BALTIMORE – The leader of a violent gang that controlled life inside one of America's most notorious jails testified that he directed guards motivated by sex and money to smuggle in drugs and cellphones and facilitate attacks on inmates who challenged his authority.
Tavon "Bulldog" White described a culture of corruption inside the centuries-old Baltimore City Detention Center, led by a gang that has its own language and laws and authorities. The Black Guerilla Family's hierarchy includes a "minister of education" who quizzes members on gang literature and a "minister of finance" who manages the profits sent by cellphones from behind bars.
The gang's smuggling schemes even fund the bail that frees gang members who can't pay to get sprung from jail, he testified this week.
Gang leaders, not guards, are the ultimate authority inside the jail, he said.
"We're about to go into a strange place, an upside-down world where inmates ran the prison and correctional officers took directions from the gang leader," Prosecutor Robert Harding told jurors in opening statements, and White didn't disappoint, describing a gang-run economy made possible by official corruption.
White was once the government's primary target, but has since become the prosecutors' most valuable asset, providing information that led to a 160-count indictment against 44 people. Now he's testifying against the few who didn't plead guilty: five corrections officers, one kitchen worker and two inmates on trial in federal court in Baltimore.
White, who impregnated four of the guards while in the jail on an attempted murder charge, said he never forced a guard to participate.
"I didn't have to," White said. "I had my children's mothers, and plenty of other guards willing to do it for money."
The vast majority of the Baltimore jail's guards are women.
One guard who had a child with White had "Tavon" tattooed on her wrist. Another who had two of his children tattooed "Tavon" on her neck.
The Black Guerilla Family has a national presence but is particularly strong in Maryland, where many guards and inmates come from the same impoverished communities.
And inside the Baltimore jail, there was plenty of money to be made, White said.
According to one search warrant, graffiti painted on a jail wall named 14 guards willing to have sex with inmates for $150 a tryst, including two of the women White impregnated.
White told jurors that his gang enforced its monopoly by having the minister of finance collect a 10 percent tax on any contraband smuggled in by unaffiliated inmates.
The gang also decided which inmates guards could choose to be "working men," taking jobs as janitors, launderers or kitchen workers that provided more of mobility and access.
Drugs and cellphones would be hidden inside walls and ceilings. Inmates paid guards by arranging for cash to change hands outside or by texting codes on their cellphones to draw on prepaid debit cards. Gang leaders enlisted guards to carry parcels to inmates on other floors or wings of the crowded jail, and the proceeds "went into a finance bank," White explained.
"It went towards funding BGF members in whatever they may need. If a member came in who was indigent, we could provide money in their account for commissary, or paying bail. We'd take the money out of the finance account and give it to someone responsible and they would pay the bail," White testified.
White said one of the guards on trial, Travis Paylor, eagerly made deals to pick up packages of drugs on the street and smuggle them inside. Paylor then delivered a menu of illegal goods to inmates for set prices, White said.
"I spoke to him every day he was at work," White told the jury. "Most times it was a package deal: one item for $300, three items for $500. Could be 50 Percocets, an ounce of marijuana, a cellphone, or a cellphone and two cans of tobacco -- any three items."
White said another defendant, guard Ashley Newton, allowed the gang to stab an inmate accused of killing a gang member outside.
Cellphones were so widely available, White said, that he was able to call a fellow inmate on a smuggled phone from a "lockup" where he had been sent as punishment for having yet another phone in his cell.
White testified that he personally saw one defendant, kitchen worker Michelle McNair, smuggle tobacco in between her thighs.
Earlier, Wendell M. "Pete" France, an operations director for the state's prisons, described guards carrying contraband inside their lunches and in other ways that defied pat-down searches. "If they are secreted in a body cavity you aren't going to find them," France testified.
White, now serving a 20-year sentence for attempted murder at a location his attorneys won't disclose, was asked about the gang's "constitutions" which include "Once you pledge you take it to the grave," and "We do not participate in snitching or working with the police."
White said the rules apply to defendant Michelle Ricks, a former guard who he said joined the gang and even recited their oath to him.
Judge J. Frederick Motz then interrupted, asking White directly: "Those rules also apply to you, correct?"
White laughed and shifted in his seat, saying "yeah."
White's lawyer said there's no way back for his client. He pleaded guilty to both state and federal charges during the probe, and is hoping his cooperation will mean less prison time.
"He has not just burned his BGF bridges, he's napalmed them," attorney Gary Edward Proctor said.