In a little-known program, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has been allowing unescorted prisoners to transfer between prisons using Greyhound and other civilian buses. Not surprisingly, some never show up at their destination.
The program is considered a form of furlough by the BOP, related to the Voluntary Surrenders program that allows a newly-convicted person to voluntarily show up at the prison of assignment if permitted or ordered by the sentencing judge.
The prisoner being transferred is required to sign a letter promising show up at the destination and being threatened with an additional five years of incarceration if they dont. The program was established in 1996 as a cost-cutting measure. Since then, tens of thousands of prisoners have been given bus rides under the program.
The BOP says it limits the participants to appropriate prisoners. This means non-violent, low-security prisoners being transferred from a federal correction facility (prison) to a federal prison camp or halfway house. The BOP web site says the prisoners must have less than two years remaining on their sentences, but a BOP assistant warden said that ten years was the actual limit.
The program was recently thrust into the limelight when the U.S. Marshalls Service listed one of the escapees as armed and dangerous. Dwayne Fitzen, 55, also known as The Shadow and Coyote, who is serving 24 years for a 1992 federal cocaine dealing conviction out of Florida, was put on the bus in Minnesota and told to check in to the Federal Correctional Institute in Lompoc, California, when the bus arrived there on September 16, 2004. The 6-2, 211 pound Fitzen, a known member of the Aliens MC Nomad Motorcycle Club, got off the bus in Las Vegas, where he has relatives, withdrew $12,000 from his bank account, and vanished. He had previous narcotics convictions and a possession of a firearm conviction.
We have completed tens of thousands of these types of transfers for many years and less then one percent have escaped during the unescorted transfer, said BOP spokesperson Traci Bilingsley. Additionally, the vast majority of these escapees have been recaptured or returned to custody.
Other escapees from the bus transfer program include Alvin Lee Lewis, 49, who was doing six years for a 1999 wire fraud conviction and an additional year for failing to voluntarily surrender to start his sentence, escaped in April 2003. Roberto Cortez, Jr., 26, was doing 11 years for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, escaped on December 13, 2004. Luis Castillo-Mejia, 30, was doing 41 months for a June 2003, conspiracy to import marijuana with intent to distribute conviction, disappeared during a transfer between Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas. Alejandro Barerra Lara, 56, was one year deep into a three-year sentence for marijuana importation when he left the bus transferring him from Tennessee to Lompoc in 2003. He had a previous attempted escape in 1997. Richard Renard Grey, 37, who was three years into a fifteen-year methamphetamine trafficking conviction when he bought two years of freedom by escaping on a trip from California to Florida. He was recaptured with the help of a Los Angeles TV stations Most Wanted program.
According to federal officials, at least four Lompoc-bound prisoners have escaped within the past two years. They refused to tell Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., how many bus-transfer prisoners have escaped overall, saying instead that a formal response to his request for information was working its way through the Justice Departments bureaucracy. However, they have a list of at least 14 bus transfer escapees who escaped since 2002 and have not been recaptured and the assistant director for the U.S. Marshalls witness security and prison operations program, Sylvester Jones, admitted that probably more than a dozen bus transfer prisoners escape annually.
Greyhound Bus Lines receives the vast majority of the prisoner bus transfers. However, Greyhound officials say the company was unaware of the program until the media picked up on the Fitzen story. Local officials in Lompoc also expressed surprise and dismay upon learning of the program.
If youre putting your kid on a Greyhound bus, I wouldnt be very comfortable knowing theres a clandestine prisoner on there, especially if theyre escaping along the way, said Lompoc city administrator Gary Keefe.
Congressman Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and whose district includes Lompoc, was also surprised and troubled by the program.
I think its a great thing to save money, Gallegly said. But the amount of money to apprehend [Fitzen] - plus the concern of what he may do to harm the community - certainly outweighs whatever cost savings are made in the process.
Greyhound reacted with greater vigor. Greyhound COO Jack Haugsland sent a letter to the BOP director Lappin telling him to cease and desist from using Greyhound buses to transport prisoners. It also suspended service to Lompoc starting on April 2, 2005. As of September 23, 2005, they had been unable to resolve the issue with the BOP.
Sources: Copley News Service, Lompoc Record, USMS Press Release, BOP Program Statement-Unescorted Transfers and Voluntary Surrenders, telephone interview of Kim Plaskett, Greyhound spokesman, by Alex Friedman of PLN.
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