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More Baltimore jail staff indicted as top official testifies on corruption

Those charged in the new indictments include a correctional officer and a contractual food service employee

By Justin Fenton
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, Md. -- Prosecutors announced new indictments Monday of Baltimore jail staff, the same day a top corrections official testified in the federal corruption trial of eight inmates and corrections officers about the difficulty containing misconduct in the system.

Those charged in the new indictments include a correctional officer and a contractual food service employee at the Baltimore City Detention Center who are accused of trying to deliver tobacco and other contraband to detainees. A 46-year-old volunteer yoga instructor also is accused of smuggling more than a half-dozen cellphones into the nearby state-run facility for federal detainees.

A number of civilians have been charged in recent weeks with attempting to smuggle contraband into certain facilities, according to prosecutors. Corrections officials said they brought the allegations to the attention of prosecutors — evidence, they said, of continuing efforts to combat corruption in the jails.

“While the majority of our 11,000 employees do their job with integrity, maintaining the highest level of security requires constant vigilance,” said Gregg Hershberger, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “The indictments today are part of that ongoing effort.”

At about the same time the indictments were announced, Wendell “Pete” France, who oversees the correctional facilities in Baltimore for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, was testifying in federal court.

He was one of the first witnesses in the trial of inmates and corrections officers charged in a contraband smuggling and racketeering conspiracy at the Baltimore jail that prosecutors say was orchestrated by the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

France, a veteran Baltimore police officer who began overseeing the facility as director of pretrial detention in 2010, said officials have been battling corruption for years. But disciplinary actions proved futile, he said, and the facility’s technology and procedures were outdated and easily subverted.

France said corrections officers and staff are patted down and go through body scanners as they arrive for work, but “we cannot do a cavity search” without a court order. He said employees also smuggled in items in food and their shoes.

He said a new state law governing discipline for corrections officers also “protracted” the disciplinary process for staff who got in trouble.

“We had spent a lot of time trying to manage the problem through personnel actions, but that just didn’t seem to slow down the tide,” France testified. He said the agency “terminated quite a few people,” but assaults and discoveries of smuggled cellphones continued.

“It became clear to me that we needed additional help,” France testified.

France said he proposed that corrections officials enter into an agreement with federal and local prosecutors and law enforcement.

The ensuing investigation found extortion and drug dealing throughout the facility and that the Black Guerrilla Family gang wielded outsized influence over other inmates and corrections officers, some of whom had sexual relationships with gang members. Forty-four people were charged less than two years later.

The leader of the gang at the jail, Tavon White, was heard in wiretapped phone calls declaring that he ran the jail. He pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against those on trial.

Since then, the jail has instituted phone-jamming technology and improved camera systems, among other fixes, and officials say problems with contraband have been reduced.

Defense attorneys said in opening statements last week that the corruption was “state-sanctioned” and “administration-endorsed,” accusing the jail’s former security chief of being complicit. She is not charged and through an attorney has denied any collusion.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Reeves Harding repeatedly asked France if he knew of any policy, tacit or explicit, in which jail administrators sanctioned the gang’s conduct. France said he did not.

“You never want to empower any one individual group in that environment. That just doesn’t make sense,” France testified.

The defense did not get an opportunity to question France on Monday. He is expected to take the stand again Tuesday.

In the new indictments, prosecutors accuse 27-year-old corrections officer Anthony Williams of possessing tobacco and suboxone strips with intent to deliver it to an inmate last month — contraband authorities found wrapped in tape and stuffed in his groin area. He was originally charged in late October and posted a $25,000 bail. His attorney could not be reached for comment.

A food service employee, 27-year-old Angela Craft, of Brooklyn, is charged with possessing tobacco with the intent to deliver it to a detainee in September. Court records show security officials found tobacco in her shoes.

William Gibson, 46, a North Baltimore resident and volunteer yoga instructor at the Chesapeake Detention Facility, was indicted for allegedly conspiring to deliver multiple cellphones to inmates from April 2014 to October 2014. Court records show Gibson was released on his own recognizance after being charged earlier this month. No attorney is listed for him in court records.

Charging documents say an inmate was found with a cellphone with a number registered to Gibson. The facility’s security chief said there “has been a rise in cellphone confiscation since instructor Gibson started volunteering at the facility,” according to charges.

On his next trip to the jail, a search of his vehicle turned up a prepaid cellphone still sealed in its packaging, and pieces of paper with “Green Dot” prepaid debit card numbers and inmate names on them, court records show. Prosecutors say Green Dot cards are currency within the jails and prisons.

Also charged was Lonzo Drummond, 37, of Curtis Bay, a maintenance officer who holds the rank of major, who was indicted for allegedly engaging in sexual conduct in June at a city motel with a woman assigned to home detention. Drummond already faces charges in Anne Arundel County for contact with the same inmate while she was at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. His attorney declined to comment.

Officials say those charged represent a fraction of the employees, most of whom are doing their jobs. France said that when the first round of Black Guerrilla Family-related indictments were announced in April 2013, he wanted to personally deliver the news to employees.

Harding asked France how they reacted.

“They gave us an ovation,” France said.