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Mobtown Beat

Dangerous Debt

Inmate loses lawsuit seeking protection from gang due to drug debt

By Van Smith | Posted 6/16/2010

For nearly all of the 20 years that James Blackwell says he has been a heroin addict, he's been a Maryland prison inmate. He says he got his heroin in 2008 on credit from members of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang, racking up $1,400 in debt that he could not afford to pay. The debt, he claims, put him in danger at the Western Correctional Institution (WCI) in Cumberland, where he's incarcerated. But prison officials there who've investigated his claims say he's making the whole thing up in order to gain favorable housing placement, and have refused to put him in protective custody.

Frustrated and afraid, last fall Blackwell sued in U.S. District Court, asking a judge to order the prison system to give him protection. His litigation failed on May 6 when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett dismissed the case, ruling that Blackwell failed to prove that he's in actual danger.

Despite the outcome of Blackwell's suit, his alleged predicament is believable--at least insofar as heroin is known to be available at WCI, and the BGF is known to smuggle and supply it there.

An ongoing Drug Enforcement Administration investigation ("Black-Booked," Feature, Aug. 5, 2009; "Round Two," Mobtown Beat, Apr. 28) into the BGF's prison heroin-dealing so far has yielded guilty pleas by 14 BGF members, including one who was caught arranging to smuggle it into WCI. The time-frame of the BGF's indicted heroin-dealing activities includes 2008, when Blackwell says he was getting his heroin from the gang. In addition, earlier this year a WCI correctional dietary officer was caught attempting to bring into the maximum-security prison a balloon filled with heroin, along with a single-use syringe ("Another Correctional Officer Charged . . ." The News Hole,, Mar. 1); he is scheduled for a July trial in Allegany County Circuit Court in Cumberland.

In this context, Blackwell's claims of getting heroin from the BGF, and owing them for it, would reasonably appear to put him in danger--and, in his lawsuit, he says that if he's attacked, he intends to defend himself.

"I have been informed by no less than seven members" of the BGF, Blackwell wrote in his filing, "that upon my return to general population that 'they will just get theirs in blood.' I'm a former United States Marine and I have H.I.V. and I do not want to hurt anyone, spread my disease, or be hurt myself. . . . I'm at a very dangerous impasse as to what I should do, because in my heart I know that upon re-entry . . . the only result/outcome would be someone getting seriously hurt or possibly killed."

Bennett, in his dismissal ruling, summarizes prison officials' response to Blackwell's complaint, saying Blackwell's "allegations concerning owing the BGF money have been made on more than one occasion, investigated each time by Division of Correction staff, and found to be unsupported." Their conclusion is that Blackwell "was using the alleged drug debts as a means to obtain special housing," and they note that since Blackwell first raised the drug-debt specter "he has been housed on general population on two occasions without incident."

Blackwell is no longer serving his time at WCI. According to the online Maryland inmate locator, he is now housed at Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown (MCI-H).

When asked about Blackwell's case and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' rationale for moving Blackwell from WCI to MCI-H, spokesperson Mark Vernarelli said "we do not discuss specific inmate base file information, so I can't really shed much light into his specific case." But he added that "we make every effort to protect every inmate at all times--that's our job. We reserve the right to move inmates at any time for programming, security, or other reasons. It is not at all unusual for any inmate, including a lifer, to move a number of times to different facilities. We do move inmates for their own protection from time to time as warranted."

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