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Prison Scandal

Sex, drugs and cellphones fuel gang-led economy inside centuries-old US state jail

BALTIMORE - The leader of a violent gang that controlled life inside one of America's most notorious jails testified that he directed guards motivated by sex and money to smuggle in drugs and cellphones and facilitate attacks on inmates who challenged his authority.

Baltimore City Detention Center

Tavon "Bulldog" White described a culture of corruption inside the centuries-old Baltimore City Detention Center, led by a gang that has its own language and laws and authorities. The hierarchy includes a "minister of education" who quizzes members on gang literature and a "minister of finance" who manages the profits sent by cellphones from behind bars.

The gang's smuggling schemes even fund the bail that frees gang members who can't pay to get sprung from jail. Gang leaders, not guards, are the ultimate authority inside the jail, White said.

“This is my jail; you understand that?”
-- "Bulldog" White

"We're about to go into a strange place, an upside-down world where inmates ran the prison and correctional officers took directions from the gang leader," prosecutor Robert Harding told jurors in opening statements, and White didn't disappoint, describing a gang-run economy made possible by official corruption.

White was once the government's primary target, but has since become the prosecutors' most valuable asset, providing information that led to a 160-count indictment against 44 people. Now he's testifying against the few who didn't plead guilty: five corrections officers, one kitchen worker and two inmates on trial in federal court in Baltimore.

White, who impregnated four of the guards while in the jail said he never forced a guard to participate. "I didn't have to. I had my children's mothers, and plenty of other guards willing to do it for money." The vast majority of the Baltimore jail's guards are women.

Defence attorneys sought Wednesday to discredit White's testimony by drawing attention to his plea deal with prosecutors, which could potentially result in reduced time in prison.

According to one search warrant, graffiti painted on a jail wall named 14 guards willing to have sex with inmates for $150 a pop, including two of the women White impregnated.

One guard who had a child with White had "Tavon" tattooed on her wrist. Another who had two of his children tattooed "Tavon" on her neck.

White told jurors that his gang enforced its monopoly by having the minister of finance collect a 10% tax on any contraband smuggled in by unaffiliated inmates.

The gang also decided which inmates guards could choose to be "working men," taking jobs as janitors, launderers or kitchen workers that provided more mobility and access.

Drugs and cellphones would be hidden inside walls and ceilings. Inmates paid guards by arranging for cash to change hands outside or by texting codes on their cellphones to draw on prepaid debit cards. Gang members enlisted guards to carry parcels to inmates on other floors or wings of the crowded jail, and the proceeds "went into a finance bank," White explained.

White said one of the guards on trial, Travis Paylor, eagerly made deals to pick up packages of drugs on the street and smuggle them inside. Paylor then delivered a menu of illegal goods to inmates for set prices, White said.

"I spoke to him every day he was at work," White told the jury. "Most times it was a package deal: one item for $300, three items for $500. Could be 50 Percocets, an ounce of marijuana, a cellphone, or a cellphone and two cans of tobacco - any three items."

White said another defendant, guard Ashley Newton, allowed the gang to stab an inmate accused of killing a gang member outside.

Cellphones were so widely available, White said, that he was able to call a fellow inmate on a smuggled phone from a "lockup" where he had been sent as punishment for having yet another phone in his cell.

White testified that he personally saw one defendant, kitchen worker Michelle McNair, smuggle tobacco in between her thighs.

Earlier an operations director for the state's prisons, described guards carrying contraband inside their lunches and in other ways that defied pat-down searches.

White was asked about the gang's "constitutions" which include "Once you pledge you take it to the grave," and "We do not participate in snitching or working with the police."

Female guards, rapidly growing in numbers, at heart of U.S. prison scandal

Baltimore City Detention Center

WASHINGTON - In a region of the U.S. usually consumed by politics and partisan bickering, the unfolding jailhouse drama in Maryland - where an imprisoned gang ringleader fathered five children with four separate female guards - is providing an enthralling distraction.

A sweeping prison corruption investigation went public as more than a dozen Maryland corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were accused of helping a prison gang run a drug-trafficking operation from their jail cells in a stunning story that seems lifted from a script of the acclaimed "The Wire" television series.

"It is definitely life imitating art," Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University in D.C. who studies jailhouse sexual abuse, said in an interview.

In the U.S. capital, about an hour to the southwest of Baltimore, the story was receiving widespread play thanks to a litany salacious details, including the fact that two of the impregnated prison guards tattooed ringleader Tavon White's name on their bodies.

White, 36, showered three of the guards with expensive gifts, including luxury cars and jewellery.

The four women are among 25 people, 13 of them female prison guards, who face federal charges that include drug conspiracy, money laundering and racketeering.

Federal law enforcement officials say the defendants conspired with or took bribes from members of White's gang to smuggle drugs, cellphones and additional contraband in and out of the jail and several facilities connected to it.

Tavon White

The indictments allege that since 2009, the gang literally seized control of the jail where they were sent to serve their sentences.

"This is my jail; you understand that?" Tavon White, convicted of attempted murder in 2009, said according to a telephone transcript released by investigators.

"I'm dead serious … I make every final call in this jail … and nothing go past me, everything come to me."

The FBI expressed dismay in a statement released earlier this week.

"In this case, the inmates literally took over the asylum and the detention centres became safe havens," said special agent Stephen E. Vogt.

"Law enforcement should not have to concern itself with criminal subjects who have already been arrested and relegated to detention centres."

Authorities finally grew wise to the scheme in February following a series of inspections by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services that revealed a cache of contraband.

"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," Gary Maynard, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, said this week.

But it's not so much White's alleged actions that have stunned the nation.

Instead, the scandal has raised questions about why female prison guards would become intimately involved with their charges and whether it was appropriate to have women corrections officials guarding male inmates in the first place.

Smith says no one should be surprised - it's happened before, and will undoubtedly happen again in a country where female corrections officers are growing ever more plentiful.

Due to soaring male incarceration rates, female prison guards now make up 37 per cent of corrections officers in the U.S., according to the American Correctional Association. In crime-plagued Baltimore, 60 per cent of the prison guards are women. And yet Americans apparently believe women don't behave badly, she points out.

"We seem to have adopted the most conservative notions of feminism on this story, which is not just that we are equal, but we're actually better than men, that we're more professional, more in control of our baser instincts, that we're the keepers of morals," she said.

"But 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."

In February 2013, two female prison guards in New York were arrested for getting pregnant by inmates.

In Montana, Michael Murphy, who's serving a sentence for theft and forgery, managed to seduce no less than five female corrections workers - including the prison psychiatrist, who later confessed she knew full well he was manipulating her.

Yet Smith said she disputes the notion that the men are always the manipulators in jailhouse sex scandals of the type uncovered in Baltimore.

"That denies women their autonomy," she said.

"These guys are attractive, they apparently have sexual energy, they're magnetic, they're powerful, and women gravitate towards them in jail just as they would out in the community."

What's more? Male inmates are in positions of vulnerability, Smith added.

"They're emotionally available and attentive in ways that they might not have been out of prison. Mr. White may have been powerful, but these female guards had things that he wanted - they were in control of him, too," she said.

According to a 2008-2009 Department of Justice report, the vast majority of prison guards who have sex with inmates are female, she points out.

"Among the 39,121 male prison inmates who had been victims of staff sexual misconduct, 69 per cent reported sexual activity with female staff," the study found.

In juvenile facilities, the numbers are even more staggering. Ninety per cent of boys who complained of sexual harassment by prison officials said they were solicited, and often raped, by women.

"This is a problem that isn't going away, and in fact may become more prevalent in the years to come," Smith said.