Baltimore City Detention Center where the criminal activity took place. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun )
Maryland lawmakers have repeatedly killed legislation sought by corrections officials to crack down on the smuggling of cellphones into prisons, a key element of the gang culture that thrived in the Baltimore jail at the center of a broad federal indictment.
Bills that would have stiffened penalties for inmates and corrupt guards have died for four years in a row in the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that was first to call for hearings after racketeering charges were announced by federal prosecutors nearly two weeks ago.
No one has suggested that the legislation is a panacea, but supporters say that if it had passed in 2010, when first requested by Gary D. Maynard, the state’s corrections secretary, the situation at the Baltimore City Detention Center might not have gotten so out of hand. According to the indictment, the Black Guerilla Family gang essentially took over the institution. Guards smuggled in cellphones and drugs and had sex with gang members.
“If this had passed several years ago, it would have made a huge impact,” said Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. (R-Baltimore County), a retired police officer who sponsored the most recent version of the legislation this year. Cluster argued that the prospect of additional incarceration would have swayed some inmates, who often get away with “a slap on the wrist” now, and given pause to more guards considering involvement.
Law enforcement officials say cellphones enable inmates to plot assaults and escapes. And they make it possible for inmates to practice a form of telecommuting from prison to coordinate drug and gang activity and to harass witnesses and order killings on the outside.
Under the legislation, inmates caught with a cellphone for a second time would have faced felony charges that could result in up to five additional years being tacked onto their sentences. Under current law, cellphone possession is a misdemeanor, regardless of how many times inmates are caught, and the punishment does not automatically lengthen their incarceration. The legislation also would have increased penalties for guards, visitors or anyone else who delivers or attempts to deliver a cellphone to an inmate.
As the problem has grown nationally, states are trying a variety of strategies to fight back, including tougher penalties. Mississippi, for example, is cracking down this year using a contraband law that carries felony sentences of up to 15 years in prison. And Idaho passed a law last year that makes the crime a felony with a potential five-year sentence.
Maynard said that the bill would not have cured the problems at the Baltimore jail — “I am not blaming this on that,” he said — but that “it would have been one step in a number of steps.”
He said the threat of stiffer penalties could have affected correctional officers, whom the department can place on leave without pay when charged with a felony. An aide explained that the loss of a paycheck can be “the breaking point” for guards considering going astray.
Testimony in favor of the bill this year by Baltimore police cited the operation of the Black Guerilla Family in several Maryland correctional institutions as one reason to pass the bill. Over the years, the legislation has also drawn the backing of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, the Maryland Sheriffs Association and the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
In testimony last year, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said “the use of cellphones in correctional facilities has proven to allow gangs to increase membership and power by exerting control over other inmates and correctional officers.”
The bill died this year, as it had before, on a closely divided vote in the House Judiciary Committee, where several dominant members, including Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), are defense attorneys.
One of them, Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), said he was concerned that branding cellphone violators as felons would have serious consequences, including a loss of voting rights and difficulty finding employment, upon their release.
“Felonies are usually reserved for the most serious of crimes: bank robberies, murders, rapes,” said Anderson, who requested that Vallario call a hearing next week on the situation at the Baltimore jail. The hearing has since been postponed.
Vallario did not return a call seeking comment. Anderson said that Vallario opposed the bill for much the same reasons he did.
Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), the committee’s vice chairwoman, said the “primary reason” the bill failed is that prosecutors have pursued few cases of cellphone abuse under the current law.
“It might make people feel better to increase the penalty, but I’m not sure it’s effective,” she said.