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Privatized Prisoner Transportation Service Poses Problems

Privatized Prisoner Transportation Service Poses Problems

by David M. Reutter

Several lawsuits against the self-proclaimed “nation’s largest prisoner extradition company and one of the largest international transporters of detainees” have cast a harsh light on a contractor hired to fulfill the traditional government role of transporting prisoners from place to place. Critics say it’s an example of what can happen when public agencies turn to private-sector, profit-driven companies in an effort to trim budgets.

In a lawsuit filed on May 29, 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, former prisoner Darren Richardson claims he was the victim of “outrageous conduct” at the hands of Nashville, Tennessee-based Prisoner Transportation Services of America, LLC (PTS). The suit alleges violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as negligence, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Richardson says he suffered possibly permanent damage as a result of the transport company’s failure to provide humane treatment and medical care.

According to his complaint, Richardson was arrested in his home state of Florida in May 2013 for failing to pay $250 to the Court of Common Pleas in Pike County, Pennsylvania after completing probation in that state. He was held in a Florida jail until PTS picked him up to be extradited to Pennsylvania.

Over the course of the approximately 10-day trip, Richardson “did not go to the bathroom in any fashion for six days, and did not eat anything for four days,” the complaint states. “At one point, Mr. Richardson was given an empty food bag. Upon entering the transport bus, Plaintiff was asked by the Sergeant for his jewelry in return for a pleasant ride. Plaintiff refused to give up his jewelry, and in turn was given no food.”

Richardson claims that one guard held a shotgun to his head and others verbally abused him and other prisoners on the bus. The suit says he witnessed PTS guards taking debit cards from prisoners and using them at gas stations to buy cigarettes and other items. The guards also hassled an older prisoner for his Social Security money in order to purchase cigarettes. At one point, the complaint alleges, a guard urinated on Richardson.

The lawsuit claims that as a result of his treatment and restraints, Richardson was unable to walk or stand, and that his legs were purple from the knees down and his feet were black when he finally arrived at the Pike County Correctional Facility.

“Defendants made conscious decisions to either act or fail to act causing ... Richardson to suffer great physical pain and anguish, a severe shock to the nervous system, humiliation and embarrassment, severe emotional distress, permanent disability and lost future income and ultimately Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” the lawsuit states.

On October 27, 2015, a federal magistrate judge recommended that the defendants’ motion to dismiss be granted in part and denied in part. The case remains pending. See: Richardson v. Prisoner Transportation Services of America, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:15-cv-01061-ARC-JFS.

While Richardson’s lawsuit may be one of the more recent filed against PTS, it does not raise the most serious claims against the company. Denise Isaacs, 54, died during a September 2014 PTS transport from Kentucky to South Florida on a probation violation; she suffered from mental health problems and was experiencing hallucinations and refusing to eat prior to the trip, and died crammed into a van with 10 other prisoners. When PTS guards discovered she was unresponsive, they first called the company’s headquarters before calling 911.

Another lawsuit filed against PTS on July 10, 2014 also alleged mistreatment. According to the complaint, Texas prisoner Stephanie Luna “was handcuffed and shackled and placed in a small sectioned off area of the van which had no air conditioning vents. She suffered leg cramps and knee pains as a result of being in a restricted area for an extended period of time.”

Guards in the van provided water to Luna and two other prisoners only once during the two-day trip in the sweltering Texas heat. “During the entire transport in the van, plaintiff was offered sodas and juice only, not water. Plaintiff was so dehydrated that she suffered nose bleeding.... There were bottled waters in the van but plaintiff was denied access to them even after requesting water.” The suit also alleged PTS guards ignored repeated requests to open a window and turn air vents towards the prisoners being transported. The case settled in April 2015 under confidential terms. See: Luna v. PTS of America, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:14-cv-00812-A.

Then there was the escape attempt by prisoners who were left alone in a PTS van on September 2, 2013. Two PTS guards stopped in Wetherford, Oklahoma to deliver one or two sick prisoners to a hospital; they left the keys inside with the van running so the remaining eight prisoners could have air conditioning. With the guards in the hospital, two of the unsupervised prisoners kicked out a partition and drove off.

Police found the abandoned van about a mile away. Six of the prisoners were still inside, but two – Lester Burns and Michael Coleman – had fled, leaving behind a 12-gauge shotgun that was in the vehicle. Coleman, who faced assault charges, and Burns, charged with failure to pay child support, were later apprehended without incident. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.56].

“This is an example of what happens when we privatize functions that belong to the government,” said Richard Allen Smith, a spokesman for the non-profit public policy group In the Public Interest. “We lose two things: transparency and accountability.”

On its website, PTS boasts of its efficiency: “We can move your prisoner at less cost than if you did it yourself. Our agents are highly trained professionals. Most have military and/or criminal justice backgrounds and have worked as transportation agents for multiple years. We stress safety and on-time delivery/pickup.” The company doesn’t mention its history of escapes and accidents, or the fact that it has been sued over 40 times in federal court.

Sources: Miami Herald, Associated Press,,,,


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Related legal cases

Richardson v. Prisoner Transportation Services of America

Luna v. PTS of America