BALTIMORE — Shortly after raiding a prison this year to clear out an inmate gang, Maryland corrections officials began acting like general managers of a baseball team. They placed phone calls and bargained, making a deal that sent a troublesome convicted murderer to rural Arizona.
In exchange, officials say, Arizona sent Maryland a 42-year-old convicted kidnapper who was causing security problems.
Across the country, state officials are exchanging dangerous inmates--often those involved in drugs and gangs behind bars--for troublesome convicts in other states.
The often secretive practice is legal under a decades-old agreement known as the Interstate Compact. Although authorities say that secrecy protects inmates and others, critics say it could lead to abuses because inmates have few rights.
"They can just send him 3,000 miles away without having any opportunity to contest it," said Dwight Sullivan, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. "These officials have a huge say over the inmates' lives and future."
For centuries, authorities have been shipping inmates off to distant lands. The ancient Greeks and Romans banished their convicts, and the British sent theirs to penal colonies in Australia and America. But today's exiles have a modern twist.
With state prisons bulging with 1.1 million inmates--a sixfold increase in 25 years--states face myriad problems dealing with gang members and other troublemakers who have criminal ties throughout prison systems. That makes it hard, officials say, to transfer convicts within a state's prison system.
In February, Maryland authorities raided the House of Correction in Jessup and transferred 19 inmates who were allegedly exerting too much "influence over prison life" to the Supermax prison in Baltimore.
One was Dennis D. Wise, who has been serving a life sentence for a 1979 murder and who prison officials say ran an extensive gang in the prison that extended to Baltimore's streets.
Even transferring Wise to Supermax and locking him in a single cell 23 hours a day, officials say, wasn't enough. In March, they shipped him to a medium-security prison 60 miles east of Flagstaff, Ariz., that borders a Navajo reservation.
"We wanted to take him out of his element," a Maryland official said.
Wise never had a hearing on his transfer and was not charged with any crime. In a letter to the Baltimore Sun before his transfer to Arizona, Wise discussed the raid and said authorities were unfair.
"The operation had one clear purpose: Shut down the elected prison leadership," Wise wrote.
In their dealings with Maryland over Wise, Arizona officials offered Maryland authorities a choice: a 42-year-old kidnapper whose sentence ends in 2006 or a convict serving a life sentence.
"We had a choice of two guys and we took the guy with the lesser sentence," said Jack Kavanagh, assistant commissioner of the Maryland Division of Corrections. "If they had offered us two lifers, we would have taken one."
Last year, officials say, they made a similar deal when they shipped inmate John Lloyd Wells, who tried to escape from Supermax. Arizona essentially got an IOU.
Maryland has 32 inmates in other states and has accepted 20. Maryland officials are obligated to take five inmates from Florida and one each from several other states.
Those deals usually start with phone calls.
"You first go searching," Kavanagh said. "You find a state looking to make a trade with you or looking to make a trade in the future and help you out. Sometimes they say: 'I'm too overcrowded; I can't help you.' "
"It's very straightforward," said Russ Lorshbough, an Oregon prison official. "You cannot go out there and try to sell someone who's a heavyweight as a lightweight; otherwise you destroy your trust."
Some transactions are complicated--and don't immediately fix the problem.
Diane Downs, convicted in Oregon of shooting her three children and killing one in 1983, briefly escaped from a prison and was causing major headaches for prison officials because she was drawing media attention for her crimes and escape.
To ease the pressure on themselves and Downs' remaining children, Oregon officials decided to trade.
They sent her to New Jersey for two male inmates. But Downs tried to escape twice from New Jersey, was sent back to Oregon, then Washington state, then to California.
All along the way, Oregon accepted other inmates for Downs, though officials could not recall how those swaps worked.
"It worked kind of like a barter and trade system," said Perrin Damon, an Oregon prisons spokeswoman.
In 1995, Pennsylvania officials raided Graterford prison outside Philadelphia and removed Robert Mims, a founder of the Philadelphia Black Militia and head of the prison's 1,800-member Muslim community. He was serving a life sentence for murder.
His reputation and leadership among inmates throughout Pennsylvania was so widespread, officials say, that they had to send him away--to an undisclosed Midwestern state--for an inmate serving a life sentence.
"He was just somebody we couldn't move anywhere" in the state system, said Mike Lukens, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. "He had too much influence in the prison."
Often prison officials trade for more humanitarian reasons. Some states will swap inmates who want to return home, and prisoners who are informants or who help investigations to protect them from retribution.
The most complicated and intricate deals, however, involve the worst of the worst.
In March, New Jersey officials traded a man convicted of killing a prison guard to Arizona. They received a 33-year-old serving a 27-year sentence for armed robbery.
That convict, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, is considered a security threat in Arizona prisons, said Ryan, the Arizona official.