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Baltimore Detention Center Became A Criminal Enterprise


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Twenty-five people were indicted in Baltimore this week, 13 of them prison guards in a story that involves gangs, bribes, drugs and sex - and it's real life, not a TV show. The indictments say a group of prisoners have essentially been in charge of the Baltimore City Detention Center, working with prison guards to run a lucrative drug and cell phone smuggling operation.

They also say one of the prisoners, a gang leader named Tavon White fathered children with four female corrections officers. Two of them ever have his name tattooed on their bodies. Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, has been traveling overseas and will return next week. Ian Duncan joins us now. He's the federal and city courts reporter at the Sun. Mr. Duncan, thanks very much for being with us.

IAN DUNCAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I have to begin by asking you about the man at center of the alleged scandal, Tavon White.

DUNCAN: Sure. So, he was accused of being at the top of this smuggling organization inside the jail. It sounds like, from what the FBI caught on wiretaps, that it was pretty well organized sort of a thing. They had him at the top; he had middlemen running different parts of the jail, they say, and then used workingmen who are inmates who have special privileges and then sort of jobs inside the jail to act as a go-between between himself and the corrections officers.

SIMON: What's he in for, Tavon White?

DUNCAN: He's accused of attempted murder. He's been on trial twice in this case and both times it ended in a mistrial because of a hung jury.

SIMON: Do you get any sense of the female guards involved and charged are like? I mean, this is sort of extraordinary, that they would bare children by this man and apparently care so deeply for him that they have his name inscribed.

DUNCAN: We know from some of the documents that the FBI say that they've recovered that the Black Guerilla Family was particularly tied between women and women that they've sort of identified as being specially vulnerable. If the gang is powerful inside the prison or the jail I think the people can be intimidated into sort of going along with what they want.

SIMON: Now, his gang, the Black Guerilla Family, I gather originated in California way back in the 1960s and the federal government tried to break up their influence by transferring gang members in prisons across the country. What did that wind up doing?

DUNCAN: It looks like it sort of helped metastasize the gang as leaders got sent around the country and the influence grew. They had to set up cells or sort of people petitioned to join the organization.

SIMON: So it turned a local gang into a national enterprise?

DUNCAN: Yeah, looks like it.

SIMON: And did the growth of cell phones in this day and age also help?

DUNCAN: According to the filings in this case, the cell phones were critical in allowing this gang to organize inside the jail. They could use it to sort of place orders to their suppliers on the outside, talk to the senior gang member on the outside to make sure that they have their approval for what they were doing in the jail.

SIMON: When you say place their orders, sorry to sound so naive, you don't mean for Kentucky Fried Chicken?

DUNCAN: No, no. According to the indictment, prescription medication, marijuana, more cell phones tobacco.

SIMON: In many ways, the Baltimore Detention Center seems to have served as an office for Tavon White, and arguably maybe even safer for him than the streets of Baltimore because of course he runs it.

DUNCAN: That's right. I mean, he seems like a big figure in the terms of this case, but there's a chance he was in sort of a middle manager in the sort of larger scope of the Black Guerilla Family.

SIMON: Do I gather Governor O'Malley has been away?

DUNCAN: Yeah, he's been in Israel this week.

SIMON: He's reportedly forming an exploratory committee to run for president?

DUNCAN: That's right, yeah.

SIMON: Pretty big issue to deal with first.

DUNCAN: Yeah, I mean, he was known as being sort of the tough on crime and he was the mayor of Baltimore. He's going to have to answer some questions about whether he's going to be able to clean up this jail and any other problems with the prisons as well.

SIMON: Ian Duncan, federal and city courts reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Thanks very much.

DUNCAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.