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House votes to reform corrections intelligence

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s corrections department is backing legislation to make official the new structure of its statewide its prison intelligence operations, which were reorganized after last year’s indictments of 27 Baltimore correctional officers.

The House unanimously passed the bill Thursday morning. The Senate has already approved its own similar bill, but this still leaves some administrative steps before it becomes law.

Baltimore City Detention Center

In this Nov. 14, 2013 file photo, a corrections officer works at a security post at Baltimore City Detention Center in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File)

The bills are a response to last year’s indictments. Federal officials charged the Baltimore officers with smuggling drugs, tobacco and other contraband in for inmates.

Gregg Hershberger, who took over in December as Maryland’s secretary of public safety and correctional services, told a Senate committee last month he is still trying to root out corrupt staff members.

“I am not that naive to think that we still don’t have more work to be done,” he said.

Before the indictments, each prison had its own intelligence department, independent from the state’s main investigative unit. Some were gathering useful information, particularly about gangs, said Mark Carter, who now directs prison intelligence across the state.

“But due to a silo effect, that information-sharing throughout the state was ineffective and sporadic at best,” Carter told the Senate committee last month.

The indictments provoked Hershberger’s predecessor, Gary Maynard, to unify all these groups into a statewide team. They also added new staff: 19 investigators, 13 people for intelligence and three for support. Carter, who was previously chief financial officer for the Maryland State Police, took leadership of the division in September.

The division now has distinct units for intelligence and investigations, said Mark Vernarelli, the corrections department spokesman.

The intelligence side analyzes all the state’s data and distributes it to local law enforcement. Some of its workers are solely dedicated to pulling data from confiscated cellphones.

Others spend hundreds of hours listening to inmate phone calls, seeking information on gangs and racketeering, Carter said.

The investigative side has more than 36 experienced detectives, Vernarelli said. They handle cases of employee misconduct and inmate violence, with power to conduct interviews and make arrests. They work with prosecutors to build cases.

They handled 1,708 cases last year.

“The primary difference is that we’re no longer a defensive element taking on cases in investigative situations that arise,” Carter said. “We now become an offensive element.”

The new bills formalize this team’s authority to oversee statewide operations. They also make it the only department that reports directly to Hershberger.

The House and Senate bills are basically identical, but before either bill can go to Gov. Martin O’Malley, one legislative house would need to pass the same version.