BALTIMORE — Inside the Baltimore City Detention Center, gang members used smuggled cellphones, dealt drugs and had sex with corrupt guards — several of whom they impregnated — who helped them as they ran operations of the Black Guerilla Family, according to court papers in a case alleging widespread corruption at the state-run facility.
"This is my jail, you understand that," Tavon "Bulldog" White told a friend in a January 2013 call, according to the documents. "I make every final call in this jail ... everything come to me."
"Whatever I say is law," White, a member of the gang that took root in Baltimore's jails in the 1990s, proclaimed in a call a month later. "Like I am the law."
Black Guerilla Family members worked with guards to smuggle drugs and cellphones — crucial for the gang to conduct business on the outside — into the jail and other correctional facilities, according to a 2013 federal indictment charging White, 16 other inmates and 27 correctional officers with conspiracy, drug distribution or money laundering charges. Prosecutors also say the ring involved sex between inmates and guards, which led to four officers becoming pregnant.
Nearly all of those charged, including White, accepted plea deals. Starting Wednesday, two inmates, five correctional officers and another state employee will go on trial.
The case reveals details about how inmates controlled the guards tasked with supervising them and provides a glimpse into the strategies of the Black Guerilla Family's operations both on the streets and behind bars. The case also sparked fierce backlash and harsh criticism, leading then-Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Gary Maynard to resign.
Since the indictment, the Public Safety Department has increased personnel in its intelligence and investigations unit and is developing a polygraph unit that can test guard candidates, spokesman Mark Vernarelli said. The department invested $4 million in technology that throws a virtual net over the facility to block calls on unauthorized cellphones. And since the indictment, the facility is searched at least once a week, he said.
Several new laws were passed this year to try to strengthen security and ensure oversight. One enables the state to remove officers from an institution without pay for bringing a cellphone or charger into a facility, in addition to drugs and alcohol. Another raises fines for visitors who smuggle electronics to inmates and increases jail time for inmates caught with contraband.
While the most recent scandal made national headlines, it is not the first time authorities have tried to dismantle Black Guerilla Family's stronghold in Baltimore's jails.
Founded in San Francisco in the 1960s, Black Guerilla Family began taking root in Maryland in the 1990s, according to federal investigators. In 2008, BGF became the dominant gang at the jail, where members established a monopoly over the drug trade through fear, violence, witness retaliation and control of guards.
The next year, a seven-month federal investigation produced 24 indictments against BGF members and associates in Baltimore, four of whom were state corrections officers.
One defendant in that case, Eric Brown, complained on a jailhouse phone call that he was unable to smuggle lobster into the maximum-security facility where he was incarcerated. Instead, he and other BGF members settled for "salmon with shrimp" and "crab imperial," in addition to champagne and Grey Goose vodka, according to court papers.
Even with improvements and upgrades and increased scrutiny, BGF maintains its stronghold in the jail, according to detective Jonathan Hayden, who testified in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Tuesday at a hearing in a separate case against 38 BGF members and associates and 10 others accused of dealing drugs.
"They still have quite a bit of control, especially within the 'working men,'" Hayden said, referring to inmates assigned janitorial, food service or laundry jobs. "They still have a very good highway of information flowing from the jail onto the street."
Maryland State Del. Michael Smigiel, who shortly after the indictments toured the Baltimore City Detention Center and called it a "kennel for humans," said more work needs to be done to stabilize the deeply troubled facility, particularly raising the standards for hiring corrections officers.
"They took care of a specific situation but not the systemic problem," Smigiel said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, eight defendants begin an eight-week trial. Prosecutors allege that Joseph "Monster" Young, a Black Guerilla Family floor boss at the jail, administered punishments to two inmates suspected of stealing cellphones from another gang member. Russell Carrington, or "Rutt," stands accused of trying to recruit correctional officers to help smuggle contraband.
The other defendants are corrections officers whose alleged crimes include helping BGF members smuggle contraband into the jail and dole out beatings to inmates with impunity. Prosecutors say one corrections officer, Riccole Hall, accepted bribes in exchange for her help smuggling in contraband. Hall was one of three corrections officers on a review board tasked with hearing cases against corrections officers suspected of violating department rules.
Another officer on trial is Clarissa Clayton, who prosecutors say opened a cell door so a BGF member could administer a punishment to another inmate. Her attorney, Kevin McCants, said Clayton is innocent.
"It's ridiculous," McCants said Tuesday. "There's no way to know what will happen when you open a cell door."