Private Prisoner Transport Firm Closes After Escape; Problems Continue to Plague Industry
by Matt Clarke
In February 2019, Texas Prisoner Transportation Services (TPTS) informed its customers that it would cease operations that same month. CEO Ryan Whitten blamed the closure on new insurance rates that meant the company “simply can’t continue to operate.” The announcement came just days after a high-profile escape from a TPTS transport van prompted a manhunt for a double homicide suspect who remained at large for nine hours before being recaptured.
Also in February 2019, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch joined U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker in a letter demanding information from Joel Brasfield, the president of Nashville, Tennessee-based Prisoner Transportation Services, LLC (PTS), the nation’s largest private prisoner transport firm. Booker and Deutch had previously called for investigations into the transport industry, which is largely unregulated.
A July 2016 analysis by The Marshall Project found that private prisoner transportation companies were involved in over 50 crashes, 60 escapes and 19 deaths since 2000. The nonprofit news organization also noted in early 2019 that the status of an inquiry into the industry, announced in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Justice, remains unclear.
The prisoner who escaped from the TPTS van, 44-year-old Cedrick Marks, was a professional mixed martial arts fighter indicted in Texas for two capital murders committed in January 2019. He is also a person of interest in a third homicide in Minnesota.
The victims of the double homicide were residents of Temple, Texas: Marks’ former girlfriend, Jenna Scott, 28, and her friend, Michael Swearingin, 32. Marks’ current girlfriend, Maya Maxwell, has been charged with tampering with evidence in connection with the murders for allegedly moving Swearingin’s car to Austin. Swearingin’s wife, Ginell McDonough, was also arrested in connection with the double homicide.
Maxwell told police she was present when Marks murdered the couple at his home in Killeen, Texas, and also when he buried their bodies in a shallow grave about 350 miles north near Clearwater, Oklahoma. Police discovered the bodies on January 15, 2019, a week after Scott and Swearingin went missing.
According to police officers in Bloomington, Minnesota, Marks is also a person of interest in the 2009 disappearance of the mother of one of his children, April Pease. At the time of her disappearance, Pease, who had a substance abuse problem, was involved in a custody dispute with Marks and had moved into a women’s shelter, saying she was afraid of him.
Marks was arrested by U.S. Marshals on January 8, 2019 in Kent County, Michigan on an outstanding warrant charging him with burglary of a habitation for allegedly breaking into Scott’s home. When a grand jury in Bell County, Texas returned an indictment against him for the double homicide on February 3, 2019, TPTS arranged for his extradition from Michigan.
That same day, a company van taking Marks to the Bell County jail stopped at a McDonald’s in Conroe, near Houston. Despite being restrained with handcuffs, leg shackles and a belly chain, Marks managed to escape. Conroe Police Lt. Dorcy McGinnis said two TPTS employees were assigned to the van, which was transporting nine other prisoners.
“We do believe there was still one [guard] in the van or near the van,” McGinnis said.
Considered extremely dangerous, Marks – who fought in the MMA under the name “Spider Man” – had a record of 31-28-0 over a 19-year career. Found hiding in a trash can about a mile away from the McDonald’s the same day he escaped, Marks was caught “after an exhausting 9-hour manhunt involving multiple Montgomery County, State and Federal Law Enforcement agencies,” Montgomery County Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Spencer announced. Marks was booked into the Bell County jail, where his bail was set at $1.75 million.
A reporter for a Houston television station paid a $15 fee to use an online jail video-visitation service to conduct an interview with Marks, who denied any involvement in the murders and also said he was not trying to escape. Jail officials terminated the video visit after 13 minutes when they discovered it was being used for a media interview.
Bell County had contracted with TPTS to transport around 200 prisoners annually over the past three years. Noting that “transport by air is very expensive,” County Judge David Blackburn said the sheriff’s office would take over the transportation of prisoners until a new company could be found – a process he hoped would last no more than 30 to 45 days.
Beyond Marks’ escape and the demise of TPTS, the private prisoner transport industry remains embroiled in controversy.
PTS became the leader of the industry in 2017 when it acquired rival U.S. Corrections, Inc. in a merger. U.S. Corrections, in turn, had been formed in 2014 by the owners of USG7, another transportation service. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.62]. The Marshall Project reported that Johnny Smith, a 48-year-old disabled construction worker, died in 2011 after spending nearly 24 hours shackled inside a USG7 van transporting him to Florida from Kentucky to face a drug possession charge for a single oxycodone pill.
A judge awarded Smith’s children $650,000 in damages for the company’s “carelessness and gross negligence,” but USG7 dissolved before making payment. The company’s principals, Ashley and Steven Jacques, then formed U.S. Corrections – now part of PTS as a result of the merger – in which they received a combined 22.5% ownership stake.
The Jacques brothers, whose father, Leslie, was killed in a crash while driving a USG7 prison transport van in 2010, publicly denied any connection between U.S. Corrections and USG7. They also denied that they had been principals of the company, contrary to the accounts of former employees who are still owed back pay.
However, in private emails sent in April and May 2014, Ashley Jacques assured former USG7 clients that U.S. Corrections was assuming the other firm’s contractual obligations.
“U.S. Corrections is a new company by name but not by existence, experience, and management,” Jacques wrote.
PTS officials said the brothers “neither have the right or ability to manage or control P.T.S. nor are they involved in the company’s daily operations,” despite the fact that Leslie Jacques is employed as the company’s Chief Transition Officer.
The dissolution of USG7 also meant that no payment was ever made on a $400,000 court judgment awarded to Fred Ellis, a Florida prisoner, for injuries he suffered in a 2011 transport accident.
“Slap a new name on the side of its business and escape its day of reckoning,” concluded attorney Frank Hedin, whose client spent 52 hours in a windowless U.S. Corrections transport van in 2015, locked inside a cage with no water, no way to lie down and an empty bottle to use when he had to urinate.
The judge in that case was also concerned that the Jacques brothers were using the PTS merger to avoid liability for U.S. Corrections’ malfeasance – “a corporate transformation in form only” she said – and demanded more information about the firm’s history. But the brothers claimed they had misplaced a flash drive containing company documents and that other records had been on a rented truck that went missing.
With almost no government oversight, prisoner transportation companies remain one of the shadiest, least transparent components of the private prison industry. [See: PLN, Sept. 2006, p.1].
Sources: krdo.com, tdtnews.com, chron.com, kxan.com, Associated Press, cnn.com, centexproud.com, themarshallproject.org
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