The Baltimore City Detention Center is the site where scores of crimes allegedly… (Michael S. Williamson/The…)
Inside a gray brick fortress, past a barbed-wire fence, two women in prison guard uniforms traded words about their pregnancies.
“Did he tell you we was having a son?” Tiffany Linder asked, according to court documents recounting the conversation. “Did you know about our baby?”
Chania Brooks said she didn’t care about that baby. That was their child, not hers.
“We having one, too,” she said. “So what?”
The two 27-year-old corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were sparring over an inmate who prosecutors said left both women with a permanent reminder of their allegiance to him.
To investigators, Tavon White is a thug who has been in and out of jail since he was 18, most recently on charges that he shot a fellow drug dealer four times. He is allegedly a high-ranking “bushman” in the Black Guerilla Family, a gang with a reputation for not just killing its enemies but also burning down their homes.
But during his three years at the state-run detention center, White, 36, was allegedly a figure who commanded respect, not only from fellow inmates in jumpsuits but also from many of the women in blue collared shirts and pressed slacks guarding him. Thirteen of them allegedly smuggled cellphones and drugs inside their hair, lunches and underwear for the man they called “Bulldog” or “Tay.” One tattooed his name on her neck, another on her wrist. Four have carried his children.
Through court documents, an affidavit from an FBI agent that contains transcripts of wiretapped conversations, and interviews with people familiar with White, the 13 officers indicted in April and the jail, a portrait emerges of a place where sex and drugs were swapped with stunning casualness, where thousands of dollars flowed in and out each week, and where one man’s power was, by all accounts, no match for a badge.
Just weeks before the two pregnant guards talked about the children they were expecting, a third allegedly pondered possible names for her son.
“What if I name the baby King?” Katera Stevenson, 24, asked in a wiretapped call to her sister recounted in the affidavit. “I like the name King. King Tavon White.”
‘A city within a city’
The Baltimore City Detention Center takes up most of a city block in East Baltimore, a little more than a mile from the Inner Harbor. The warren of seven buildings houses 2,000 or more prisoners awaiting trial for everything from writing bad checks to rape and murder.
It is a miserable place, with some parts more than 150 years old and conditions that state and local officials have been trying to fix for the past four decades. Its well-documented shortcomings have included rodent-infested cells, a lack of medical care for inmates and extreme temperatures.
In the winter, everyone shivers, former inmates say. In the summer, the heat can become unbearable in the parts of the facility that lack air conditioning. One former prisoner blogged about running a T-shirt under cold water, putting it on for a bit of relief, then within 15 minutes having to do it again.
In 1991, the state took over the detention center. In 2002, the Justice Department concluded that conditions there violated the constitutional rights of inmates.
“I hate going over there to visit clients, because it is so depressing,” said defense lawyer Warren A. Brown. The ventilation inside is so bad, he said, that past clients have told him what they appreciate most upon their release “is not their mama’s cooking but fresh air.”
The inmates vastly outnumber the 625 guards, who make a base salary of $35,000 to $45,000 a year but can earn considerably more through overtime. They receive five to six weeks of training before entering — without any weapons to protect themselves — what one former guard calls “a city within a city.”
“It has its own government. It has its own rules. It has its own understanding,” said James McEachin, a former detention center corrections officer turned pastor. As a guard, he said, “once you go behind that door, it closes for you, too.”
It was here, in this troubled place, that White seized an opportunity. He used the jail’s lax security, its female guards and his unusually long three-year stay at the facility to build what prosecutors described as a lucrative drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation, complete with a “minister of finance.”
Some of the guards who allegedly conspired with White said they were in it solely for the cash.
“I am just about my money,” 25-year-old corrections officer Adrena Rice told White during a wiretapped call Feb. 10. She had no interest in relationships with inmates, who would want a cut of what she was earning by working for him. “Nah. I love money, Tay. I want my own money.”
The corruption extends far beyond the 13 women charged, the affidavit suggested, with one inmate estimating that as many as 70 percent of the corrections officers were compromised.