The confessed leader of a powerful gang inside the Baltimore City Detention Center was the government’s star witness at the trial of eight remaining defendants in widespread racketeering, drug smuggling, bribery, extortion and money laundering operation that resulted in criminal charges against dozens of guards, prisoners, jail workers, and other defendants.
Tavon “Bulldog” White, 36, who pleaded guilty on August 6, 2013, to one count of racketeering, admitted that he headed the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) at the state-run Baltimore jail. Under the terms of a plea agreement, White confessed to conspiring with guards to smuggle contraband into the facility. He also admitted to impregnating four female guards – one of them twice – including two who were tattooed with his name. Altogether, he fathered five children with the women.
A sweeping federal indictment announced in April 2013 alleged that White directed the BGF operation that supplied contraband ranging from cell phones and tobacco to prescription pills and other drugs to fellow gang members, who then sold them for a huge profit. He was the first prisoner to plead guilty in the case.
In addition to White, 13 jail guards and 11 other prisoners were initially indicted. A second indictment made public in November 2013 named another 14 guards and six other individuals, bringing the total number of defendants to 44.
In a recorded telephone conversation presented as evidence to the federal grand jury, White bragged that during one slow month at the jail he made nearly $16,000. He admitted he had bribed guards by sharing profits from the smuggling operation and buying them expensive gifts, including luxury cars.
“He realized the damage his actions have caused him, his family and the Maryland correctional system and wished to accept responsibility at the earliest possible juncture,” stated Gary Proctor, White’s lawyer.
However, defense attorneys for the eight remaining defendants attacked White’s testimony as being tainted by the lenient conditions of his plea bargain.
“He walks. He gets no time from this case if he satisfies them that he tells the truth [in court],” attorney Richard Bardos told the jury. Bardos represents prisoner Joseph “Monster” Young, whom prosecutors contend was White’s second-in-command.
Authorities alleged that White assumed power as head of the BGF soon after beginning a three-year stay at the jail in 2009 while awaiting trial on charges of attempted second-degree murder. He was eventually sentenced to 20 years following two hung juries.
Bardos said that under White’s federal plea deal, the racketeering charge carries a 12-year sentence to be served concurrent to the state sentence he received on the attempted homicide charge. Thus, Bardos informed the jury, White won’t serve a single extra day behind bars for managing the gang’s widespread operations at the Baltimore jail.
Of the 44 guards, jail employees, prisoners and other individuals charged in the federal indictments, 35 pleaded guilty and one died. The final defendants on trial included five guards, two prisoners and one jail worker. White told prosecutors that he knew “many other correctional officers involved in contraband trafficking and sexual relations with inmates,” according to his plea agreement.
Defense attorneys cast a wide net for people they believed were involved in the contraband smuggling but had avoided arrest, pointing specifically to Shavella Miles, the former head of security at the detention center. They contended that Miles, who was forced to resign but never charged, was complicit in the conspiracy.
The corruption at the jail was “state-approved, state-facilitated, and administrative-encouraged,” Bardos declared.
Allegations of security breaches and lax oversight at the Baltimore City Detention Center sparked numerous calls for a state investigation and prompted then-Governor Martin O’Malley and state corrections officials to take steps to root out any further corruption.
As the BGF leader, prosecutors said, White claimed ownership of the facility. “This is my jail; you understand that?” he stated, according to transcripts of phone calls recorded by investigators. “I’m dead serious…. I make every final call in this jail … and nothing go past me, everything come to me.”
“You see what I am saying?” the transcript continued. “Everything come to me. Everything. Before a mother-f—– hit a n—– in the mouth, guess what they do, they gotta run it through me. I tell them whether it’s a go ahead, and they can do it or whether they hold back. Before a mother-f—– stab somebody, they gotta run it through me…. Anything that get done must go through me.”
According to court documents, high-ranking jail officials held “town hall meetings” with gang members to discuss operations at the facility.
“In this case, the inmates literally took over the asylum and the detention centers became safe havens for the BGF,” declared FBI special agent Stephen E. Vogt.
“Correctional officers were in bed with BGF inmates, in violation of the first principle of prison management,” added U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. Court records alleged that “BGF members recruited correctional officers through personal and often sexual relationships, as well as bribes, and that some officers traded sex for money.”
In a press release issued by his office, Rosenstein said the corruption enabled those involved to “make large amounts of money through drug trafficking, robbery, assault, extortion, bribery, witness retaliation, money laundering and obstruction of justice.”
BGF members used the guards to smuggle cell phones, marijuana, Oxycodone, Xanax and other drugs into several jails, primarily the Baltimore City Detention Center, which were then sold to other prisoners, according to the initial indictment. Gang members paid “dues” and used prepaid debit cards to pay for contraband; other prisoners were “taxed” for their own illegal activities.
Investigators said guards simply brought contraband to work with them. “The chances of being searched were remote,” prosecutors noted. The guards concealed contraband in their underwear, hair, body orifices and elsewhere, and walked through the jail’s main entrance where co-conspirators were often present to wave them through.
According to the indictment, the female guards impregnated by White included Jennifer Owens, 31; Katera Stevenson, 24; Chania Brooks, 27; and Tiffany Linder, 27. A press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Owens had “Tavon” tattooed on her neck, while Stevenson had the same name inked on her wrist. Owens and Stevenson were among the guards who pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Another guard, Kimberly Dennis, 26, was named in the indictment for allegedly having sex in a closet with a different BGF prisoner. Guard Jasmine Jones, 26, reportedly stood watch for them.
Other guards were accused of tipping off White and his BGF associates when shakedowns were going to occur, among other inappropriate actions. On January 6, 2013, White reportedly said on a cell phone call, “I just got a message [from guard Tiffany Linder] saying that they was going to pull a shakedown tonight. Let me call all these dudes in my phone and let them know.”
White allegedly purchased several cars with profits from the BGF contraband smuggling scheme, including a Mercedes and BMW. He gave one guard a diamond ring and provided luxury cars to several others. Profits were also used to fund BGF’s street activities outside the jail, which were affiliated with other chapters of the gang.
Appearing to prepare for what he believed would be White’s eventual release from the Baltimore facility, a lieutenant allegedly told gang member Joseph Young, seen as White’s successor, that he could keep making money selling contraband if he could control violence at the jail, according to wiretap recordings.
When news of the scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center first broke, shock spread at the extent of the corruption.
“These types of insidious gang issues cannot and will not be tolerated,” Governor O’Malley said on April 26, 2013, three days after the original indictment was announced. “Over the last six years, we’ve made it a priority to work with our federal and local law enforcement partners to combat prison gangs.”
Then-Maryland Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Gary D. Maynard stated at a press conference that his office had participated fully in the joint state-federal investigation that led to the indictment, and that he took full responsibility for problems at the jail.
“It’s totally on me. I don’t make any excuses,” he said. “It’s absolutely my responsibility. It becomes embarrassing for me when we expose ourselves and we participate in an investigation that’s going to show what’s going on in our jails that I am not proud of.”
Maynard moved his office into the detention center following the indictment to directly oversee further investigations, and required polygraph tests for top jail officials. Other employees would have to undergo “integrity reviews,” he added.
State lawmakers scheduled a rare out-of-session hearing to demand answers. State Sen. Joseph M. Getty called the scandal a “pretty harsh indictment” of Maynard’s policies. “This is frightening to us as legislators, the level of collusion that has existed between the correction officers and inmates,” he said.
State Sen. Christopher B. Shank called the level of corruption at the jail “shocking.” He added, “These folks need to be held accountable.”
“The indictment that came down makes us look like a third-world nation,” complained Delegate Michael Smigiel.
Yet this was not the first time the BGF was implicated in corruption involving Maryland prison guards. In 2009, under Maynard’s tenure, 20 gang members and four employees at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore were indicted on drug, gun and extortion charges. Several guards were convicted and sentenced to up to 24 months behind bars, and 15 more BGF members were indicted in 2010. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.40]. The following year, an employee at the Chesapeake Detention Facility was sentenced to 37 months in prison for assisting the BGF with drug trafficking and other crimes.
More than 50 guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center have been fired for fraternizing with prisoners or smuggling contraband since 2010, according to Maynard’s spokesman. Maynard announced his retirement in December 2013, shortly before the release of a legislative report on corruption at the jail.
Prosecutors said disciplinary rules associated with the powerful union representing state prison guards made it difficult to fire allegedly corrupt employees without a conviction, but union officials defended the rules and said the blame was misplaced.
Patrick Moran, director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told The Herald-Mail that the FBI used “a poor choice of words” in criticizing the Maryland Correctional Officers’ Bill of Rights – legislation passed in 2010 that provides protections to guards from unfair firings.
The law “does not impede the state’s ability to investigate and terminate officers who engage in wrongdoing,” AFSCME spokesman Jeff Pittman told the newspaper.
While the extent of the corruption at the Baltimore jail stunned many observers, one expert on sexual abuse in detention facilities said no one should be surprised that some of the female guards were so thoroughly compromised. Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said that with women making up 37% of the nation’s prison guards – 60% in Baltimore – the problem “isn’t going to go away, and in fact may become more prevalent in the years to come.”
Regarding White’s sexual relationships that led to his fathering five children with four guards, Smith said, “Mr. White may have been powerful, but these female guards had things he wanted. They were in control of him, too.” She added, “we’re not taking into account that women get turned on, too, both physically and by being in positions of power, and that we’re corruptible, and corrupted, as often as men are.”
Of the remaining eight defendants in the Baltimore jail case, five were convicted in February 2015 following a two-month trial – prisoners Joseph Young and Russell Carrington, guards Ashley Newton and Travis Paylor, and kitchen employee Michelle McNair. Three guards, Riccole Hall, Clarissa Clayton and Michelle Ricks, were acquitted.
Tavon White, the leading force behind the corruption scandal and the prosecution’s leading witness at trial, was sentenced on February 9, 2015 to 12 years in federal prison, which, pursuant to his plea agreement, will run concurrently with his state sentence on the attempted murder charge.
“Ideally, we’d be able to make the case, prove the case with only law enforcement witnesses and not having to cut deals with criminals, but that’s the way things work,” said U.S. Attorney Rosenstein.
Many of the 40 defendants who pleaded guilty or were convicted have not yet been sentenced. Others have, such as former guards Kimberly Dennis, 27, and Antonia Allison, 29, who received 24 months and 20 months in federal prison, respectively, in March 2015 for smuggling drugs and other contraband into the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Sources: www.baltimoresun.com, www.calgaryherald.com, www.catholic.org, www.examiner.com, FBI press release, www.floridatoday.com, www.i4u.com, www.slate.com, www.wbaltv.com, The Washington Post, Associated Press, www.thonline.com, www.leg33.com, www.correctionsone.com, www.dailymail.co.uk, https://baltimore.cbslocal.com/
(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)