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Officer alleges jail leaders held town hall meetings with BGF

Management at the Baltimore jail held “town hall meetings” with Black Guerrilla Family gang members to get tips on how to better operate the institution

By Ian Duncan
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, Md. — Management at the Baltimore jail held “town hall meetings” with Black Guerrilla Family gang members to get tips on how to better operate the institution, a former corrections officer told the FBI as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation.

The allegation, contained in recently filed court documents, is the latest portrayal of the gang’s extensive influence at the jail before federal authorities stepped in last year. Since then, 14 corrections officers and 10 gang members have pleaded guilty. Another 19 defendants are awaiting trial.

The sweeping federal case detailed corruption at the facility, including vast sums of money made by gang members trading contraband and romantic relationships that blossomed between inmates and the officers tasked with watching them.

Cory Trusty, president of the union that represents officers at the jail, called the town hall meetings “a well-known fact.” He said no low-level officers were invited to the sessions, and he didn’t know what was discussed at them.

“It was pretty much upper management and the gangs having their own meetings,” he said.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said jail administrators have long held meetings with inmates to discuss “detainee issues,” such as rising tensions between rival gangs. He said it was good management practice to identify and reach out to influential inmates.

But Binetti denied there had been high-level meetings between jail officials and Black Guerrilla Family gang members, and he said inmates did not dictate demands to corrections management at the meetings that did take place.

“Good communications with inmate … populations is a good thing, and necessary to effectively run an institution,” Binetti said.

After the initial indictment in the case last year, the General Assembly and corrections officials moved to improve security at the facility, including installing technology that disables smuggled cellphones that gang members used to communicate and improving searches of corrections officers entering the jail.

Only low-level personnel have faced criminal charges in the federal case. But the jail’s head of security was ousted in the aftermath of the scandal, and other supervisors have since left the facility.

Court documents have offered glimpses at bargains struck between corrections officers and Black Guerrilla Family, or BGF, gang members.

For instance, an FBI agent wrote in court documents that an unnamed corrections officer with the rank of lieutenant approached gang leader Tavon White’s second-in-command and promised he could keep up his trade in contraband as long as he kept a lid on violence in the jail.

In the latest allegation, corrections officer Angela Johnson, who has been charged in the case, told FBI agents that management and gang members would discuss “what could be done to run the jail more efficiently” at the town hall meetings, according to FBI notes from the October interview made public last week.

Johnson also told the FBI agents that BGF members were “allowed to search new inmates on their sections for contraband,” according to the document. The gang members would keep anything they found for themselves in a show of their authority, she said.

In addition, Johnson said she heard that one corrections lieutenant would agree not to seize prohibited items from inmates who would then owe the officer a favor, according to the interview notes.

That lieutenant is still with the department, Binetti said. The officer has not been charged in the case.

If the inmates didn’t get what they wanted, Johnson told the FBI, they turned their thuggery against the corrections officers. “They will threaten the officers by stating they will do something to them when they are released,” an agent wrote in the notes, summarizing the interview with Johnson.

Del. John W. E. Cluster Jr., who served on a General Assembly committee that developed legislation to improve security in state prisons and the Baltimore jail, said he had not heard of the town halls and called the idea “rather peculiar.”

“Basically we’re letting the inmates run the asylum,” the Baltimore County Republican said.

The FBI interviewed Johnson shortly before she was charged last November as part of a second set of indictments of officers and gang members accused of aiding the BGF’s smuggling operation at the downtown facility. In all 44 people have been charged in the case. One defendant has since died.

Johnson has pleaded not guilty; her attorney could not be reached to comment.

The FBI interview notes were filed in court as prosecutors argued that agents didn’t have to inform Johnson that she was the subject of an investigation for her statements to be admissible. Johnson’s lawyers have argued that FBI agents misled her during the interview by not making that clear.

Johnson resigned from her job at the jail on April 1, 2013, according to court documents. She left just a few weeks before the first round of arrests in the BGF case.

In an affidavit to obtain a search warrant for her home, investigators wrote that Johnson resigned after recorded calls showed she was in a relationship with an inmate.

Johnson told the investigators that she had once dated an inmate, but that they were no longer together by the time he was locked up. She admitted to helping him obtain tobacco in the jail, according to court documents.

Johnson also told investigators another gang — the Bloods — was making a comeback at the jail. Binetti, though, said the department hasn’t seen that happen.

“Pretrial officials and intel personnel see no evidence of such a rise,” he said.