The big question about Baltimore's jail scandal

Our view: The O'Malley administration could have been tougher on corruption before April's federal indictment; why wasn't it?

June 06, 2013

Points to Del. Dereck Davis for the question of the day at the General Assembly's hearing on the pervasive corruption at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center. Corrections secretary Gary Maynard had just made an extensive presentation about the various successes of his term and the steps he has taken since federal prosecutors brought indictments against 13 guards and 12 inmates at the BCDC. If you have known since 2009 that the Black Guerrilla Family gang was a major problem in that facility, Mr. Davis asked, why didn't you take any of these steps before?

That is precisely the issue that the O'Malley administration has glossed over since the April indictments. Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mr. Maynard have sought to steer the conversation toward the fact that they voluntarily sought the assistance of the FBI and U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein to investigate BGF activities and corruption at the city detention center. And they have been quick to highlight Mr. Maynard's efforts to close the House of Correction within weeks after he came to Maryland. Those two themes made up the bulk of Mr. Maynard's presentation at today's hearing.

Indeed, calling in the feds was the right thing, and closing the House of Correction was necessary and an impressive feat. It is also true that violence behind bars has decreased during the O'Malley administration. But those accomplishments do not erase the fact that poor management, lax discipline and faulty procedures enabled a nearly unchecked flow of contraband — chiefly cellphones and drugs — into the city detention center, nor that BGF member Tavon White could, justifiably, boast that he ran the jail.

The state's request for and cooperation with the federal investigation do not absolve the O'Malley administration of responsibility for what went on in the jail during the last two years — not to mention for what happened in the years before the probe began. Mr. Maynard testified today that at some points during the investigation, federal authorities would request that corrections officials not transfer particular inmates or corrections officers suspected of corruption to a different facility. But, Mr. Maynard said, that did not stop them from trying to make the jail secure. "They were not holding back or waiting," he testified.

But it's obvious from the responses Mr. Maynard and the governor have made in the last few weeks that there was much more that could have been done. Mr. O'Malley issued a news release Monday detailing nine steps corrections officials have taken since the indictments, including the rotation of guards who conduct searches at the jail's entrance, increasing the number of security cameras, augmenting training and instituting a randomized system for staff searches. The governor listed eight other reforms in the works, including polygraph tests for correctional officer applicants, beefing up the corrections department's internal affairs division and investigating the deployment of full body scanners at each facility in the system. Mr. Maynard also announced at the hearing that the state is entering into an emergency contract to deploy "managed access" technology at the detention center to render contraband cellphones useless.

Those are positive steps, though not a panacea. Polygraph tests for correctional officer applicants may be of limited utility, for example, given Mr. Maynard's testimony that corrupt guards generally don't start out that way but become corrupted during the course of their employment, often unwittingly. The key to cleaning up this mess is going to be continued vigilance and resistance to the notion that any particular actions will magically solve what is clearly a deep-rooted and long-running problem. Mr. Maynard's decision in the wake of the indictments to move his office into the detention center is a good sign on that front; the governor's continued efforts to accentuate the positive are not.

To that end, the creation of a joint House-Senate task force to study the correctional system and recommend legislative and budgetary actions to prevent this kind of corruption is a positive step. The panel, which was officially announced today, includes members of both parties, including some who have been critical of the administration's handling of jail corruption — a crucial counterbalance to the possibility that a Democratic legislature would go easy on a Democratic governor.

That said, the task force will need to do better than the Legislative Policy Committee, whose members — even the Republicans — largely shied away from probing questions today. For example, they barely touched on the issue of ineffective disciplinary procedures for corrupt correctional officers that was detailed in the federal indictment, and they made no inquiry of Mr. Maynard about whether the 2010 Correctional Officers' Bill of rights might have contributed to the problem. Some legislative task forces lead to important reforms, and some accomplish nothing. We can't afford to let this one fade into obscurity.

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