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Inside Job

Evidence of corruption in Maryland prisons has been mounting. Can current reform measures clean things up?

Alex Fine

By Van Smith | Posted 5/12/2010

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At about 9 p.m. on March 8, 2009, Musheerah Habeebullah called Eric Brown to dish about people they know. Three things were notable about the call. First, Habeebullah was a correctional officer at the Metropolitan Transition Center (familiarly known as "the Pen") where Brown was, and is, an inmate. Second, even though they were talking on cell phones, not prison landlines, the call was being recorded. Third, the people they discussed were fellow corrections officers (COs) and inmates in the Maryland prison system who were doing business together.

They got to talking about one inmate who had recently transferred to the Pen from another institution, where he had monopolized the market for smuggled goods among inmates. He was finding the prison economy at the Pen much more competitive.

"You know down there, there are so many people who doing shit, you know it's impossible, it's impossible to be the only one," Habeebullah said of the Pen.

"Right, right, everybody going to get their thing on," Brown responded.

Habeebullah said that at the inmate's prior prison, only a small number of corrections officers helped smuggle goods to inmates--"like one on each shift that be really making moves." But at the Pen, "you got like seven, eight people. Soon it's the whole damn shift," she continued, so how "is it possible for you to take over" as the only inmate with contraband for sale?

"You ain't gonna be on top like you was down there," she went on, "cause it's too many horses. Too many ways" to bring in contraband.

"Yeah," Brown agreed, "ain't nobody going to be the only game in town. . . . They ain't just gonna let a motherfucker take over."

Habeebullah told Brown how she'd provided another inmate, nicknamed "Baby," with smuggled cell-phone parts, and how other prison guards smuggle contraband for inmates, identifying four correctional officers (COs) by name. 

Inmates are not supposed to have cell phones, and, obviously, COs are not supposed to smuggle contraband into prisons. Nor are they supposed to have relationships with inmates outside of the normal routine of their official duties. But based on this conversation--and many others that were intercepted by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Investigations Group (DEA-SIG) investigators as they built a drug-trafficking case against the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang in Maryland, which Brown is alleged to head--contraband-smuggling by COs and extracurricular relationships between COs and inmates are rife in most Maryland prisons.

Habeebullah got caught. So did two other COs--Terry Robe and Asia Burrus--and a prison kitchen worker, Takevia Smith. They were among 25 defendants indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2009 for taking part in the BGF's drug-dealing scheme; all later pleaded guilty to knowingly aiding the BGF by smuggling contraband, including cell phones. Robe, Burrus, and Smith are currently serving federal prison time, set to be released next year; Habeebullah awaits her sentence.

Last year's BGF indictments were not alone in uncovering suspected or confirmed integrity issues among state corrections officers. Evidence has surfaced that a prison investigator was ordered to stop a probe into gang-affiliated COs; that a veteran CO shared a house and a bank account with a murderous Baltimore drug dealer; that COs have been running extortion schemes on behalf of gangs; that COs have been having sex and becoming pregnant with inmates; and that COs have smuggled drugs and cell phones into the prison system--including to a man awaiting trial for murder who had just learned whether or not his codefendant had given a police statement about the case. In a capital murder case over the killing of a CO, lawyers for the two inmates charged have maintained that the stabbing was over a contraband-smuggling ring among COs that the victim--who was nicknamed "Homeland Security" by inmates due to his by-the-book approach to his job--wouldn't tolerate.

The list of recent CO scandals is long, but it only includes circumstances in which the details have reached the light of day through the courts. These instances may well point to more widespread problems, though the reality inside prison facilities--where fear, stress, the potential for violence, and power struggles among and between staff and inmates are part of the day-to-day grind, and where the flow of information is tightly controlled--is hard to gauge.

During the past year, City Paper has been contacted by COs concerned about corruption within their ranks, offering to help get the public a truer picture of the depth and breadth of the situation, but their fears over the potential for harm to themselves or their families got the better of them. Attempts to reach out to COs and other prison staff--outside of official channels, so they can speak freely on background--have gone nowhere.

But a December 2009 letter to City Paper from an inmate, responding to coverage of the BGF indictments, provided a shocking glimpse of the environment within one of the prison system's facilities in Baltimore. (The writer's name and place of incarceration will be withheld, to protect the inmate's safety.) 

"I just wanted to correct the thought that is was [sic] just Eric Brown and a few accomplices," the inmate wrote of corruption inside prison walls, "because it's bigger and more widespread than printed [in the paper]." The letter contended that "I can honestly say that I am a witness to the 'BGF' running the correctional system here in Baltimore. Seriously, there are some [sic] many correctional officers working here associated with either the 'Bloods' or 'BGF,' it almost tallies [sic] the inmate population. And what unnerves me is that they openly flaunt it."

The letter explained that COs' "tattoos of 'stars' on wrists, behind ears, on arms, necks, and even faces, 'butterflies' and 'beetles,' help to tell . . . [the] level of their affiliation. They offer sex, money, and drugs to 'move' up in their rank or affiliations. There really has not been a day that I have spent here, where these things are not witnessed. It amazes me how the older correctional officers turn a blind eye to these occurances [sic] . . . a thorough purging of this system and investigation is necessary immediately."

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