WASHINGTON - In a region of the U.S. usually consumed by politics and partisan bickering, the unfolding jailhouse drama in Maryland — where an imprisoned gang ringleader fathered five children with four separate female guards — is providing an enthralling distraction.
A sweeping prison corruption investigation went public this week as more than a dozen Maryland corrections officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were accused of helping a prison gang run a drug-trafficking operation from their jail cells in a stunning story that seems lifted from a script of the acclaimed "The Wire" television series.
"It is definitely life imitating art," Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University in D.C. who studies jailhouse sexual abuse, said in an interview Thursday.
In the U.S. capital, about an hour to the southwest of Baltimore, the story was receiving widespread play thanks to a litany salacious details, including the fact that two of the impregnated prison guards tattooed ringleader Tavon White's name on their bodies.
White, 36, showered three of the guards with expensive gifts, including luxury cars and jewellery.
The four women — Jennifer Owens, 31, Katera Stevenson, 24, Chania Brooks, 27, and Tiffany Linder, 27 — are among 25 people, 13 of them female prison guards, who face federal charges that include drug conspiracy, money laundering and racketeering.
Federal law enforcement officials say the defendants conspired with or took bribes from members of White's gang, the Black Guerilla Family, to smuggle drugs, cellphones and additional contraband in and out of the jail and several facilities connected to it.
The indictments allege that since 2009, the gang literally seized control of the jail where they were sent to serve their sentences.
"This is my jail; you understand that?" White, convicted of attempted murder in 2009, said according to a telephone transcript released by investigators.
"I’m dead serious …. I make every final call in this jail … and nothing go past me, everything come to me."
The FBI expressed dismay in a statement released earlier this week.
"In this case, the inmates literally took over the asylum and the detention centres became safe havens for the BGF," said special agent Stephen E. Vogt.
"Law enforcement should not have to concern itself with criminal subjects who have already been arrested and relegated to detention centres."
Authorities finally grew wise to the scheme in February following a series of inspections by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services that revealed a cache of contraband.
"It becomes embarrassing for me when we expose ourselves and we participate in an investigation that's going to show what's going on in our jails that I am not proud of," Gary Maynard, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services, said this week.
But it's not so much White's alleged actions that have stunned the nation.
Instead, the scandal has raised questions about why female prison guards would become intimately involved with their charges and whether it was appropriate to have women corrections officials guarding male inmates in the first place.
Smith says no one should be surprised — it's happened before, and will undoubtedly happen again in a country where female corrections officers are growing ever more plentiful.
Due to soaring male incarceration rates, female prison guards now make up 37 per cent of corrections officers in the U.S., according to the American Correctional Association. In crime-plagued Baltimore, 60 per cent of the prison guards are women.
And yet Americans apparently believe women don't behave badly, she points out.
"We seem to have adopted the most conservative notions of feminism on this story, which is not just that we are equal, but we're actually better than men, that we're more professional, more in control of our baser instincts, that we're the keepers of morals," she said.
"But we're not taking into account that women get turned on too, both physically and by being in positions of power, and that we're corruptible, and corrupted, as often as men are."
In February, two female prison guards in New York were arrested for getting pregnant by inmates — one of whom was Ronell Wilson, who's on death row for killing two cops.
In Montana, Michael Murphy, who's serving a sentence for theft and forgery, managed to seduce no less than five female corrections workers — including the prison psychiatrist, who later confessed she knew full well he was manipulating her.
Yet Smith said she disputes the notion that the men are always the manipulators in jailhouse sex scandals of the type uncovered in Baltimore.
"That denies women their autonomy," she said.
"These guys are attractive, they apparently have sexual energy, they're magnetic, they're powerful, and women gravitate towards them in jail just as they would out in the community."
What's more? Male inmates are in positions of vulnerability, Smith added.
"They're emotionally available and attentive in ways that they might not have been out of prison. Mr. White may have been powerful, but these female guards had things that he wanted — they were in control of him, too," she said.
According to a 2008-2009 Department of Justice report, the vast majority of prison guards who have sex with inmates are female, she points out.
"Among the 39,121 male prison inmates who had been victims of staff sexual misconduct, 69 per cent reported sexual activity with female staff," the study found.
In juvenile facilities, the numbers are even more staggering. Ninety per cent of boys who complained of sexual harassment by prison officials said they were solicited, and often raped, by women.
"This is a problem that isn't going away, and in fact may become more prevalent in the years to come," Smith said.