The 2010 creation by the Maryland General Assembly of a much-heralded Correctional Officer Bill of Rights (COBR) has become a hot-button public-policy issue as a corruption scandal erupted April 23, when the inclusion of 13 correctional officers (COs) in a 25-member racketeering indictment against the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang became national news. The FBI, which spearheaded the investigation, in BGF court documents called COBR "ineffective as a deterrent" to gang-related correctional corruption, prompting outcry that, given these unintended consequences, the law may be ripe for reform.
It turns out COBR's 2010 passage was propelled by events in 2008 that the FBI is currently investigating-a probe that earlier this year resulted in obstruction of justice conspiracy charges against 15 former and current COs, including supervisors, in connection with the 2008 beatings of inmate Kenneth Davis at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. Some of those charged have already pleaded guilty.
Thus, the FBI contends that current CO corruption in the BGF case is due, in part, to new due-process protections that were instituted in reaction to circumstances the FBI attributes to a corrupt correctional "culture" of inmate beatings and cover-ups which COs knew to be illegal. In other words, from the FBI's perspective, COBR was corruption-enabling reform that itself was a product of corruption.
The public employees union AFSCME Maryland, which represents the state's 7,500 correctional officers (COs), reacted to the FBI's COBR criticism with an April 30 press conference to defend the measure, which the union had successfully pushed for during the 2010 legislative session in Annapolis.
AFSCME Maryland president Patrick Moran said at the press conference, which was staged at the union's headquarters near M&T Bank Stadium, that COBR is now being targeted in Annapolis as "some legislators have questioned whether or not [COBR] impedes the department's ability to discipline folks." AFSCME spokesperson Jeff Pittman clearly set down the union's answer: COBR "does not impede the state's ability to investigate or to discipline officers who commit acts of wrongdoing," he told the gathered reporters.
When asked about the FBI's characterization of COBR's lack of deterrence when COs consider corrupt relationships with inmate gang members, Moran said, "We don't think that's an accurate portrayal." Issues involving gang-related correctional corruption, Moran continued, "existed and were open and going on long before COBR," which, when instituted after its 2010 passage, set "a timeline for officers and the state to reach a conclusion" in disciplinary cases and "gave [COs] due process where they didn't have due process before."
COBR passed, Moran explained, because "there was a series of incidents over the years" in which "we've continuously seen the tendency to terminate folks instead of giving them a full range of due process" when the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services suspects a CO engaged in misconduct.
Under questioning from a reporter, Moran was hesitant to give much credit to the Davis fallout for helping to pass COBR, saying repeatedly that it was "one aspect" of the discussion. But an audio recording of the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee's 2010 hearing on the COBR legislation shows that advocates for the bill, in urging its passage, repeatedly cited the Davis beatings.
The bill's main sponsor, then-state Sen. Donald Munson (R-Washington County), testified first, telling the story of a former CO, Scott Boozel, who "was accused of beating inmates a couple of years ago." He said Boozel was cleared at an administrative hearing and given his job back, but then he was indicted "for no good reason," and "ultimately all the charges were dropped" and he was "found innocent twice, essentially, and he hasn't been able to go back to work."
Court records and press coverage of the trial against Boozel show he was tried for assaulting Kenneth Davis, and the case against him ended in a mistrial. He has not been charged in the current round of federal obstruction of justice charges over the Davis affair.
Also testifying was Ronald Lohr, a Western Maryland correctional union president, who said that during his 15 years of working as a CO, "I've seen a lot of botched investigations and poor decision-making by management in the disciplinary process," including against his son, a former CO who "became a victim of that flawed process," so the COBR bill "means a great deal not only to myself and my son, but also to thousands" of COs across the state.
Lohr's son, Ryan Lohr, a 26-year-old former CO, was charged in January and pleaded guilty in the ongoing FBI obstruction of justice probe into the Davis beatings. He's since been deposed in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by an inmate who claims, as the FBI does in its criminal court filings, that inmate beatings and subsequent cover-ups are part of a corrupt culture among COs in Maryland.
Back in 2010, though, without the benefit of knowing that the FBI was looking at the Davis beatings as an obstruction of justice situation, Munson interpreted what had happened with the Davis beatings as a case of COs being railroaded by an overzealous and too-powerful prison administration. He told CP shortly after the COBR legislation passed that he hadn't considered the measure's potential impact on the correctional system's efforts to root out gang-tied COs involved in criminal schemes.
"I've never thought of this measure in that context," Munson said, adding that, "if it doesn't work, we'll fix it in the future."
Given this year's developments, a fix may be nigh. Not only are the very circumstances that propelled COBR to passage-the fallout of the Davis beatings, cast by supporters as a case of the correctional system unjustly railroading the COs-now being held out by the FBI as instead being a case of corrupt COs conspiring to cover up illegal conduct, but the FBI also says COBR was a contributing factor in the corruption exposed by the BGF case, which has emerged as a public-corruption scandal of national interest. Thus, in the world of legislative reform, COBR could be in the eye of a perfect storm.