malley hired him to do.

Or maybe O'Malley, the tough-on-crime former prosecutor and mayor of Baltimore, didn't really have a clue about gang infiltration in Maryland institutions.

Tavon White got busy taking over at the BCDC the same year the feds took Eric Brown down at the MTC, which gets us to another reason for skepticism about O'Malley's "positive achievement" spin.

The FBI's regional director says White pretty much took control of the BCDC — and started fathering children with four corrections officers — from the day in 2009 that he arrived there to await trial on attempted murder.

That was four years ago. We're told that the task force began investigating White and BGF activities in February 2011. What does that mean? That for two years Maynard or the wardens he appointed didn't know what was going on at the BCDC? That the feds let White do his thing at the jail for a few years so they could cast as wide a net as possible?

These are tough cases to make, no doubt, so that explains some of the timeline.

But O'Malley makes it sound like the state was part of an ongoing sting operation, biding time while more and more corrections officers and gang members walked into the federal trap.

Here's the thing about O'Malley and prisons. Aside from closing down the House of Correction in Jessup, he's done nothing in terms of reform. Prisons are not a priority; there are no votes there.

And no, opposing the death penalty in a blue state does not make O'Malley a corrections reformer. O'Malley has always liked to play tough guy. He's as calculating a politician as we'll ever see in Maryland, and his opposition to the death penalty neutralized criticism, registered while he was mayor and pushing zero-tolerance policing, that he's just another post-Willie Horton, Clintonesque tough-on-crime Democrat.

O'Malley is a firm supporter of the war on drugs. Notably, during his first term, he opposed a relatively modest change in state law that would have given Maryland judges more discretion in how they sentence low-level, nonviolent drug dealers who typically sell drugs to pay for their own habits. At the time, O'Malley called drug-dealing a "violent crime" that needed to be punished.

This is the same governor who likes to keep behind bars dozens of aging inmates who have won recommendations for release from the Maryland Parole Commission.

O'Malley, while ably managing the state through tough economic times, shows no instinct for bold changes; he's hardly a progressive reformer. A reformer would challenge the status quo and speak out against the war on drugs that gives rise to the deadly dealer gangs like the BGF. A reformer would demand that we put "corrections" back into corrections and achieve better long-term results by reducing recidivism among the thousands of nonviolent offenders who inhabit our prisons.

That would be a "positive achievement."

drodricks@baltsun.com

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