How the Black Guerrilla Family Turned Maryland's Prison System into Their Personal Playground

The gang was so powerful in a Baltimore city jail that its leader was having the guards deliver crab imperial and Grey Goose right to his cell, according to court documents.

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Dec 8 2014, 6:15pm

Photo via Groupuscule/Wikimedia Commons

New York City tabloids briefly went berserk this weekend when reports emerged that the Black Guerrilla Family, or BGF—a powerful prison gang that got its start in California—might be targeting New York Police Department officers in the wake of the non-indictment of the cop who choked Eric Garner.

Now it seems like the BGF is threatening Baltimore cops, which makes sense given that the group's historically firm stranglehold on that city's jail system is in doubt.

Black Guerilla Family shot-caller Tavon "Bulldog" White testified in federal court last week, in the process describing his rise to power and the inner workings of the prison-based gang. Prosecutors say the BGF smuggled contraband like drugs and cellphones into various Maryland correctional institutions. Perhaps most inflammatory is the claim prosecutors have made involving sex between inmates and guards, which apparently led to four female officers being impregnated by White. He was the "city-wide commander" of the gang and allegedly seduced the guards by buying them cars. In his testimony, White detailed how his agenda was to "make money" and "run the jail, pretty much. I wasn't trying to be some flunky."

By turning on his gang and serving as the prosecution's star witness, White has become what criminals detest the most: a snitch. Still, it's not clear how much one leader's defection will matter to a criminal enterprise like the Black Guerrilla Family.

White testified that he joined the gang in 1997 "because they was, at the time, pretty much running the institution." After reentering prison in 2009, he got involved with the gang again. "I stepped back for the first week, watched who was who, who was doing what, and I made myself into what I was. They put their stamp of approval on me."

What he did not explain was how the BGF ended up in Maryland in the first place.

The Black Guerilla Family was founded in 1966 by former Black Panther George Jackson, who wrote the seminal prison memoir Soledad Brother in California's infamous San Quentin facility. The late Edward Bunker, an ex-con author who found success in Hollywood, described George Jackson in his memoir, Miseducation of a Felon: "George Jackson, I remember plain as day, him and maybe six or seven others, ran down a tier and started stabbing white guys just because they were white." But like a lot of the gangs that were formed on strict racial lines in California's brutal prison system, the BGF turned to drugs to gain power inside the netherworld of corruption and violence.

The BGF took a particularly strong hold on Maryland's prisons, where in return for membership and status in the gang, prison recruits enjoyed power, prestige, influence, and protection. The Los Angeles street gang the Crips are strongly aligned with the BGF, along with other black gangs and organizations. The BGF acted as an anchor in prison to unite the street gangs on racial lines to stand tall against the Mexican Mafia and Aryan Brotherhood, rival California race-based prison gangs.

The BGF traces its roots in Maryland through Eric Brown, who was locked up in the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore in the late 2000s and oversaw the writing of The Black Book, a BGF manifesto intended to empower blacks in prison and in the community. As the book spread through the system, new recruits flocked to the BGF banner, and Brown became a very powerful man.

"Eric Brown was the one who started the BGF in the Maryland system," a prisoner and BGF member we'll call B-More says. "He's in the feds now, but when he was in the Maryland system, he was running shit. He started all that corrupting officers and bringing in drugs shit. He showed the brothers how to do it right and get away with it." All it takes is a single charismatic leader to bring a gang together and shape its reputation.

Prison officials were doing all they could to limit the gang's activities, but arrests did little to slow the BGF's rise.

Using cellphones smuggled in by corrupt officers, Brown organized drug deals and authorized beatings of wayward members and enemies of the gang. He also had officers bring him meals of crab imperial and Grey Goose Vodka to wash it down, according to court documents. But Brown and two dozen associates were indicted in 2009 and pled guilty to racketeering two years later.

When Brown was shipped into the Federal Bureau of Prisons, White emerged as the new leader for the BGF in the Maryland system. Prison officials were doing all they could to limit the gang's activities, but arrests did little to slow the BGF's rise. "The BGF is strong in Maryland," B-More tells me. "It started in the jails and prisons and moved out to the streets. It was a movement from the inside out."

Right under the noses of correctional officials, the gang took root, with new prisoners recruited to serve as BGF couriers or to pay a monthly fee. "You gotta pay to play," B-More explains. "It ain't pretty. You either do what the BGF wants or it's your ass." Prisoners who refuse to play the BGF's game are targeted for violence. And correctional officers aren't immune to the gang's tactics.

"The problem is you got all these dudes in prison and all these females from the same neighborhoods working there," B-More says. "What do you think is going to happen? These dudes got power, even in prison and the home girls, correctional officers or not, are attracted to powerful men." Nearly 7 percent of inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center reported having sexual contact with officers. Nationwide, the rate is less than 2 percent. "They are fucking in that jail," B-More says. "Everyone knows that."

BGF members at the detention center used sex to secure the allegiance of some of the 13 indicted correctional officers, all of whom are women. The gang recruited prison employees and used hidden compartments in shoes to smuggle heroin, ecstasy, tobacco, cellphones, and other contraband.

It's been reported that over half of the approximately 650 officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center were involved in contraband smuggling. Court documents substantiated this, contradicting claims by prison officials that the majority of staff members at the jail were clean.

Authorities claim that the gang's revolutionary stance and rhetoric are a big attraction for those who want to be affiliated with the legacy of radical black insurgency. The tale of the Black Panthers and the BGF is romantic to many inner-city residents trying to fight their way out of poverty. The infamy adds excitement to an otherwise mundane existence. The American Gangster–type urgency is a strong influence for many in troubled urban environments.

But all the corruption has turned the Maryland state prison system into a haven for the gang. "The BGF run the Maryland system," B-More says. "Everyone knows that."

As the Washington Post reported last year:

White bragged about earning $16,000 during a slow month. Percocet pills that cost $10 outside the prison walls, for instance, went for three times as much behind bars. One-gram bags of marijuana sold for $50, a profit of about $1,000 per ounce, according to court documents.

"It's all about the hustle. Dude had power for real," B-More says. "He talked real sweet to the girls and they fell for it. He was fucking like six or seven of them. He was having it his way. And all the homies were getting some too. We had that shit on lock. When they shipped me into the feds to serve out my sentence, I was mad. I wanted to stay in the city to do my time."

With nothing but time on their hands, it was easy to come up with new ways to circumvent every security precaution prison officials could implement.

When charges in the case were first made public in the spring of last year, a 98-page affidavit filed in connection with the indictment detailed allegations of drug smuggling, small fortunes electronically laundered, and amorous encounters between inmates and jail officers. Lawmakers and corrections officials moved to boost security at the Baltimore City Detention Center, installing a $4 million system to cut off the contraband cellphones used to arrange drug smuggling and changing entrance security procedures. But as criminals tend to do, the prisoners adapted. With nothing but time on their hands, it was easy to come up with new ways to circumvent every security precaution prison officials could implement.

"It ain't change nothing," B-More says. "Niggas still getting shit in, niggas still getting pussy. The game don't stop. Only the players change. I be hollering at my little cousin who is there right now. He got a phone. He says you can get whatever you want."

The BGF in Maryland may be stronger on the streets now than the original chapter in California. In Baltimore, the gang has taken over many established drug markets just as they took over the city jail. And with its Maryland founder, Eric Brown, in the feds, the gang is now spreading into the upper tier of the American prison system. The recent hype surrounding the gang has fortified their already legendary status. It's increasingly clear that despite all the recent indictments, the mystique of the gang is only growing.

In other words, the Black Guerilla Family isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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