THERE IS NO WAY Gov. Martin O’Malley can make Maryland’s prison embarrassment disappear. Lord knows he’d like to. If he’s serious about running for President, O’Malley must explain why he was so slow to respond to the growing influence of street gangs within state prisons over the past seven years.
He can’t blame this one on his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich. The problem started to build back then but there were clear signs early in O’Malley’s first term gangs had become dangerously powerful inside prison walls.
He can’t blame all his tardiness on the FBI, which took two long years to finish its investigation at the Baltimore City jail. Yes, that stymied efforts to remove suspect prisoners and guards. But there were plenty of other steps — much-needed additional training, rotation of guards not under investigation and a review of the leadership team’s skills, abilities and honesty.
An outside audit earlier this year revealed a shocking lack of attention by the O’Malley administration to the basics: filthy cells, no standard security checks, antiquated security gates and guards ignorant of an inmate’s rights. Part of this is due to budget cuts during the Great Recession and the chronic under-funding of prison programs by government.
However, the audit also revealed a top-heavy, inefficient management structure. How could O’Malley’s highly touted State Stat gurus miss this? Why wasn’t this costly, ineffective administrative excess done away with during the state’s deep recession?
It’s a dilemma for the governor and a headache for Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who may have made a mistake with his early announcement of candidacy to succeed O’Malley.
Brown is in the uncomfortable posture of explaining the prison scandal on his watch. Attorney General Doug Gansler’s shot across O’Malley’s bow in asking for an independent inquiry is just the beginning of the political broadsides.
Yet O’Malley has got a right to be angry at the way federal investigators trumpeted their indictments. Instead of holding a joint press conference and sharing credit with state leaders, who had requested the investigation after all, the FBI and U.S. Attorney for Maryland decided to grandstand. They left the clear impression O’Malley and his underlings were asleep at the switch.
That may win federal officials in Maryland gold stars from their Washington bosses but it soured future relations with Annapolis.
Digging out of this mess won’t be easy, as House Speaker Mike Busch noted. One legislative hearing is the beginning of public discussions, not the end.
There are serious mid-level management weaknesses. Those can be corrected by prisions secretary Gary Maynard. He can institute tough new security measures to eliminate most contraband cell phones and drugs. Downsizing the prison bureaucracy is essential. A little money from the governor can make the Baltimore jail cleaner and safer.
Getting rid of dishonest guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center is a must but it brings up an equally serious problem: how to replace them? The pool of guard applicants in Baltimore City who are drug-free and have clean records is small, especially among males. Most applicants come from the same neighborhoods as the inmates. That’s not a healthy situation.
Female applicants in Baltimore City, meanwhile, tend to have self-confidence problems and are susceptible to the amorous sweet-talk of manipulative inmates. Recruiting better guard applicants won’t be easy and won’t happen quickly.
O’Malley erred several times by not personally taking control of the situation and setting the record straight as to who started this investigation, his earlier steps to attack the gang issue and his determination to continue the effort. He could have done this after he returned from his economic development trip to Israel or at last week’s legislative hearing.
Instead, he chose to govern through press releases. It didn’t work.
On this one he needs to lead the crusade. If not, he’ll be dogged by prison scandal questions at every campaign stop across the country — and his preferred successor will be bogged down trying to explain what went so wrong that it left Maryland in an embarrassing national spotlight.