Deaths and Abuse During Private Prisoner Transport Trips
by Matt Clarke
Many prisoners transported by Prisoner Transportation Services of America, LLC (PTS) report being denied restroom breaks, food, liquids and essential prescription medications such as insulin, occasionally with fatal results. Others say they were physically or sexually abused by PTS staff. At least five prisoners have died while being transported by PTS since 2012.
The Nashville-based company contracts with law enforcement agencies throughout the country to transport prisoners between jurisdictions in trips that can take up to two weeks coast-to-coast as PTS vans zigzag between jails, sometimes backtracking in an attempt to maximize profit each trip.
One death occurred after a PTS transportation officer – the company’s version of a guard – assaulted a prisoner and ordered other prisoners to beat him, too. Two more prisoners died due to bleeding ulcers while transport guards ignored their pleas for medical attention. Two guards were charged with sexual assault and pleaded guilty, one of them to lesser charges.
Being subjected to a PTS extradition transport is the proverbial trip from hell, according to prisoners who have taken such journeys. It starts with a guard placing your legs in shackles, then your wrists are locked in handcuffs with a “black box” affixed to prevent access to the cuffs, all of which is then connected to a belly chain so short that you have to walk hunched over to the van.
The guard who “hooked you up” will likely explain that you have “no rights” while being transported, prisoners add. That of course is a lie, as “prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,” the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). But PTS’ transport guards will sound convincing as they insist you have no right to ask questions, talk back, request a bathroom break or ask about the trip. Doing any of those things might earn a trip to the van’s tiny segregation cage – or a beating.
The van will likely already be full of other prisoners and ankle deep in trash and filth – mostly fast food containers from the few meals afforded during the trip – and possibly some bottles filled with urine due to a lack of bathroom stops. In some cases, van drivers have been known to speed, drive recklessly or even fall asleep at the wheel.
Steven Galack was picked up by PTS in southern Florida in 2012 for extradition to Ohio, where he was behind on child support payments. He suffered from chronic pain and mental illness and required prescription medication, but was not given his medicines as the van wound its way up the Florida peninsula, through the state’s panhandle and into Alabama.
Galack was in increasing pain and began to complain. He begged to be taken to a hospital, saying he was going to die. That’s when one of the transport guards punched him in the face to keep him quiet. When that failed, both guards in the van ordered other prisoners to beat Galack, instructing them not to hit him in the head. Afterward, Galack became quiet and slumped over. The guards didn’t even realize he was dead until they arrived at a lock-up in Tennessee.
Galack’s family sued PTS, which settled for an undisclosed sum. It was one of at least 40 lawsuits filed against the company. One complaint filed in Pennsylvania federal court by Sean Paul Kenny alleged a PTS guard named Button slammed him into a brick wall at an Arizona jail after Button overheard him complaining to a jailer about conditions in the transport van.
In 2015, a 24-year-old woman named Smith was picked up in California for transport to Massachusetts for a probation violation. Smith, who is now a full-time counselor at a women’s treatment facility with a degree in psychology, spent 14 days in a PTS van, locked into a tiny area walled off with metal mesh called the “birdcage,” located between the guards and the male prisoners.
While she was in the birdcage, both guards and male prisoners subjected her to verbal sexual harassment, and tried to touch her through the cage mesh. But her real horror did not start until the twelfth day when a stop at a New Jersey jail left her separated from the rest of the prisoners and alone with guard Jermaine Taylor, who allegedly put his hand down her pants and inserted his finger into her vagina. Later, after they returned to the van, she saw him looking up her social media information. At the end of the trip he slipped her a note with his contact information and a suggestion that they “finish what they started” once she was released.
A frightened Smith did not report the sexual assault until after her transport was complete and she arrived at her destination, a jail in Massachusetts. Nearly two years later, Taylor was charged with criminal sexual assault and spent almost five months in a New Jersey jail. Then he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault for putting Smith’s handcuffs on too tight, in exchange for a three-year suspended sentence with no probation. Smith was livid. She filed a lawsuit against Taylor and PTS.
Former PTS guard James Baldinger did not get off as lightly as Taylor. On June 24, 2019, Baldinger pleaded guilty in New Mexico federal court to violating the civil rights of a female prisoner in his custody by sexually assaulting her. He admitted that while transporting her from Kentucky to New Mexico in July 2017, he touched her sexually while she was restrained and without her consent. He was sentenced on November 21, 2019 to two years in prison.
This abuse by PTS guards – especially the alleged sexual assault of Smith – got the attention of U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker, who joined Rep. Ted Deutch in sending a letter to PTS in February 2019, requesting information on all prisoner deaths and allegations of sexual assault that occurred in PTS custody. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.28].
The response from PTS president Joe Brasfield said only that PTS had a difficult job transporting 26,000 prisoners more than six million miles each year, and that the company was adhering to industry best practices.
In October 2019, the three members of Congress requested that U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz audit the private prisoner transport industry in order to determine whether for-profit companies like PTS are complying with federal laws and regulations.
“DOJ appears to be failing to provide critical oversight of private prisoner transportation companies,” they wrote to Horowitz.
In reality, however, there are few federal laws and rules that govern private prisoner transportation services – one is Jeanna’s Act, which has reportedly been enforced only once in the past 20 years, in connection with an escape from a private transport van. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.44; Sept. 2006, p.1].
Sources: cbs12.com, pennrecord.com, wbur.org, justice.gov, newschannel5.com, uptoboston.com, thecrimereport.org
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