Good staff is first line of defense, corrections chief says -- Gazette.Net


Last month’s indictment of 13 female correctional officers accused of smuggling drugs and cellphones to inmates in a Baltimore city prison drew national attention and outrage at an apparent lack of oversight and pervasive corruption.

The director of Montgomery County’s jails says rigid background checks for prospective officers keep contraband and gang activity out of the county’s facilities.

“We are very selective,” said Arthur M. Wallenstein, director of the county’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. “We select about one of every 15 people who applies.”

Only those who pass a written exam at the highest level move forward, for example, and applicants then must fill out a 57-page background form. If every item isn’t filled out, the applicant is rejected immediately, Wallenstein said. There is a thorough investigation of possible criminal history or gang ties, made using all electronic information systems available to law enforcement, he said.

A rejection rate of 14 out of 15 applicants, or 93.3 percent, gives the county jail system a higher rate than the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service, which rejects 82.61 percent of applicants in its central region, including the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Prospective state correctional officers’ backgrounds also are run through several state and national criminal databases, and since November 2009, have been checked against gang databases, according to the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

A federal indictment unsealed in April alleges that officers at the Baltimore prison conspired with members of the Black Guerrilla Family gang to bring drugs and cellphones into the prison beginning “in or about 2009,” or possibly much earlier.

The Black Guerrilla Family currently does not have any known members in the Montgomery County system, but a few may have passed through the system for court hearings, Wallenstein said.

The gang’s presence in the county has been negligible in the past few years, and police were aware of only one “potentially valid” member, who was not believed to be active with the gang, said Lt. Ronald Smith, deputy director of the Montgomery County Police Special Investigations Division.

While there are some reports of activity from larger gangs such as MS-13, the Bloods and the Crips, most gang activity in the county comes from smaller neighborhood crews, Smith said.

The federal indictment also asserts that the rotation of correctional officers in the Baltimore facility from positions monitoring the entrance to the prison to other positions inside the facility created an opportunity for corrupt officers to smuggle contraband into the facility when a co-conspirator was working at the entrance.

Wallenstein said officers at the correctional facility in Boyds routinely rotate to different posts, so they can be trained in the full range of work at the maximum-security facility.

Inmates there serve sentences of up to 18 months. Those who receive longer sentences are sent to state facilities.

Of the 321 uniformed correctional officers in the county, 71 are female and 250 are male, and officers regularly work in direct contact with inmates because it is part of what keeps the facility secure, Wallenstein said.

“The moment the inmates and the staff are kept separate, the inmates then control the building,” he said.

Cells are routinely searched for drugs several times a year, with help from county police K-9 units, but such searches have found very little, Wallenstein said. In his 13 years as director, only one cellphone has been discovered inside a county facility.

In January 2010, a staff member was found to have brought a phone into an inmate housing unit at the intake facility in Rockville — where prisoners are kept for up to 72 hours before being transferred to the main facility in Boyds — but there was no evidence the staffer was planning to give it to a prisoner, Wallenstein said. The staff member was terminated, he said.

A recent malfunction at the Boyds facility, traced to a software upgrade, caused 500 electronic cell doors to unlock on two occasions in April. No inmates left their cells, and none of the other doors — such as those connecting the cell units to the hallways — came unlocked, Wallenstein said.

No one has escaped the facility since it opened in 2003, he said.

Staff Writer Virginia Terhune contributed to this report.