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Almost $950,000 Paid by Inmate Services Corp. for Hellish Prisoner Transports

by David M. Reutter

On September 30, 2023, the federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas gave final approval to a settlement agreement under which for-profit prisoner transport firm Inmate Services Corp. (ISC) agreed to pay a total of $949,379.48 to resolve claims that it violated the constitutional rights of a class of pretrial detainees of whom Danzel Stearns was representative, when ISC transported him in 2016 “shackled and unable to lie down, for eight continuous days across twelve states, with only momentary breaks for bathroom use.”

The lawsuit was filed by Stearns after he was picked up by two ISC employees in Colorado Springs on September 17, 2016, under contract to extradite him to Mississippi’s Union County courthouse to stand trial. ISC, based in West Memphis, should have covered the 1,145-mile trip in less than 17 hours.

But instead of heading east toward Mississippi, ISC drivers headed west and “wandered” through multiple states, passing through some twice to pick up and drop off as many as 17 other prisoners and detainees at a time, overcrowding the van “before finally delivering a sick, sleep-deprived Stearns for prosecution on a minor drug charge,” his suit stated.

The transport made no overnight stops, nor any lengthy stops at all. The two drivers took turns sleeping on a mattress in the front of the vehicle. Meanwhile, the detainees remained in upright positions, making it difficult to get more sleep than “cat naps.”

There were also no bathrooms in the vehicle, which forced some detainees to urinate in cups that ultimately spilled onto the floor. One female defecated in her pants, Stearns alleged, after her repeated requests for a bathroom break were ignored. He developed “clogs of manure” in his pants that caused perianal irritation from not being able to properly clean himself. He was not allowed to change clothes or shower during the trip. Upon arrival in Mississippi, Stearns discovered ringworm on his stomach.

Stearns’ complaint alleged violations of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth amendments. “The unnecessarily prolonged transport, fully chained, immobile, with no opportunity to wash even his hands, to change clothes, or to use the toilet more than irregularly and while chained, and able only to snatch an occasional nap while sitting up on hard seats for nine continuous days” violated Stearns’ Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the complaint alleged.

As PLN reported previously, the district court granted summary judgment to ISC, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed that decision on April 29, 2020. [See: PLN, Oct. 2020, p.54.]The parties filed their Class Action Settlement agreement on December 6, 2021, and the district court granted preliminary approval on March 31, 2023.

The settlement resolved two consolidated cases filed by Stearns. The action was certified for a class that included persons transported by ISC after February 11, 2016, whose entire trip or any part of the trip exceeded 24 continuous hours. The settlement provides for cash payments to class members, classified by the length of their transport, dividing a $625,000 settlement fund between them with payments of: $250 for 24 to 48 hours of transport; $450 for 48 to 72 hours; $900 for 72 to 96 hours; $1,400 for 96 to 120 hours; $2,500 for 120 to 144 hours; and $4,000 for 144 or more hours.

In addition to the settlement fund, ISC also agreed to provide up to $50,000 for a Claims Adjuster to oversee distribution of the funds, with any additional costs covered from the settlement fund itself. On top of that, $250,000 in attorney’s fees and $24,379.48 costs were awarded to Class Counsel, which included lawyers from James & Carter PLC in Little Rock; Bashein & Bashein Co., LPA in Cleveland, Ohio; and the Law Office of Mark E. Merin in Sacramento, Calilf. See: Stearns v. Inmate Services Corp., USDC (E.D. Ark.), Case Nos. 3:19-cv-00100 and 3:19-cv-00121.  

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Related legal case

Stearns v. Inmate Services Corp.