The prisoners were being transported in a van operated by Federal Extradition Agency, a private Memphis-based company that transports prisoners. The driver of the van suffered burns on his arms while attempting to open the rear door of the van.
"The driver could not get close to the back of the vehicle," said Tennessee highway patrol Lt. Mike Dover. "The prisoners were consumed in the fire."
Dover said the heat from the fire was so intense that it welded the van's back door shut. Another employee of the private transport company, who was riding shotgun, escaped without injuries.
The prisoners had spent the previous night, Wednesday April 2, 1997, in a Memphis lockup. The private transport company was ferrying them to various jails in the south.
Proponents of privatization laud the benefits of government downsizing and the efficiencies associated with market forces (i.e. the profit motive), but the "magic" of the market is illustrated by this tragedy.
No doubt the private transport company could move prisoners in a more cost-effective manner than federal marshals or state or county vans and drivers. Sacrificed to profits, however, are proper driver training, safety procedures and equipment, and stringent vehicle maintenance protocols. Instead, the magic of the market dictates substandard equipment and minimally paid and trained (almost certainly non-union) personnel.
The van pulled over because of mechanical problems and then caught fire. Investigators say the blaze was apparently started by a broken drive shaft that pierced the fuel tank. A broken drive shaft. No minor mechanical problem.
This incident received sparse coverage in the press, and PLN has been unable to independently obtain additional details. The names of the six state prisoners killed in the fire were not publicized.
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