For-Profit Transportation Companies: Taking Prisoners, and the Public, for a Ride
According to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of June 2005 approximately 2.2 million people were incarcerated in prisons and jails nationwide not including immigration detention centers and juvenile facilities. This enormous imprisoned population is not static; prisoners are moved both intrastate and interstate on a regular basis for a variety of reasons, including court appearances, medical visits, detainer extraditions, Interstate Compact transfers and bail bond remands. A mobile, constantly-shifting prison on wheels is an apt analogy.
While there are no firm statistics for the total number of prisoners transferred and extradited annually, the U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for the transportation of prisoners and immigration detainees in federal custody, receives around 1,000 transport requests per day and moves nearly 300,000 prisoners each year through its Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS).
On the state and local level, individual jurisdictions are responsible for their own prisoner transportation needs. Although almost all sheriff''s offices and state Departments of Correction maintain their own prisoner transport services, they also rely heavily on privately-operated companies, especially for interstate trips. The reasons for using such for-profit transport services boil down to cost and convenience, both related to staffing concerns. At least one and often two or more guards must be used to transport prisoners; for intrastate trips this can be an all-day undertaking while interstate extraditions often take multiple days. Consequently, staff shortages occur when county or state guards are used to transport prisoners, expenses such as gas and meals are incurred, and overtime pay may result. It is often logistically simpler and less expensive to pay a private company to provide such services.
Private Prisoner Transportation as Big Business
Private prisoner transport services operate pursuant to the Extradition Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Extradition Act, which gives them the same authority as public agencies that move prisoners. Private transportation guards, called agents in the industry, can take custody of, move and house prisoners while en route to their destination; they are allowed to carry weapons and use deadly force, but are not considered sworn law enforcement officers.
While there are numerous prisoner transport services, most are relatively small operations. At the top of the industry are multi-million dollar corporations such as TransCor, the undisputed market leader. Most private transportation companies share similar characteristics, they own their own fleet of vehicles, move prisoners by both ground and air (the latter being booked on commercial flights), and provide transport services on a fee-per-mile basis similar to the commercial trucking industry. Many use GPS tracking technology. Currently, the major prisoner transportation companies include:
1. TransCor America, LLC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The Nashville, Tennessee-based company was founded in 1990 and acquired by CCA in 1994; it has approximately 300 employees and 80 vehicles, and moved more than 25,000 prisoners in 2005. The company says it maintains $50 million in insurance coverage and boasts that it can save public agencies between 30-40% on interstate prisoner transportation costs. TransCor also claims it's the only company with the ability to perform mass transfers, stating that in 2002 it transported 795 prisoners between three states within 26 hours. Such mass prisoner moves are usually to privately-operated prisons, such as the ones operated by its parent company CCA.
TransCor's finances are consolidated with those of CCA, it's parent company, so precise financial data is difficult to obtain. But according to CCA's Form 10-K 2005 Annual Report, TransCor took in gross revenue of $14.6 million in 2005, $19.1 million in 2004 and $18.9 million in 2003. The company has apparently been losing money for years, however TransCor's 2005 expenses were $21 million, for a net loss of $6.5 million. CCA chief financial officer Irving Lingo, commenting on the company's poor performance, stated in a November 3, 2004 conference call that they clearly desire to make a profit from TransCor at some point. TransCor controls an estimated 85% of the private transport market.
2. PTS of America, LLC (formerly Prisoner Transportation Services, Inc.) is also located in Nashville. The company was founded in 2001 by Thor Catalogne, who previously worked for TransCor. Con-Link Transportation Corp., which began business in 2001, is based in Memphis, Tennessee and run by Randy L. Cagle. The company uses unarmed guards and favors diesel vehicles which Cagle says are safer in case of fires resulting from accidents (diesels also tend to get better gas mileage, which reduces operating costs).
3. U.S. Extraditions, Inc., located in Palm Bay, Florida, started in mid-2004 and primarily offers intrastate transportation services. The company has twelve full-time employees and operates five vehicles. According to company vice-president Robert Downs, who formerly worked for Mid Florida Extraditions, Inc., another private transport service, the prisoner transportation industry is a big market.
4. Security Transport Services is headquartered in Topeka, Kansas and was formed in 1995. The company maintains a staff of 40 drivers and transports no more than five prisoners at a time.
5. Court Services, Inc., founded in January 2002 and based in Riverside, California, focuses on bail enforcement extradition services. Court Services is run by Eric Kindley and proudly states it has had no losses due to accidents to date.
There are also a number of smaller companies, such as Affordable Extradition Service, Inc., located in Woodbury, Tennessee; First Transit, Inc.'s Secure Transportation Services in New York; and Prisoner Transportation Services, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. Due to economies of scale it's hard for smaller prisoner transport companies to compete with the larger corporations; some go out of business while others are bought out. In December 2002, for example, TransCor acquired Tri-County Extradition, Inc., a privately-held prisoner transportation service in California with annual revenue of $2 million. Other companies, including Federal Extradition Agency (formerly of Memphis), Extraditions International (Colorado) and State Extraditions (Florida) are no longer in operation.
Wackenhut Corp., the private security juggernaut, entered the prisoner transportation market in 2003 with its Prisoner Transport and Extradition Services, which was managed under the company's Special Police Division. Wackenhut's transport division proved to be problematic; one company employee, who did not want to be named, referred to the fee-per-mile rates commonly used in the industry as hit and miss and a crapshoot. He stated that Wackenhut's prisoner transportation service, which shut down in May 2006, had approximately $4 million in annual contracts on paper but was earning only half that amount in actual revenue. The company also had problems meeting some of it's contractual obligations. On February 26, 2006, the Board of Commissioners in Bernalillo County, New Mexico voted to cancel it's contract with Wackenhut because the company was late extraditing 26 out of 50 transport prisoners from holding facilities and has continued to have difficulties meeting scheduled court ordered pick-ups.Wackenhut continues to offer prisoner transport services but now does so on an hourly-rate basis.
Typically, public agencies that need to arrange prisoner transportation can call a company's toll-free number and coordinate pick-ups, drop-offs and payments over the phone or on the Internet. Larger departments such as state prison systems usually enter into longer-term statewide contracts. For overnight and multi-day trips, private transport services house their imprisoned passengers at local jails or correctional facilities along the way, sometimes for a fee and sometimes gratis as a courtesy.
Prisoner transportation fees range from approximately $.80 to $1.50 per mile, with $1.00 per mile being the industry average. Additional costs may apply for transporting juveniles and prisoners with medical needs, and some companies impose a fuel surcharge. These fees add up. TransCor studied Montana's prisoner transportation system in 1993, concluded the state spent approximately $1 million each year, and said it could provide the same services for around $650,000. From 2000 to 2006, State Extraditions billed Orange County, Florida about $1 million for transport services (mostly through no-bid contracts; the company's co-founder, Dennis Warren, happens to be employed with the county's Corrections Department). And according to separate fixed-cost contracts between the state of Nevada, TransCor and PTS, over a two-year period from March 2005 through February 2007 the companies will receive payments of up to $2 million. Each.
Additionally, the prisoner transportation industry has attracted ancillary businesses that cater to its specialized services, including companies that manufacture or modify secure transport vehicles, produce various types of restraint systems (including the black boxes that prevent handcuffs from being unlocked), and make brightly-colored clothing for prisoners to wear while they're in transit.
Some of the larger companies that sell security vehicles include Motor Coach Industries and Blue Bird, which produce heavy-duty prisoner transport buses, and Mavron, Inc. and American Custom Coach, which make specialty prisoner transport vans (Mavron also makes animal transport vehicles). Several private transportation companies, such as PTS, do their own vehicle security modifications.
The History of (and Troubles With) Privatized Transport Services
Prisoner transportation companies expanded both in number and scope during the 1990s as the U.S. prison and jail population nearly doubled over a ten-year period, largely due to tough-on-crime laws that resulted in a surge of convictions and longer sentences. The greater number of prisoners meant a greater need for prisoner transfers and extraditions, and a full-fledged industry was born.
Initially, most such services were mom and pop operations, sometimes literally two-person businesses. At first there also was little regulation of privatized prisoner transportation companies: no regulatory oversight, no standards, no minimum security requirements or enforcement mechanisms to ensure that transport services were safe or provided humane treatment for the prisoners in their custody. While there were federal regulations for moving livestock and safety requirements for commercial truck drivers, few guidelines were in place for transporting prisoners. Companies were self-policed and set their own policies. As U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum put it, Anyone with a vehicle and a driver's license can engage in this business and with very little accountability when things go wrong.
Further, private companies, by their nature, are primarily concerned with making a profit. PTS, for example, states it strives to be number one in the industry "not necessarily the largest, but the best in terms of & safety, quality and profitability." To this extent problems within the prisoner transportation industry mirror those that exist in other areas where correctional services have been privatized: The inherent profit motivation of private transport companies, with a corresponding need to lower costs and increase revenue, has resulted in escapes, deaths, injuries and mistreatment of prisoners.
The greatest expenses for private transportation companies are those related to its employees' wages, benefits, staffing levels and training. In the 1990s private transport services had fairly low training requirements; e.g., prior to 1999, TransCor required only 40 hours of in-house training for it's employees. Further, transportation companies weren't always picky about the people they hired, sometimes failing to conduct adequate background checks, and their drivers were often held to demanding travel schedules to ensure the company maximized its profit on each trip.
As a result, prisoners who were extradited by private transportation services raised repeated complaints, such as transport guards speeding, driving recklessly and staying behind the wheel for lengthy periods of time even to the point of falling asleep while on the road. Prisoners were sometimes held in full restraints with no stops for food, water or restroom breaks for over 12 hours at a time. Prisoners with serious medical needs were neglected; others were held in hand and leg restraints so tight that they caused injuries. Some prisoners claimed they received just one or two meals a day, typically from fast food restaurants, with guards pocketing the remaining allotment for food costs. There is virtually no government regulation of the conditions prisoners live in while they are shackled all day long without sanitary facilities in these cramped transport vans, said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU, in 1999. There is even an Internet forum page devoted to criticisms of TransCor, the largest of the private transportation services, titled TransCor Terror.
Private transport services have also been condemned for taking their imprisoned passengers on unnecessarily meandering routes across the country, collecting and delivering as many prisoners as possible in order to increase their revenue. Such diesel therapy, in which prisoners may be on the road for a week or more, can be physically and mentally debilitating as well as dangerous. The longer period of time prisoners are in transit, the greater the possibility of an accident; also, the more times that a transport vehicle stops for food or fuel, the greater the risk of an escape.
According to TransCor, the average time that prisoners spend in transit is between four and five days. Apparently, however, this is not always the case. William Minnix was extradited from Ohio to Colorado on a parole violation in July 1997. He was transported by TransCor on a 20-day trip that took him to New York, Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, Wisconsin, South Dakota and several more passes through Ohio as other prisoners were picked up and dropped off along the way. TransCor executive vice president Chuck Kupferer, quoted in a December 18, 1997 article in Westword magazine, was more candid. If a guy wrote to you and said he was on the road for fifteen days, I have no doubt in my mind that he was, he said. It's not rare, but it's not usual. Nor have things changed much since then. On February 14, 2004, Rick Hollon, a veteran charged with failure to pay child support, was extradited by TransCor to Nevada from Kansas. He passed through Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico over a 17-day period, which was confirmed by a company spokesperson. Hollon reportedly lost 30 pounds while taking the scenic route in TransCor's custody.
The cost cutting measures employed by private transport companies, which let them offer substantial savings to public agencies, also appear to contribute to the numerous problems experienced by the industry. Former TransCor president John G. Zierdt, Jr., who resigned in 2000, insisted the company did not cut corners in dangerous ways. When we have an escape, it hurts our stock price, he explained, apparently referring to the stock price of CCA, which owns TransCor. However, there is no evidence that the stock market acts, or indeed should act, as a regulatory force for privatized prisoner transportation services, especially when public safety is at risk.
Private transportation companies that are more concerned with their profit margins than the public good also tend to avoid costly security precautions used by public prisoner transport services. Jim Cashell, president of the Montana Sheriff's and Peace Officer's Association, said it was not unusual for deputies to use a back-up chase car for prisoner transports. Chase cars, which provide an added level of security, aren't favored by private transportation services due to the additional vehicle and employee expenses.
Another example of cost cutting is the use of 15-passenger vans. Several transportation companies, including Con-Link, U.S. Extraditions, Court Services and PTS, use 15-passenger vans, which hold more prisoners and thus make extradition trips more profitable. However, these higher-capacity vehicles also have a higher chance of rollover and lower safety ratings. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has repeatedly issued warnings about 15-passenger vans, including three consumer advisories since 2001. NHTSA found that 74% of 15-passenger vans had improperly inflated tires, which greatly increases the chance of an accident. NHTSA also determined that when such vehicles are loaded with 10 or more passengers, the rollover rate is almost three times higher than when they have fewer than five occupants.
In fact, federal law prohibits the sale or lease of new 15-passenger vans to schools for transporting primary through high-school age children unless such vehicles meet federal school bus safety standards. Apparently, though, 15-passenger vans are considered safe enough to transport prisoners. Further, according to NHTSA data for 2006 model year vehicles, the Ford E350 XLT passenger van received a two-out-of-five-star safety rating and was found to have a 30% chance of rollover. The E350 is the primary transport vehicle for PTS according to the company's website, and E350 vans are also used by TransCor, U.S. Extraditions and Con-Link for prisoner transportation.
As a result of the initial lack of regulation of private transport companies, and the negative impact on safety and security caused by their for-profit motives, prisoner transportation services experienced a plethora of accidents and escapes, and their employees extradited prisoners under dangerous, inhumane and abusive conditions with frightening frequency. The details of these incidents read like a comedy of errors, except there is nothing funny about negligence, preventable accidents, sexual abuse and escapes that endanger the public.
Problems in the Past: Reflections in the Rear-View Mirror
A prime example of the hazards faced by smaller prisoner transport services in the earlier days of the industry occurred on August 28, 1996, when Rick Carter and Sue Smith, a husband-and-wife team who ran R & S Prisoner Transport, were overpowered by six convicts when they stopped at a Texas rest area. The unarmed couple was held hostage during an escape attempt that ended in a high-speed police chase. When Carter and Smith had arrived at an Iowa prison to pick up the prisoners, five of whom had murder convictions, the warden reportedly said, "You've got to be kidding me". However, when told R & S had an extradition contract he released them into the company's custody.
Larger prisoner transport services, including the top names in the business, didn't fare much better. According to the Palm Beach Post, a convicted felon being transported through West Palm Beach, Florida by Federal Extradition Agency in June 1997 was left alone behind a gas station to urinate, and promptly escaped. A month later, on July 30, 1997, Dennis Glick, a convicted rapist, took a gun from a Federal Extradition Agency guard who had fallen asleep in the transport van when they stopped in Colorado. Glick took seven prisoners, a guard and a local rancher hostage, stole two more vehicles, and was caught the next day while attempting to escape on a stolen horse. Federal Extradition Agency was billed more than $17,000 for the cost of the search, but an official with the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office said at the time that his agency hasn't heard a word from the company. On October 23, 1997, four prisoners escaped from a Federal Extradition Agency van near Swanton, Ohio, taking a shotgun and four rounds of ammunition; the private transport guards had left the vehicle unattended with the engine running. And two Federal Extradition Agency guards were arrested in Dalton, Georgia on December 27, 1997 after drinking and fighting with each other while transporting nine prisoners. They were charged with DUI and reckless conduct.
TransCor had a bad year in 1997, too. Three of eleven prisoners being extradited by the company escaped on December 4, 1997 after they removed their restraints, threw a rookie guard out of the van and drove away while another guard was buying meals at a Burger King in Owatonna, Minnesota. One of the escapees, Homer Land, kidnapped a married couple and held them captive for 15 hours. Ironically, the same TransCor van used in the Owatonna escape had been involved in another escape attempt just four days earlier. On November 30, 1997, Whatley Roylene removed his handcuffs and took a shotgun from a sleeping TransCor guard when their van stopped at a gas station in Sterling, Colorado; the other guard was outside the vehicle at the time. Police officers surrounded the van, and the resulting standoff reportedly ended when other prisoners convinced Roylene to give himself up.
A succession of accidents and escapes occurred over the following years. Evelio Escalante, an alleged gang leader, escaped from TranCor guards in Waterbury, Connecticut on October 27, 2000; they had failed to shackle him or handcuff him behind his back. And when an Extraditions International van stopped for a restroom break in Canyon Country, California on January 23, 2000, the guards carelessly left the keys in the ignition. Two of the nine prisoners they were transporting, Geoffrey Johnson and Nevada state prisoner Billy Freeman, jumped into the front seat and drove off, reaching speeds of 90mph before crashing. A company spokesman said the escape resulted from an error in judgment.
After two more Nevada prisoners fled from an Extraditions International vehicle at a California rest stop on March 25, 2000, state officials decided to discontinue the company's services. James Prestridge and John Doran had overpowered one of the guards, taken his gun, and then relieved another sleeping guard of his weapon. As soon as I heard about it, I stopped using them, said then Nevada prison director Bob Bayer. When we have two problems in that short space in time, we can't afford not to.
On May 24, 2000, a van operated by Extraditions International was involved in a fatal accident in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. One guard, Scott Lee Bellon, was killed and a second guard and a prisoner were injured when the vehicle failed to navigate a curve and crashed into a stone wall. In another accident, Patrick R. Dalka and Jason Szydlek, among other prisoners and two guards, sustained injuries when a TransCor van rear-ended another vehicle in Tennessee on July 13, 2000. The next day Szydlek signed a release form in which he agreed not to hold the company liable in exchange for $1,000. TransCor issued him a check, which he didn't cash. Instead, in a subsequent lawsuit filed in federal court, Szydlek said he felt threatened, intimidated and coerced into signing the release, and stated in an affidavit that he had been deprived of food and sleep for almost 24 hours following the accident and was threatened by TransCor employees. The case was closed on March 30, 2004 following a confidential settlement. See: Dalka v. Sublett, USDC WD TN, Case No. 01-2485-V. See also 2002 WL 1482532 and 2002 WL 1483877.
On November 20, 2000, thirty-nine Wisconsin prisoners filed suit in U.S. District Court against TransCor and other defendants. They claimed that during a 30-hour bus ride from a state prison to a CCA-operated facility in Sayre, Oklahoma on January 25, 2000, the TransCor vehicle had no heat, no working toilet and an inoperable muffler that let exhaust fumes inside the vehicle. According to court documents the prisoners were splashed with waste from the overflowing toilet and vomited on each other due to the terrible stench. They were denied meals and medication. Wearing only jumpsuits in sub-zero weather, some reportedly arrived in Sayre with frostbite and hypothermia. In a December 27, 2000 order, a federal judge found the prisoners had alleged facts sufficient to support an Eighth Amendment claim as well as state law claims of assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. The case was settled confidentially in November, 2002. See: Wine v. Dept. of Corrections, USDC, WD WI, Case No. 00-C-704-C (2000 WL 34229819).
But the above incidents, while illustrative of the shortcomings of private transportation services, pale in comparison to the most devastating incident to befall the industry to date. On April 3, 1997, six prisoners were burned alive when the van extraditing them caught fire on the side of an interstate near Dickson, Tennessee. One of the two guards burned his hands while attempting to release the shackled prisoners, who were locked in a wire cage in the back of the vehicle. They were being transported for parole and probation violations by the Federal Extradition Agency, which, despite its official-sounding name, was a private company operated by former bounty hunter Clyde J. Gunter. The prisoners who died in the blaze were Richard King, Monty Crain, John Cannon, Steven Hicks, James Catalano and David Speakman.
A female prisoner who was dropped off just before the accident said the van had been making knocking noises, and according to news reports the vehicle was vibrating badly during a trip that went from Memphis to Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and then back to Memphis before leaving again for Mississippi and Arkansas. Prior to the fatal accident the van had been driven almost non-stop for 24 hours. Court records indicate that when the transport guards stopped in Memphis they informed the company's main office about the problem, but were told to continue. The van's drive shaft apparently came loose, bounced off the road and punctured the gas tank; the 1995 Ford E150 had logged more than 240,000 miles in two years and the universal joint failed due to excessive wear.
In initial court filings Federal Extradition Agency stated the fire was an unavoidable accident. Less than two months later, on May 22, 1997, another transport vehicle operated by the company crashed near Collyer, Kansas, injuring four prisoners and killing a guard.
On February 28, 2001, a federal jury in Nashville awarded $10.5 million to the 10-year-old daughter of James Catalano, one of the prisoners killed in the van fire, on civil rights and negligence claims. The jury apportioned 100% of the fault to Federal Extradition Agency; a separate confidential settlement was reached with Ford Motor Company. The reported jury award was $10.5 million, but according to court documents the award was reduced to $7 million. See: Catalano v. Federal Extradition, USDC MD TN, Case No. 3:97-cv-00790. A second federal jury awarded $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the estate of John Cannon, another prisoner who died in the accident, on December 20, 2001. The jury in that case found Federal Extradition Agency had violated Cannon's civil rights and had ignored known mechanical problems. The reported jury award was $20 million, but according to court documents the award was $17.5 million. See: Cannon v. Federal Extradition Agency, USDC, MD TN, Case No.3:97-1183. Additional lawsuits filed against the company following the van fire were resolved through confidential settlements.
James R. Omer, Sr., an attorney with the law firm that litigated both the Cannon and Catalano lawsuits, said Federal Extradition Agency's insurance carrier paid the damage awards to the limit of the company's policy. The remaining amount could not be collected because Federal Extradition Agency had no assets and had gone out of business.
Escapes and accidents, even serious ones, while often preventable, are at least understandable in an industry that moves thousands of prisoners across the country on a continual basis. More troubling are the rapes and sexual abuse of female prisoners by male guards employed by private transport companies.
TransCor guard Jack ter Linden was accused of fondling and sexually assaulting two female prisoners, Beverly Hirsch and Joann Gwynn, in separate incidents during extraditions to Colorado in 1993. The women claimed that ter Linden also skimmed money from the prisoners' food allowances, falsified trip logs and placed them in the driver's cab in violation of company policy. Gwynn related that during a six-day trip through seven states she was repeatedly raped by ter Linden, and another guard failed to report the sexual abuse. A TransCor official stated at the time that male guards transporting female prisoners had no impact on prisoner safety. Gwynn and Hirsch sued TransCor and reached undisclosed settlements with the company in March 1999. See: Hirsch v. Zavaras, USDC CO, Case No. 1:93-cv-01917 (see 920 F.Supp. 148 (D.Co. 1996)); Gwynn v. TransCor, USDC CO, Case No. 1:95-cv-02886.
On October 8, 1994, Arnold H. Faulhaber and Joseph Jackson, co-founders of Fugitive One Transport Company, were arrested on charges of raping a female prisoner they were transporting.
Cheryl Nichols and other prisoners were being extradited by two TransCor guards on October 25, 1997. Nichols accused one of the guards, Angel Rivera, of raping her in a gas station bathroom in Louisiana; Rivera admitted they had had sexual contact but claimed it was consensual. TransCor fired him, and on Aug. 6, 1998, Nichols filed a state court lawsuit in Tennessee, claiming the company was negligent in hiring, training and supervising Rivera. TransCor settled the case for a confidential amount. See: Nichols v. TransCor, Circuit Court for Davidson Co., Tenn. (see appellate ruling, 2002 WL 1364059
In October, 1999, Cheryl Schoenfeld was sexually assaulted by two TransCor employees while being transported through Texas. TransCor guards Michael Jerome Edwards and David Jackson forced her to expose her breasts and perform oral sex, and penetrated her vaginally with a flashlight and a gun barrel. Three prisoners testified that at one point Edwards pulled over and threatened to shoot them, saying he would claim they were trying to escape. Edwards previously had been accused of sexually assaulting a female prisoner he transported in New Mexico a month earlier.
Both Edwards and Jackson were charged with sexual assault. Jackson plead guilty while Edwards was convicted, based partly on DNA evidence, and sentenced to ten years plus a $5,000 fine. Schoenfeld and Annette Jones, another prisoner who said she had been mistreated by Edwards, filed suit against TransCor on February 24, 2000. The company agreed to settle the case in April 2002 for $5 million, $4 million of which was paid by its insurance carrier. See: Schoenfeld v. TransCor, USDC WD TX, Case No. 5:00-cv-00248. Tim Maloney, Schoenfeld's attorney, criticized TransCor for its absolute and total disregard for & prisoners' rights, welfare and safety, blaming the company's apparent belief that the most important thing is the bottom line.
In another sexual assault case involving TransCor, 43-year-old Catherine Jamison, a married mother of four children, was repeatedly raped over a five-day period in March 1998 while in the custody of TransCor guards who extradited her from Texas to Colorado. She was threatened with retaliation if she reported the abuse. On March 1, 1999 the Colorado chapter of the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the company on her behalf. It is time for TransCor to take full responsibility for the safety and treatment of prisoners that the government entrusts to its care,said ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein. The ACLU announced on April 24, 2002 that it had obtained a substantial settlement for Jamison, although the amount was not disclosed. See: Jamison v. TransCor, USDC CO, Case No. 1:99-cv-00390.
But it was not the repeated rapes of female prisoners, nor the six convicts who were roasted alive while locked inside a van in rural Tennessee, both due in part to the lack of governmental oversight of the private transport industry, that resulted in much-needed regulatory reform. Rather, it was yet another escape.
On October 13, 1999, Kyle Bell was one of a dozen prisoners aboard a Greyhound-type TransCor bus that stopped to refuel near Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Bell, a notorious criminal from North Dakota, was serving a life sentence for molesting and killing 11-year-old Jeanna North. While two TransCor guards were asleep on the bus and two others were occupied outside the vehicle, Bell used a handcuff key, which had not been detected during a strip search, to remove his wrist and leg restraints. He then crawled through a ceiling ventilation hatch and slipped to the ground unnoticed as the bus pulled away. He was wearing civilian clothes that didn't identify him as a prisoner. Despite stopping at two jails after Bell had escaped, the TransCor guards didn't notice he was missing until nine hours later when they were rolling through Arizona. They then delayed notifying law enforcement authorities for another two hours.
Bell's escape resulted in a nationwide manhunt and widespread outrage. TransCor went into full public relations mode, admitting that several procedural violations & occurred involving security policies. Then-TransCor president John Zierdt, Jr. offered a corporate mea culpa, stating "We are embarrassed by this incident and are reviewing all standing policies and procedures". The four guards who had transported Bell were fired; one had been the company's employee of the year in 1997. Regardless, TransCor was sharply criticized by public officials and lambasted by the media.
North Dakota suspended using TransCor for prisoner transportation services. According to a November, 2000 report by the state's legislative Criminal Justice Committee, an internal review indicated that TransCor had failed to follow its own policies related to the number of guards that should have been present, the awakening of guards during stops, prisoner headcounts, the use of chains linking prisoners together, and the positioning of guards on the bus during stops. It was revealed that the TransCor employees had received only one week of training; in comparison, officers with the U.S. Marshals Service receive a comprehensive 16-week training course.
TransCor attempted to lay some of the blame on North Dakota officials, stating the paperwork they had received only indicated Bell was serving a life sentence, not that he was an escape risk. Apparently it didn't occur to the company that all prisoners, particularly those serving life sentences, might be escape risks. North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer, commenting on TransCor's gross security lapses, noted sarcastically that "These people present themselves as experts in transporting prisoners".
Bell evaded authorities for almost three months and appeared on America's Most Wanted twice before being captured in Texas on January 9, 2000. He had changed his appearance, was working part-time jobs and was living with a woman who had five young children. Governor Schafer stated he would seek to have the cost of the manhunt for Bell reimbursed by TransCor. During subsequent negotiations, however, the state settled with the company for $50,000 despite having incurring expenses of over $102,000. Incredibly, as part of the settlement North Dakota agreed to rehire TransCor for future prisoner extradition services.
But Bell's escape resulted in far more than bad press, scrutiny by lawmakers and sharp criticism of TransCor, it accomplished what more than a decade of deaths, accidents, sexual assaults and numerous other escapes had not: Comprehensive federal regulation of the prisoner transportation industry.
Finally, Federal Intervention
In 1999, U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota introduced a bill containing a broad range of regulatory measures for private prisoner transport services. Entitled the Interstate Transportation of Dangerous Criminals Act, it was more commonly referred to as Jeanna's Law after Jeanna North, the child whom Kyle Bell had murdered. The legislation was co-sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy and then-Senator John Ashcroft.
In announcing his proposed legislation, Sen. Dorgan stated, No family that pulls into a gas station should have to worry that the van next to them might contain violent criminals and untrained guards more attentive to their next nap or cheeseburger than to the safety of the rest of us. Sen. Leahy, then ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, further noted that there had been an alarming number of traffic accidents in which prisoners were seriously injured or killed because drivers were tired, inattentive or poorly trained. Privatization of prisons and prisoner transportation services may seem cost efficient, but public safety must come first.
Jeanna's Law received support from a broad range of corrections-related and victims' rights organizations, including the National Sheriff's Association, National Association of Police Organizations, Fraternal Order of Police, California Correctional Peace Officers Association, New York Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association and National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, among others. Sen. Dorgan argued that regulatory legislation was necessary, noting that "A company hauling hazardous waste, cattle, or even circus animals has to meet certain minimum standards. Yet there are no requirements for hauling violent criminals around the country." His proposed bill included the following provisions:
" Minimum standards for background checks and pre-employment drug tests for prospective employees of private transportation companies.
" Minimum standards for the length and type of training that employees must receive before they are allowed to transport prisoners, not to exceed 100 hours of pre-service training. Such training must include the use of restraints, searches, use of force, use of firearms, CPR, map reading and defensive driving.
" Limitations on the number of hours that employees can be on duty during a specific time period, with such limitations not being greater than those set forth under the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act.
" Minimum standards for the number of employees necessary to supervise violent prisoners.
" Minimum standards for employee uniforms and identification that clearly identify employees as transportation officers.
" Standards requiring certain violent prisoners to wear brightly colored clothes while being transported that identify them as prisoners.
" Minimum requirements for the use of restraints when transporting violent prisoners.
" A requirement that when transporting violent prisoners, private transport companies must notify local law enforcement officials 24 hours before any scheduled stops in their jurisdiction.
" A requirement that in the event of an escape by a violent prisoner, private transportation services must immediately notify law enforcement officials in the jurisdiction where the escape took place, as well as the agency that contracted with the company for transporting the prisoner.
Jeanna's Law further included penalties for prisoner transport companies that fail to comply with the regulatory standards, including fines of up to $10,000 per violation, the cost of prosecution for such violations, and restitution to public agencies that incur expenses for recapturing prisoners who escape from private transport services.
Still, some prisoners' rights advocates argued the proposed regulations didn't go far enough. Stephen Raher, Co-Coordinator of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said in a January 28, 2002 letter that more stringent standards were needed, including:
1) requiring private transport guards to obtain a commercial drivers license;
2) stricter guard-to-prisoner ratios, as one guard for every six prisoners is insufficient in some cases;
3) ensuring that prisoners be allowed to sleep at a secure facility, such as a jail, for at least eight hours for every
two days spent in transit;
4) requiring companies to phase-in GPS tracking technology for their vehicles (a provision the U.S. Dept. of Justice declined to adopt, apparently because it would place a financial burden on private transport services);
5) requiring vehicle maintenance schedules comparable to schedules used by the U.S. Marshals Service and other public prisoner transportation agencies; and
6) requiring private transport companies to report use-of-force and medical incidents.
Sen. Dorgan's bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton on December 21, 2000; however, the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) failed to formulate regulations to enforce the law's provisions until more than a year after the 180-day deadline for doing so. The regulations, codified at 28 C.F.R. § 97, were not approved until December 2002. Tragically, incidents Jeanna's Law was designed to prevent have occurred since the regulations were supposed to be in place, stated Sen. Dorgan.
Those incidents included the escape of David R. Puckett, 17, who fled from a TransCor guard at a Wisconsin airport on June 19, 2001. The transport guard, who was arranging a rental car at the time, had failed to handcuff the teenager. Puckett stole several vehicles and stabbed a police officer before being caught in Texas six days later. TransCor vice-president Chuck Goggin said, We do the very best we can to keep screw-ups to a minimum, but the company acknowledged that their employee, who was subsequently fired, had not followed proper procedures.
Another escape occurred on September 28, 2001, when Christopher Paul Savage hijacked a TransCor van at a gas station in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Savage pretended he was sick and convinced the guards to stop; after his handcuffs were removed he overpowered both guards and left in the van with eight other prisoners. A clerk at the gas station said a TransCor guard ran into the store shouting, "Call the cops, they just escaped!" The van contained a pump shotgun and five shells, which Savage took with him after abandoning the vehicle nearby. The other prisoners were quickly caught but, despite a manhunt involving seven police agencies, Savage remained at large for almost six weeks before being captured in Georgia.
Six prisoners and a TransCor guard were treated for minor injuries after their van was involved in an interstate accident in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania on April 8, 2002. Further, Extraditions International lost a van transporting a dozen prisoners on September 11, 2001 when the vehicle stopped at a McDonald's in Mentor, Ohio. One of the prisoners, Lawrence Tutt, overpowered a female guard and drove away while a second guard was ordering food. "We've had problems like every transport company has," stated Capt. K.V. Schilling, an Extraditions International employee. "We all have escapes or problems."
Also while the DOJ regulations for Jeanna's Law were pending, which included requirements for employee sexual harassment training, female guards being available to escort certain female prisoners, and policies against sexual misconduct, another egregious incident involving sexual abuse occurred.
During a four-day van trip beginning May 13, 2001, two male guards employed by Extraditions International transported Robin Darbyshire, 41, a pretrial detainee, and a number of male prisoners from Nevada to Colorado. A lengthy article published in 2002 in Westword magazine detailed Darbyshire's sordid tale of harassment, sexual assault, ignored complaints and death threats by the company's employees.
One of the transport guards, Richard Almendarez, made crude sexual comments to Darbyshire, fondled himself, and asked her to sit on his lap. Almendarez, who was armed, also threatened to take Darbyshire out into the desert, shoot her, and claim she had tried to escape. When they reached a rest area Almendarez escorted her into a bathroom. He removed her restraints, ordered her to lie down, and made her expose her breasts and raise her skirt. Almendarez, who weighed over 300 pounds, then stood on her hand to keep her pinned to the floor, masturbated and ejaculated on her.
After the van stopped at Extraditions International's headquarters in Commerce City, Colorado, Darbyshire's complaints were ignored and she was placed back in the same van to continue the trip. Another prisoner who was extradited by Almendarez recalled that he had said, "I should have taken the bitch out in the field and raped her and blew her fucking brains out."
Darbyshire's testimony resulted in investigations by law enforcement agencies in Colorado and New Mexico, and prompted a lawsuit filed by the ACLU's National Prison Project in the U.S. District Court for Colorado on April 11, 2002. The suit claimed that Extraditions International had failed to properly train and supervise its employees and had been deliberately indifferent to Darbyshire's complaints. According to court documents, besides the sexual abuse claims, Darbyshire and the other prisoners were continuously shackled during the four-day van ride, were only allowed to use restrooms every 10-12 hours, were not provided with sufficient food and water, and were transported in a reckless manner. It was also learned that Extraditions International knew Almendarez previously had been fired from the Texas prison system for abusing a prisoner.
The owner of Extraditions International, Jim Cure, a former Colorado state trooper, said Darbyshire was lying, despite statements from other prisoners who rode in the same van and corroborated her claims. Cure admitted that he didn't know what these officers do half the time. He also acknowledged that sometimes problems occur with private transportation employees. You can give them all types of training, but you can't build in the human factor, he said. You may get the occasional pervert who slips in. However, Cure defended Almendarez, saying, "He could go back to work for us today if he wanted to."
On March 14, 2003, the ACLU announced that Extraditions International had agreed to settle Darbyshire's lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. While the lawsuit was pending, Extraditions International had unsuccessfully tried to avoid liability by transferring its assets and claiming it had been bought out by a different company called American Extraditions, Inc. This case provides an excellent example of why contracting with private for-profit companies to conduct correctional functions can be dangerous to prisoners and the public, said the ACLU's National Prison Project staff attorney David C. Fathi. See: Darbyshire v. Extraditions International, Inc.. USDC (D. CO), Case Number: 02-N-718.
The DOJ regulations that were eventually implemented for Jeanna's Law contained specific standards intended to remedy the accidents, escapes, abuse and related problems among private transportation services. A minimum of 100 hours of training was required before private guards could transport violent (but not non-violent) prisoners. The maximum driving time for transport guards was made the same as for commercial motor vehicle operators under Dept. of Transportation (DOT) rules. In general, drivers cannot exceed 11 cumulative hours or 14 non-cumulative hours of driving following 10 consecutive hours off duty, with certain other limitations. Although the one-to-six guard-to-prisoner ratio was preserved, public agencies that contract with private transport companies can require lower ratios. In case of escapes, law enforcement officials must be notified within 15 minutes absent extenuating circumstances.
Standards to ensure the safety of prisoners, though less precise, were also set forth, such as a vague provision that transport vehicles be safe and well-maintained (vehicle maintenance is a matter of particular concern; U.S. Extraditions vice-president Robert Downs stated his company put an average of 15,000 miles on their vans every month). Also included was a requirement that companies establish policies to prohibit the mistreatment of prisoners, including prohibitions against covering a prisoner's mouth with tape, the use of excessive force, and sexual misconduct. Further, juvenile prisoners are required to be separated from adults and female prisoners separated from males, where practicable. Female guards are to be present when female violent prisoners are transported, also where practicable (a double loophole, since this provision doesn't apply to non-violent female prisoners). Another regulation states that private transport companies are responsible for taking reasonable measures to insure the well being of the prisoners in their custody including, but not limited to, necessary stops for restroom use and meals, proper heating and ventilation of the transport vehicle & and prohibitions on the use of tobacco. No minimum schedule for rest stops or meals was specified, however. The regulations also included civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each regulatory violation, liability for the cost of prosecution, and payments to public agencies for expenses incurred due to escapes from private transport companies.
Notably absent from the DOJ regulations were requirements related to seatbelts or other safety restraints for imprisoned passengers. TransCor, for example, doesn't provide seatbelts for prisoners, despite a July 15, 2003 Pennsylvania court verdict against the company in a case in which a female prisoner was thrown into a metal screen separating the passenger area from the driver's compartment when the TransCor van she was riding in came to a sudden stop. She suffered back and knee injuries, and received a $166,323 judgment against the company. TransCor had claimed that seatbelts could be used as weapons and posed a danger to its employees, an argument that was rejected by the court. Not mentioned was the probability that retrofitting prisoner transport vans with seatbelts might be too costly for the profit-minded company. See: Maggiolini v. TransCor, Penn. State Court, Case No. 01-11-307.
According to data from the NHTSA, nationwide from 1990 to 2003 nearly 80 percent of the people who died in rollover accidents in 15-passenger vans, which, as noted previously, are used by at least four private transport services, were not wearing seatbelts. And seatbelts can make a huge difference. When a Con-Link van slammed into an 18-wheeler that had been traveling the wrong way on an interstate in Tennessee on May 9, 2006, although two guards and three prisoners were injured there were no fatalities. Everyone in the van was wearing a seatbelt.
Also missing from Jeanna's Law were heightened liability insurance requirements for prisoner transport companies. Most private transportation services are subject to minimum amounts of insurance mandated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which requires at least $1.5 million in public liability coverage for commercial vehicles in interstate transit, generally, for-hire vehicles that carry 15 or fewer passengers, including the driver. Such minimal coverage may be insufficient for prisoner transport services; consider that lawsuits following the Federal Extradition Agency van fire resulted in jury awards in excess of $24 million.
Despite these omissions, Senator Dorgan said his legislation was [A] common sense law that will do much to protect the safety of the American people if and when state and local governments use private companies to transport violent criminals. Senator Leahy, remarking on the civil penalties for violations of Jeanna's Law, stated "This should create a healthy incentive for companies to abide by the regulations and operate responsibly". Unfortunately, it appears their hopeful sentiments were overly optimistic.
Effective Regulation: Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet?
Notwithstanding the regulatory provisions of Jeanna's Law and its civil penalties, accidents, escapes and abuses continue to occur among private transport companies, often resulting from the same security lapses and problems that predated the new regulations. This may be because although the rules have changed, the profit motivation of these companies has not. So long as prisoner transportation services are primarily concerned with making money, not ensuring public safety or the safety of their employees and the prisoners in their custody, such incidents will persist. And although the disincentives set forth in Jeanna's Law, up to $10,000 per violation, may seem substantial, consider that the larger prisoner transportation companies, including TransCor, take in millions of dollars in revenue each year.
Also, while the larger private transport corporations say they are in full compliance with Jeanna's Law, including TransCor, Con-Link and Court Services, Inc., several of the smaller transportation companies are not. When asked how such non-compliant services remain in business, Randy Cagle, owner of Con-Link, says that some public agencies only look at the dollar amount and don't do background checks. Thus, it's little surprise that escapes and accidents, as well as allegations of sexual assault, continue to plague the prisoner transportation industry.
TransCor, for example, continued to experience a fairly high number of escapes and other incidents. Floyd W. Stolin, Jr. escaped from a TransCor van in Brighton, Colorado on August 4, 2004, fleeing from the vehicle when it made a traffic stop. Several months later, on October 24, 2004, a TransCor guard was fired after David Randal Moser, who was being extradited to face sex charges involving a minor, escaped from a transport van in Oxford, Mississippi after the vehicle stopped at a Wendy's. TransCor officials declined to comment on the exact policy violations committed by their employee, but stated there was some sort of breakdown, or a series of breakdowns. Stephanie Castle, a relative of the victim whom Moser was charged with sexually assaulting, also commented on the company's security lapse, saying,"I can't believe these extradition people have a web site saying they are high security." TransCor paid the local police department for overtime costs incurred in searching for Moser, who was captured several days later.
In yet another high-profile sexual assault case involving TransCor, Denna Ann Jensen, 34, was being extradited from California to Nevada on September 2, 2003, when TransCor guard Jason Duane Parker pulled behind a remote, abandoned truck stop. Parker, who had been making suggestive comments during the trip, removed Jensen's restraints, donned a pair of latex gloves, forced her to perform oral sex, and digitally penetrated her. He then raped her while wearing a condom. After being dropped off at the Esmeralda County jail in Goldfield, Nevada, Jensen told one of the jail staff about the sexual assault. Deputies returned to the truck stop, where they found the condom and gloves.
Parker was arrested and charged with three felony counts of sexual assault and three counts of having sex with a prisoner. At trial he claimed the encounter had been consensual, though his testimony was contradicted by medical reports detailing Jensen's injuries, which were consistent with rape. Jensen also showed the jury her Aryan tattoo and stated she would never have willingly had sex with Parker, who was black. Parker was convicted of four of the charges. On September 29, 2003 Jensen sued TransCor in federal court. Asked why Jensen had been transported alone by a male guard in violation of company policy, an attorney representing TransCor said, "that's the big question, isn't it?" One possible answer is because it would have been more expensive to pay a female guard to accompany them. Denna Jensen's lawsuit was settled in January 2004 under undisclosed terms. See: Jensen v. TransCor, USDC NV, Case No. 2:03-cv-01359.
On September 2, 2004, four maximum security Montana prisoners removed their wrist, leg and waist restraints, pried a screen from the back window of a TransCor van, and escaped while the vehicle was stopped at a Burger King in Helena. A trainee guard had stayed with the van while a more experienced guard went inside to get food, which, according to a TransCor official, did not violate the company's safety policies. Although the prisoners were quickly apprehended, one had tried to hijack a truck.
Montana officials quickly suspended the state's $308,000 annual contract with TransCor and demanded changes in the company's policies, including providing sack lunches or only making stops at secure facilities, providing chase cars when transporting dangerous prisoners, maintaining data sheets and photos for prisoners being transported, and notifying local authorities of any stops. Further, the state demanded that the company's guards wear their guns and be provided with radios that are carried at all times. TransCor complied and the contract was reinstated; the company also agreed to pay the costs of recapturing the escapees, which totaled $23,516.
Other private transportation companies have also experienced recent escapes and security-related problems. On November 18, 2003, a Tennessee prisoner being transported by Con-Link ran away while still in handcuffs during a stop at a Subway store in Lewisburg, West Virginia. Robert L. South remained at large for five days before being captured.
The Orlando Sentinel reported on January 27, 2004 that a female murder suspect being transported by State Extraditions claimed she had been raped by a male guard while they were en route to Florida in late December 2003. According to a report from the Orange Co. Sheriff's Dept., Dixie Kennedy said the guard, Cecil Ormond, stopped at a motel in Alabama and told her they would be sharing a room. Once inside he allegedly ordered her to bathe and then sexually assaulted her. Company officials declined to comment on the incident. Although Alabama investigators confirmed that Ormond had stayed with Kennedy at a Days Inn instead of housing her overnight at a jail, no charges were filed after Kennedy said she didn't want to pursue the matter.
Florida prisoner Dominic Reddick, charged with trying to murder an Orlando police officer, escaped from State Extraditions after the company's transport van broke down in Florida on December 5, 2005. Reddick reportedly complained that his leg shackles were hurting him, and one of the guards obliged by taking them off. He ran away while the transport guards were occupied with other prisoners, still wearing handcuffs and prison clothes. All they could tell us was "He went that way," Sumter County Sheriff's Captain Gary Brannen said of State Extraditions' employees. Reddick was captured five days later following a massive search involving 200 officers from ten agencies, dogs, a helicopter and thermal imaging cameras. The Sheriff's office said it would bill the company for the cost of the search. It's a big operation, and a whole lot of taxpayer money is being spent, said Chief Deputy Jack Jordan. According to Jordon, as of June 2006, State Extraditions had not reimbursed the sheriff's department and the matter had been referred to the county's legal department.
An appropriately-named prisoner being extradited from Mississippi to Texas used a refueling stop to escape from a Guardrite Security vehicle on May 8, 2006. The unarmed private transport guards reportedly left James Bond unattended when they went inside the gas station. After Bond had escaped they failed to promptly contact law enforcement authorities and instead tried to search for him themselves. Bond stole a car, led authorities on a high speed chase and eluded capture for more than 20 hours. We are looking at if we can bill Guardrite Security for the cost of this because this was totally uncalled for, said Sheriff James Haywood. It's not impossible for prisoners to escape, but when one escapes like this, someone has to bear liability.
Most recently, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, three prisoners escaped from a PTS transport van on June 6, 2006. One of the company's guards initially claimed that prisoner Phillip Dunn had used his eyeglasses to pick the locks on his handcuffs and shackles and to open the van door. However, an investigation by PTS revealed that Dunn had stolen the guard's key ring, which contained keys to the van and all of the prisoners' restraints. Two of the escapees were soon caught but Dunn remained at large. Two PTS employees were fired.
Public Transport Services Imperfect
Publicly-operated prisoner transportation services are not immune to escapes, accidents and other problems, of course, both in the past and more recently. For example, in Connecticut in August 1999, four male prisoners being transported in a Sheriff's Department van by two deputies broke down a metal gate separating them from a female prisoner and sexually assaulted her.
And in a bizarre incident in November 2005, a Florida state prison van crashed through a parking garage wall at a medical center in North Miami Beach and plummeted four stories. The driver and a prisoner inside the vehicle survived the fall. That same month a Texas state prisoner escaped from a prison transport van by slipping out of his wrist and ankle restraints, leaving them locked on the floor behind him, and squeezing through a small rear window unseen by the two guards in the front seat. Carlos Kidd, the prisoner who accomplished the Houdini-like escape, was captured later that same day.
In Montana on January 11, 2006, murder suspect Dueston Haggard unlocked his restraints using a hidden key and escaped from a sheriff's transport van through an improperly welded hatch on the vehicle's roof. He had not been strip searched before boarding the van and his absence wasn't noticed by the deputies until they arrived at their destination.
And on April 11, 2006 in downtown Hilo, Hawaii, a jail guard shot and killed a prisoner who was attempting to escape. Thane K. Leialoha had removed his handcuffs, fled from a jail transport van and scuffled with the guard before running across a busy street. He was shot in the back of the head. The shooting was cleared by the Dept. of Public Safety, which found that the guard, who was not named, had followed state law and prison policies related to use of force.
However, compared with their privatized counterparts, government-run prisoner transport services don't appear to suffer from a similar number of escapes, accidents and abuses. This may be because public law enforcement agencies aren't intent on making a profit, and thus are willing to invest in more costly security and safety measures such as chase cars and additional guards. They also tend to employ more experienced, professional and better-trained staff who take their public-service jobs more seriously.
In fairness, it should be noted that while comprehensive information can be obtained from government agencies, similar data is not readily available from private transport companies, which makes accurate comparisons difficult. But this illustrates another problematic aspect of the prisoner transportation industry, a lack of transparency and public accountability. While documents can be requested from federal, state and local agencies through public records laws or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, including transportation log books, vehicle maintenance reports, employee training records, etc., such is not the case with private companies which are, in general, under no duty to disclose such documentation. As stated by Thor Catalogne, founder of PTS, upon cutting short an interview, his company doesn't usually give anyone any information. Two other companies, Prisoner Transportation Services, LLC and Security Transport Services, when contacted, refused to comment for this article.
Consider that Court Services Inc. has been transporting prisoners using unmodified 12- and 15-passenger vans and SUV's that the company rents from Budget Rentals and Capps Van and Car Rental. From September 6, 2005 to March 16, 2006, Court Services rented such vehicles at least 11 times in Kansas City, Missouri alone. Unmodified vehicles that lack security features, particularly a barrier between the guards and the prisoners being transported, pose greater safety risks than using secure transport vehicles. They are, however, less expensive for the company. Such unsafe practices are hard to detect due to the secretive nature of private prisoner transportation companies.
But some hard data, particularly concerning escapes, which are usually reported, is available. According to an exposé on private transport services published in Mother Jones magazine, from 1994 to 2000 TransCor experienced 25 escapes while other transportation companies had 12 escapes. Over the same period of time the U.S. Marshals Service, which moves an estimated twice as many prisoners each year as the entire private prisoner transport industry combined, had zero escapes. None.
A Roadmap for the Future: Where to Go From Here
Although federal regulation is beneficial, it apparently isn't sufficient in its present form to cure the on-going problems among prisoner transport companies that result from the industry's inherent profit motivation. What, then, is an effective solution?
While Jeanna's Law provides numerous rules and standards, as noted above it doesn't go far enough. Through its power to regulate interstate commerce, which includes the interstate transport of prisoners, Congress should impose further restraints on the private transportation industry that address:
1) higher minimum insurance requirements; 2) the types of vehicles permissible for transporting prisoners, with 15-passenger vans being excluded; 3) specific rules governing maintenance and inspection of prisoner transport vehicles; 4) mandatory seatbelt or other safety restraint requirements for prisoners being transported; and 5) increased civil penalties for regulatory violations that take into consideration a company's size or annual revenue. Further, federal law should require that all escapes, accidents and other incidents that endanger public safety during interstate prisoner extraditions be reported to a central government agency, such as the FMCSA, and made available to the public.
Even absent further regulation on the federal level, state and local authorities can impose their own rules and regulations on prisoner transportation services. The provisions of Jeanna's Law specifically do not pre-empt any applicable federal, state, or local law that may impose additional obligations on private prisoner transport companies or otherwise regulate the transportation of violent prisoners. The regulations in this part in no way pre-empt, displace, or affect the authority of states, local governments, or other federal agencies to address these issues.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, in a May 24, 2001 opinion regarding the impact of Jeanna's Law on state regulations related to prisoner transport services, determined that state officials were free to enact laws that supplement, but do not conflict with, the federal acts and implementing regulations. Supplemental state and local regulations can address such issues as licensing requirements for prisoner transportation companies, in-state employee training requirements (including firearms training and certification), and standards for licensing and inspection of transport vehicles.
On a more basic level, law enforcement agencies that utilize private transportation services should insist on contractual provisions that enhance public safety. Contracts can specify that chase vehicles be used during particular prisoner transports, that private transportation companies maintain a specific guard-to-prisoner ratio according to the number and type of prisoners being moved, that their transport vehicles not stop at non-secure locations for meal or refueling breaks, etc. Contracts also need to specify financial penalties to be imposed for violations, escapes, negligence, etc.
Public law enforcement agencies should further conduct comprehensive background checks before using private transportation companies, including proof of insurance and verification of FMCSA interstate operating authority when applicable, even for one-time transport services. During the ACLU's litigation against Extraditions International in the Darbyshire case, it was discovered that the company had operated illegally without proper licenses and insurance. And when Evelio Escalante escaped from TransCor guards in Connecticut in October 2000, it was revealed that the company wasn't licensed to do business in the state and, according to state officials, had failed to obtain a license for the previous two years despite being told to do so.
Private transport services that do not, or cannot, meet more stringent governmental regulations or contractual requirements should not be used by public agencies. Terminating or suspending business with prisoner transportation companies has proven necessary in the past. In November 2000, then Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland ordered state officials to stop using TransCor after Escalante's escape. North Dakota suspended use of TransCor's services when Kyle Bell fled from one of company's transport buses in Oct. 1999. The Nevada Dept. of Correction stopped using Extraditions International in 2000 following two escapes, instead contracting with other services. And Montana prison officials planned to resume control over prisoner transportation services after the state's contract with TransCor expires on June 30, 2006, partly due to the escape of four maximum security prisoners from one of the company's vans in September 2004.
When a business begins to lose customers, and thus market share, it will make necessary changes to ensure its continued profitability, even at greater cost to its bottom line. Only those prisoner transport companies that provide safe and effective services in compliance with government rules, regulations and expectations will survive. One that didn't, State Extraditions, apparently went out of business earlier this year following a high-profile escape and concerns over security violations, including loaded weapons being left in unsecured vehicles when transporting prisoners to and from Florida jails. State Extraditions co-founder Dennis Warren refused to comment on the company's closure.
One promising upstart in the industry is Show-Me Correctional Services, Inc., based in Slater, Missouri and founded in March 2006 by Heather Sheridan, a former Court Services, Inc. employee. Show-Me is the only woman-owned prisoner transportation service in the U.S. According to Sheridan, who also is a Licensed Practical Nurse with experience in corrections, her company does not use 15-passenger vans, requires seat belts for prisoners being transported, and has a no-exception policy for female guards to accompany female prisoners. The company's website explicitly acknowledges the many problems experienced by other private transportation services, and uses the motto, "A New Way In Thinking About Prisoner Extradition". Although Show-Me's rates are slightly above the industry average, Sheridan claims her company's profit margin is actually lower, and says she is willing to sacrifice higher returns for enhanced safety and quality of service.
Ultimately, for-profit companies will only respond to measures that affect their bottom lines. And given the fairly paltry financial disincentives provided for under Jeanna's Law, especially in relation to multi-million dollar companies like TransCor, existing penalties are inadequate. Instead, litigation has been the impetus behind forcing private transport services to change their operating policies, or forcing them out of business.
Federal Extradition Agency shut down in 1998 following the van fire in which six prisoners died; jury awards from the resulting lawsuits totaled over $24 million. Extraditions International folded in January 2002 following an undisclosed settlement in a suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of Robin Darbyshire, who was sexually assaulted by one of the company's employees. And lawsuits against TransCor by female prisoners who were raped by the company's guards have resulted in a number of settlements, one for $5 million, which serve as an incentive for the company to adopt safer policies and practices related to employee hiring, training and supervision.
Thus, litigation also plays an important role in regulating the private transportation industry, so long as prisoners who have legitimate claims are able to obtain effective legal representation. TransCor has been named in almost 200 federal lawsuits since the early 1990's, ranging from claims of injuries resulting from accidents to allegations that prisoners were denied insulin and HIV medication by the company's guards. However, the vast majority of these suits are filed by pro se prisoners who are unable to match the legal resources and abilities of corporate defense lawyers; consequently, their cases are routinely dismissed. Further, when attorneys do represent prisoners in lawsuits against private transportation companies, in order to serve as an effective deterrent to the rest of the industry it's important not to agree that settlements remain confidential.
It will only be through additional state and local regulations, stricter contractual requirements and continued litigation, in conjunction with vigorous enforcement and expansion of Jeanna's Law, that the private transportation industry will be held accountable for the mistakes and misdeeds that have historically resulted from its need to generate profit. Government agencies must also be willing to pay higher fees for safer and more secure prisoner transport services; alternately, public officials may prefer to invest such funds in their own prisoner transportation agencies and avoid contracting with private companies altogether.
We've got to make sure that we are not exposing the public to any risk, said then Nevada Prisons Director Bob Bayer in April 2000, after two prisoners, one a convicted murderer, escaped from a TranCor van. The question is can they do the job as well as we can do the job. The question is not whether privatized prisoner transport services can simply turn a profit at the expense of public safety. That question has already been answered.
A footnoted version of this article is available on PLN's website.
Related legal cases
Jensen v. TransCor
|Cite||USDC NV, Case No. 2:03-cv-01359|
Maggiolini v. TransCor
|Cite||Penn. State Court, Case No. 01-11-307|
|Level||State Trial Court|
Dalka v. Sublett
|Cite||USDC WD TN, Case No. 01-2485-V. 2002 WL 1482532 20|
Wine v. Dept. of Corrections
|Cite||USDC, WD WI, Case No. 00-C-704-C (2000 WL 34229819|
Nichols v. TransCor
|Cite||Circuit Court for Davidson Co., Tenn. (see appella|
|Level||State Court of Appeals|
Schoenfeld v. TransCor
|Cite||USDC WD TX, Case No. 5:00-cv-00248|
Jamison v. TransCor
|Cite||USDC CO, Case No. 1:99-cv-00390|
Cannon v. Federal Extradition Agency
|Cite||USDC, MD TN, Case No.3:97-1183|
Catalano v. Federal Extradition
|Cite||USDC MD TN, Case No. 3:97-cv-00790|
Hirsch v. Zavaras;
|Cite||USDC CO, Case No. 1:93-cv-01917 (see 920 F.Supp. 1|
Gwynn v. TransCor
|Cite||USDC CO, Case No. 1:95-cv-02886|