BALTIMORE — Correctional officers at Maryland's largest state prison for years helped scores of inmates smuggle narcotics, tobacco, pornography and cellphones into the facility in exchange for money and sex, according to a pair of sweeping federal indictments against 35 inmates, 18 jail guards and 27 "outside facilitators" unsealed Wednesday.
The indictments allege a racketeering scheme at the East and West compounds of the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Maryland, that involved smuggling heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and Suboxone, among other narcotics, into the jail in exchange for cash, money orders and in some cases, sexual favors. The indictments say guards were able to sneak the contraband past security screenings and deliver it to inmates in their cells or at pre-arranged "stash" locations, laundry rooms, staff bathrooms and other areas.
The contraband product sold for a tremendous profit, Rosenstein said. According to the indictment, a single strip of Suboxone, a prescription opioid that sells for $3 on the street, could fetch up to $50 inside the prison. A $20 can of tobacco could go for $250.
"Prison corruption is a longstanding, deeply rooted systemic problem that can only be solved by a combination of criminal prosecutions and policy changes," said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein in a statement.
With 80 defendants, the indictments comprise the largest single federal case in Maryland's history.
Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stephen Moyer said he assigned eight investigators to work with the FBI and other federal agencies to crack the case. The indictments, he said, "send a strong message that we will no longer tolerate corruption committed by a few tarnishing the good work of our 10,500 dedicated and committed department employees."
According to the indictment, defendant correctional officers routinely warned inmates when prison administrators were planning to conduct cellphone searches. In some cases, when participating prison guards learned that inmates were supplying administrators with information, or "snitching," they would alert other inmates and encourage them to retaliate, often using violence. Twice in July, prison guards encouraged inmates to stab other prisoners. Two inmates and two guards were charged with civil rights violations stemming from the attacks, Rosenstein said.
Rosenstein said the investigation began in 2013 after a corrections officer at the facility caught wind of the scheme and brought it to the attention of the local prosecutor, who in turned handed it over to federal authorities. He added that the scheme was perpetrated not by managers, but mostly by low-level correctional officers.
"Senior management of the facilities not only wasn't involved in the corruption, but was actively working to combat it," Rosenstein said, adding that high-level staff, including the prison's warden, was working with the FBI and other federal partners throughout the investigation.
The indictments come on the heels of a high-profile prison contraband scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013 in which 44 people were federally indicted. That racketeering scheme's ringleader, Tavon White, who was also a known member of the Black Guerrilla Family gang, impregnated several prison guards and on a recorded telephone line famously told a friend on the outside, "This is my jail." White pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison after agreeing to testify against his co-defendants.
According to this indictment, prisoners and guards were very much aware of the Baltimore case, as evidenced by recorded conversations of corrections officers discussing it. The primary difference in this case, however, is that the conspiracy was not perpetrated by one particular gang, but rather members of several different criminal organizations.
Gov. Larry Hogan, who was responsible for making the decision to close the Baltimore City Detention Center last year, said in a statement that his administration "has been and will remain steadfastly committed to stopping this kind of illicit behavior."
The investigation was already underway when Moyer became public safety secretary in January of last year. In the past few months Moyer said the agency has established a 24-hour tip line for guards to make anonymous reports about observed misconduct, and has begun polygraphing all prospective corrections officers. Moyer also overhauled the human resources department to ensure higher hiring standards. But an increased focus on vetting applicants means the department has hired just 300 new guards out of about 4,000 candidates. Roughly 700 positions are still vacant, Moyer said.
AFSCME, a union representing correctional officers, released a statement Wednesday asking for more staff.
"No one wants Correctional Officers to be honest more than fellow Correctional Officers, who depend on their co-workers to have their backs," it read. "The state needs to hire more officers."