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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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Rick Binetti, director of communications for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service (DPSCS), urges that corruption problems be kept in perspective. "There is no systemic issue" with corruption among COs, he says. Despite overwhelming evidence of widespread problems, he asserts that "there is an ugly case here or there coming out, but it's not necessarily all gang-related."

Binetti points out that of the nearly 7,000 COs statewide, 70 were fired last year. Twenty of those firings were for fraternizing with inmates and another four were for possessing contraband. Currently, Binetti says, the department is investigating three COs for having contraband cell phones. Binetti adds that, under current law, firing COs can prove difficult due to a 30-day timeframe for completing an investigation into wrongdoing. "You can't build a solid case in that amount of time," he says.

Meanwhile, Binetti adds, "our efforts in identifying these gangmembers [who are COs] is so much better than it was three years ago. We're figuring out who those people are, and they are getting the chop." New state regulations put in place late last year by the Maryland Police and Correctional Officer Training Commission require that CO applicants answer specific questions about gang ties and that DPSCS background investigators scour law-enforcement gang databases to see if applicants are listed. "If there is any sort of gang affiliation in your background, you could be out," Binetti says. 

"The department is trying" to confront the integrity challenges among its staff, Binetti concludes, "and we're doing a hell of a lot more than we were three or four years ago."

Last November, to mark Terry Robe's conviction for her role in the BGF drug-dealing conspiracy, DPSCS Secretary Gary Maynard issued a statement to buttress the case that the department is getting better--and succeeding--in combating gang influences and contraband smuggling in prisons. He noted that gang-intelligence efforts had yielded a 35 percent increase in identifying gang members among prison inmates, that improved security had yielded a one-third increase in the number of cell phones recovered from inmates (to a total of 1,658 in fiscal year 2009), and that 24 Body Orifice Security Scanners (highly sensitive metal detectors known as BOSS chairs) installed in the state's prison facilities had provided new opportunities to detect and prevent contraband from getting in.

The department's confidence in its anti-corruption efforts is bold, and it is getting legislative help. During this year's General Assembly session in Annapolis, which ended in April, two bills addressing the hiring and firing of COs were passed and will soon be incorporated into departmental regulations.  

One, House Bill 1402, entitled Public Safety--Preemployment Polygraph Examinations for Correctional Officer Applicants, allows DPSCS to order lie-detector tests to screen applicants. Already, Binetti says, nearly 70 percent of applicants--which number 4,000 to 4,500 per year--are rejected because they don't pass the background check. Ordering polygraphs on a selective basis may make it even harder to gain employment as a CO.

The other bill, Senate Bill 887, Correctional Services--State Correctional Officers' Bill of Rights, affords new protections and procedures for COs accused of wrongdoing. It was backed by unions representing COs, and Binetti says DPSCS also supported it. "It establishes procedures for correctional officers to be interrogated and investigated, and it gives them a trial board, like police officers have, when they are accused" he explains. A strong plus, he adds, is that it extends the 30-day period for conducting investigations to 90 days, allowing more thorough work before investigators have to either file formal charges or drop the case.

Patrick Moran, director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Maryland, praised the bill-of-rights measure on a number of fronts. "Correctional officers accused of wrongdoing are now innocent until proven guilty, just like the prisoners they are surrounded by every day," he says. "It gives people solid due process, where they didn't have that before."

As for bad actors, Moran says the new bill-of-rights law won't protect them if the evidence is tight. "The vast majority of correctional officers are honest, solid citizens, working in a very stressful environment unlike any other job in the world. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and those who are found to be corrupt ought to be dealt with roundly and sharply, because it affects everybody," he says. Now, he adds, the department "will have more time to investigate those situations, so they'll find the evidence if it's there, and the wrongly accused will have their opportunity to fight the charges if it's not there. Before, the department was prosecutor, judge, and jury all at once."

The bill's chief sponsor, state Sen. Donald Munson (R-Washington County), says his main concern in bringing the legislation was a troubling case of COs getting railroaded by the existing disciplinary process over charges of inmate abuse a couple of years ago. When asked how it will affect the department's efforts to rid itself of gang-tied COs assisting inmates in criminal schemes, Munson says, "I've never thought of this measure in this context. My guess is that the correctional officers who are going to be judges are going to be very hard on those cases." He adds, "If it doesn't work, we'll fix it in the future."

Robert Walker, a veteran law enforcer whose long career began as a correctional officer with the Maryland Department of Corrections in the 1950s, knows a thing or two about gangs and corrupt COs. After leaving Maryland, he began a decades-long career in federal law enforcement (including for the DEA). He retired to return to prison work in the South Carolina penal system, doing internal investigations and running the gang unit, where he developed a gang identification and tracking system in order to monitor inmates. Today, he is a gang consultant, serving as an expert witness in trials and teaching law enforcers and prison personnel the ins and outs of gangs.

Walker is a strong supporter of COs, and, just as strongly, has antipathy for corrupt ones. When told that Maryland is grappling with CO integrity problems, he says, "I hope they are really going into heavy penalties for that. To turn to the other side and try to make a buck is truly outrageous. You have got to have some honest people--and most of them will be honest. There are maybe 10, 15 percent, at the most, who are on the other side." Given the litany of revelations about CO corruption coming out of Maryland courts, though, he adds, "I may have to change my assessment of the percentage . . . the worst thing that can happen is to engage in denial, because that means the problem will get bigger and bigger."

As for the proposed reform measures, Walker likes them all--except for the selective pre-employment polygraph law, which he believes should be universal, not only among prospective COs, but among all staff. To save money, he says the state should hire its own polygraph examiners and lie-detecting equipment. "With so many concerns about so much wrongdoing, you have got to find the money to do it right," he says.

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