An ongoing FBI investigation has revealed massive corruption at Maryland’s biggest prison, the East Correctional Institution in Westover (ECI). The discovery of an underground black market facilitated by corrections officers at ECI led to the indictment of 80 people earlier this month, including some prison guards.
The defendants are accused of running a black market dealing in drugs and pornographic materials among the inmates, in which officers would smuggle illicit material into the prison to be sold at huge mark-ups by other prisoners.
Some of the corrections officers have also been accused of having sex with inmates, in addition to directing and encouraging violence within the prison population. It is the single largest federal indictment in Maryland’s history.
The corruption at ECI mirrors a similar criminal enterprise that was uncovered at the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013, and signals a worrying trend among large state-run, often under-staffed, prisons. In Baltimore, a prominent gang used bribery and threats to effectively take over an entire prison, in much the same way as occurred at ECI.
Correctional officers at ECI accepted bribes to smuggle various forms of contraband, including molly (MDMA), heroin, and cocaine past stringent security measures. Pornographic materials provided by the officers were also sold among inmates.
These black market deals were facilitated by contraband cell phones, (courtesy of the indicted officers), which were used by inmates to transfer funds via Paypal. The scheme was so profitable that one defendant testified at his initial hearing that he had planned to earn $50,000 before his release.
In addition to 18 correctional officers and 35 inmates, 27 other people, including a former corrections officer, were also indicted for facilitating the corrupt transactions at ECI.
Many of the outside sources are relatives of currently incarcerated individuals, who now face conspiracy charges and jail time of their own for taking part in the scheme. Certain indicted individuals face heightened charges relating to outright violence, in addition to providing and selling contraband.
Some of the officers are accused of directing and encouraging intra-inmate violence, in one case as retaliation for a complaint that had been filed against the officer. In other cases, corrupt officers identified “snitches,” or those inmates cooperating with top-level prison management in seeking to rid the facility of corruption, singling them out for violence from other prisoners.
ECI raids conducted by the FBI and the resulting indictments are the culmination of a groundbreaking cooperative effort between the Maryland corrections department, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies tasked with rooting out systemic corruption in prisons.
Stephen T. Moyer, the Secretary of Maryland’s Corrections Department, assigned eight investigators to work with federal officials on the case, stating that he accepted his position under Governor Larry Hogan specifically to flush out corruption. Investigators relied heavily on wiretaps, as well as the assistance of a corrections officer who initially came forward to report the conspiracy in 2013.
Now, nearly three years later, following an intense pre-dawn raid at ECI, more than 80 individuals are navigating the Maryland criminal justice system following their indictments.
While nearly half of the defendants are already incarcerated on unrelated charges, many others have been released awaiting trial. Meanwhile, the Corrections Department continues to struggle to adequately staff its prisons.
Prospective corrections officers are already required to pass rigorous background checks and polygraph tests to ensure the individuals tasked with maintaining order can withstand temptation.
Attorney Chad McCoy commented, ‘These barriers to employment exacerbate the fact that many prisons are under-staffed, which in turn leads to added pressure to make more hires, regardless of their test results.”
Without adequate staffing, the guards tasked with maintaining control of Maryland’s large inmate population are often forced to do so on little sleep, pulling double shifts and working under extremely high stress levels.
An appropriate ratio of inmates to corrections officers must be maintained to enable the officers to resist threats and bribes from the gangs that flourish in large-scale penitentiaries. Without addressing the underlying issue of inadequate staffing, ECI may not be the last state-run prison discovered to be fostering this type of corruption.