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C. Fraser Smith: All the comforts of home — and more

C. Fraser Smith//Special to the Daily Record//April 25, 2013

C. Fraser Smith: All the comforts of home — and more

By C. Fraser Smith

//Special to the Daily Record

//April 25, 2013

“This is my jail. I’m dead serious. … I make every final call in this jail … and nothing go past me, everything come to me.” — Inmate Tavon White 

Bravado, right? A bid for cred in “the joint” and on the street.

Not at all. More like understatement.

An investigation by federal authorities tended to validate his claims. He was, according to the authorities, turning the jail into a criminal enterprise.

The game is up now, as, of course, it would be.

Tavon White can now boast about embarrassing the political world and probably slowing any hope of needed prison reform in the state. Opponents of change will have plenty of arguments for simply restoring the status quo.

According to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, White and city detention center officials had a deal: He would help with keeping the peace; they would fail to see that he was running a kind of bazaar in which all sorts of contraband was available. He was bringing a bit of the high life behind bars.

Cell phones, drugs and women were among the goods and services he could provide. According to charges lodged against him Tuesday, White had gotten four prison guards pregnant since 2009, when he arrived at the city facility.

White managed to turn part of the criminal justice system on its head. A place of incarceration and separation from society became a free-fire zone for criminality that succeeded in suborning cooperation from guards and administrators. Any of the usual thoughts about a prison’s reason for being — separation from society, punishment or rehabilitation — were obviously not in the picture.

“Once a violent offender is sent to jail, law enforcement’s hardest work should be behind it,” said Stephen E. Vogt, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Baltimore. “This is not the case in Baltimore city.”

Making hay

Subordinates and uncooperative inmates were disciplined if they refused to accept his authority. Guards were given the use of cars and other inducements to go along with him, officials said.

It was a prisoners’ coup. It was certain to be discovered, but, hey, why not make hay while the sun shines? White, himself, must have been surprised to see how long it was taking for someone to notice. When so many are implicated, it’s easier to see why.

Twenty-five people were named in a federal indictment announced by Vogt and others on Tuesday. They face charges of racketeering, drug distribution and money laundering. Some of the charges arise from activity involving the Black Guerilla Family gang inside the jail. Vogt said that White, in addition to his other activities, ran what Vogt referred to its initials — the BGF — essentially raising its flag over the detention center.

Looking at what has been uncovered here, one is inclined to see why some young men see prison as something to be endured if your life seems headed for perpetual involvement with courts. The state is taking care of your room and board. And one of your cellmates is taking care of other stuff.

Taking blame

Gary D. Maynard, Maryland’s director of prisons, stepped up at a news conference to take the blame. Surely, there will be plenty of blame to go around.

Maynard said an “audit” was recently completed but declined to make it available to reporters. He said efforts were underway to root out all of the problems discovered by the federal authorities — something he would no doubt have been doing earlier but for the need to allow an ongoing investigation to reach a conclusion.

Prison reform and fundamental changes in the way Maryland deals with its prisons and prisoners could be casualties of White’s exploits. There is nothing in this world today that does not offer political leverage to the party not in power.

And in a situation like this one, it’s not a reach.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is [email protected].

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