Policy: Law

Bills will strengthen prison guard investigations

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Local,Maryland,Watchdog,Law

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Legislative efforts to improve prison security were overshadowed this year by marijuana and minimum wage bills, but supporters say they will help prevent another high-profile scandal like the Black Guerrilla Family case at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

However, representatives of the correctional officers' union worry that the bills, which give correctional officials significantly more power to investigate staff members, will erode the due-process rights of guards.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed several of the corrections bills into law Monday morning. They make it easier to suspend officers without pay, to charge those caught with contraband and to test job applicants with polygraphs.

Last year 27 Baltimore jail guards were indicted on charges of helping Black Guerrilla Family gang members run criminal enterprises within the jail. Federal authorities said they smuggled in cellphones and drugs, and several had sexual relationships with inmates.

A legislative commission met over the summer and designed bills to help prevent corruption in the future. They toured the Baltimore jail and talked with lawyers and prison officials.

It was a prominent subject when the legislative session started, but the bills passed quietly, with minimal debate on the House and Senate floors.

"It was kind of the sleeper issue," said Del. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, a co-chair of the commission.

Del. Michael Hough, R-Frederick, said it was among the most bipartisan efforts he has seen during four sessions. Whenever Republicans had concerns, Democrats were quick to help resolve the conflicts, Hough said.

Several of the new laws increase penalties for corruption. One raises the maximum penalty for smuggling in a cellphone to five years imprisonment and a $3,000 fine. Another lets prison authorities immediately suspend guards without pay if they're caught smuggling in certain contraband, including cellphones, weapons or drugs.

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Rick Binetti called these bills a "one-two punch" to prevent cellphone smuggling. Inmates have been accused of using cellphones to intimidate witnesses and order hits on rival gang members.

Other bills only apply to new staff members. For instance, DPSCS will now have the right to require lie detector tests for job applicants, and probationary officers will no longer be covered by the Correctional Officers' Bill of Rights.

"That's a testing time for folks who may become corrupt," Binetti said. "It helps us clean out people who we know aren't going to make it."

However, Jeff Pittman, spokesman for the correctional officers' union, said the officers' bill of rights is taking unfair blame for enabling corruption. It doesn't stand in the way of prosecuting officers who commit crimes, he said. He said suspending officers before they're found guilty could violate their due process rights.

"This was not a law that needed to be changed — obviously," he said.

Guzzone said lawmakers knew about this concern. For that reason, they whittled down the list of charges for which officers could be immediately suspended.

Nevertheless, Pittman said most of the state's 7,200 correctional officers could suffer for the actions of just 27 corrupt ones.

Binetti said there will always be some guards who accept bribes — both in Maryland's prisons and elsewhere.

"That will never go away completely for our system or any other prison system in the country," he said. "It's a fact of life."

The legislature also approved O'Malley's plans to fund the hiring of another 100 correctional officers and certain facility upgrades. However, there are plans to replace the main Baltimore jail within 10 years, and Guzzone said it's a tough call whether to fund certain renovations there in the meantime, such as replacing key locks with electronic ones.

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