Five years ago, next to the chapel in a Maryland prison, the Black Guerrilla Family kept its own office with desks, chairs even computers. The group's ranking members met there with community leaders, including a former Maryland state trooper, to talk about reducing gang activity in prison and beyond. They wrote a manual filled with self-help rhetoric that they distributed to hundreds of inmates.
All the while, according to court documents and interviews, BGF, a prison gang from California, was methodically taking root in Maryland, plotting an audacious criminal enterprise controlled largely behind bars.
Under the noses of Maryland correctional officials, the enterprise grew and flourished into a vast and violent smuggling operation that has spilled onto the streets of Baltimore.
Five years later, there is growing concern that Maryland's gang problem is as intractable as ever. Arrests of more than a dozen correctional officers and alleged BGF leaders this spring at a state-run detention center in Baltimore revealed what federal prosecutors said was a brazen operation to smuggle in prescription pills, tobacco and cellphones. The alleged ringleader also impregnated four prison guards, investigators said.
Some officials say those arrests did little to slow BGF's rise. The arrests shook the gang's leadership at the city jail. But the violence has continued on Baltimore's streets, and police say cracking down has helped increase the gang's ranks by delivering new recruits behind bars.
"We're arresting people and sending them right into the den of that gang haven," Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said in a recent interview. "We're basically helping them recruit by arresting people."
Several state officials rejected Batts' view that BGF has not been contained and accused him of trying to deflect attention from a recent surge in city killings. But these officials are in the hot seat, too; the latest federal indictment trained a bright light on the Maryland prison system's failure over many years to thwart BGF, and has prompted recriminations, public hearings in Annapolis and tough questions for prison officials and Gov. Martin O'Malley.
A spokesman for the department, Rick Binetti, said prison officials have worked closely with Baltimore police in recent years, including Batts, to reduce violence on the streets and make the corrections system safer. He pointed to a 47 percent drop in serious assaults among inmates since 2007.
"We disagree that there is a 'gang haven' anywhere within our system," Binetti said. "Gangs are a fact of life for every prison and jail in the country."
Still, since the April indictment, corrections officials have acknowledged that nearly one-third of more than 3,000 identified gang members within the system are affiliated with the Black Guerrilla Family, making it the state's largest prison gang. The system houses nearly 22,000 inmates in all.
BGF traces its roots to the revolutionary prison writings of a former Black Panther in California. In Maryland, a key figure was Eric Brown, a charismatic salesman locked up at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore in the late 2000s. He oversaw the writing of the "The Black Book Empowering Black Families and Communities," distributing hundreds of copies of the revolutionary manifesto to inmates throughout the prison system, officials said in court filings. But he didn't pitch "The Black Book" as having a connection to a criminal gang: He advertised an empowering organization meant to uplift its members, impose discipline and keep a lid on prison violence.
The pitch was so successful that Brown, beyond recruiting members, collected endorsements from a former FBI agent and a mayoral candidate in Baltimore. Early on, however, federal authorities began monitoring Brown's phone calls and investigating allegations that he was bribing officers and coordinating sales of heroin and cocaine.