By Christopher Zoukis
It's an explosive story that reads like it came straight out of the script of one of the hottest prison-centered TV shows.
A pair of sweeping new federal indictments have resulted in charges for 80 people, including 18 corrections officials, 35 inmates and 27 outside facilitators, with being part of a major smuggling and racketeering conspiracy inside the Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI), in Westover, Maryland. With over 3,300 inmates, the medium-security men's facility is Maryland's largest state prison.
In an October 5 press conference, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein outlined charges including smuggling of drugs and other contraband, bribery of corrections officials, and denial of civil rights--stemming from two separate instances this July when corrections officials allegedly got inmates to stab other inmates suspected of informing on their illegal activities.
The detailed indictments sketch a conspiracy in which inmates used money, and in some cases sexual favors, to persuade corrections officials to smuggle a wide variety of contraband into the prison, primarily drugs -- including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, oxycodone, marijuana, synthetic marijuana and Suboxone, a much-abused drug prescribed to treat heroin addiction -- along with cellphones, pornographic DVDs, and tobacco.
Separate indictments were issued for each of ECI's two four-unit compounds, and each indictment named nine different corrections officials for smuggling contraband into the prison by hiding it on their persons to evade security searches, or retrieving it from their cars during work breaks. Once the contraband was inside the prison, the corrections officials would distribute it to inmates in their cells, or deliver it to pre-selected stash locations.
Inmates with work assignments allowing them to travel outside their cells would retrieve dropped-off contraband, deliver it to customers, and arrange to pay corrections officials, either directly or with the aid of persons outside the prison.
The indictments also claim corrections officials warned inmates involved in the conspiracy when prison searches were scheduled so that contraband could be hidden. They also warned their confederates when an inmate was thought to be trying to inform prison authorities of the illegal activities. Four corrections officials and four inmates were named in two incidents of stabbings of suspected informers.
The indictments show the contraband trade was lucrative. For example, a thin strip of Suboxone retailing for $3 outside could fetch $50 inside ECI. Smuggled cellphones were used for internal communications. The indictments contain excerpts of conversations on smuggled cellphones or prison communications systems. The normal rate for a correction official to smuggle in a package was $500, the indictments claim, with payments made in cash, money orders, or through PayPal, transacted inside prison directly by cellphone, or outside through assistants using mailboxes.
The conspiracy apparently came to light through a whistleblowing corrections official. Stephen Moyer, who took over as Secretary of the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services last year, said he put eight investigators to work on the case, and drew on assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other state and federal agencies.
Defendants could receive up to 20 years in prison for racketeering and for the drug smuggling conspiracy. Those involved in the stabbings of suspected informants could get up to another 10 years. While the alleged ECI conspiracy appears to be Maryland's largest prison scandal to date, it is not an isolated incident. Contraband smuggling in Maryland corrections facilities prompted 44 federal indictments in 2014 and 24 in 2009.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com