Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport

Eli Hager and Alysia Santo, Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport. The Marshall Project, 6 July 2016. This story was produced in collaboration with The New York Times. “Every year, tens of thousands of fugitives and suspects — many of whom have not been convicted of a crime — are entrusted to a handful of small private companies that specialize in state and local extraditions. A Marshall Project review of thousands of court documents, federal records and local news articles and interviews with more than 50 current or former guards and executives reveals a pattern of prisoner abuse and neglect in an industry that operates with almost no oversight.”

Since 2012, at least four people,…have died on private extradition vans, all of them run by the Tennessee-based Prisoner Transportation Services. In one case, a Mississippi man complained of pain for a day and a half before dying from an ulcer. In another, a Kentucky woman suffered a fatal withdrawal from anti-anxiety medication. And in another, guards mocked a prisoner’s pain before he, too, died from a perforated ulcer….

The companies are usually paid per prisoner per mile, giving them incentive to pack the vans and take as few breaks as possible. Crashes have killed a dozen prisoners and guards.

Operating primarily across the South and Midwest, guards travel up to weeks at a time along circuitous routes, typically picking up and dropping off prisoners in 15-passenger vans or sometimes minivans retrofitted with interior caging and darkened windows.

These vans do not have prisoner beds, toilets or medical services. Violent felons are mixed with first-time suspects. A plexiglass divider is usually the only thing separating women from men….

Because the vans cross state lines, accountability falls into a gray zone. Jurisdictions that hire the companies often disavow responsibility for prisoners not under their direct custody, and federal regulators have largely ignored the industry….

At a time when a swollen United States prison and jail population has strained law enforcement budgets, transport companies offer a significantly cheaper alternative to traditional extradition, in which local deputies are sent miles out of state for one person….

Private vans can save considerably by picking up and dropping off other prisoners along the way, charging 75 cents to $1.50 a mile per prisoner.

Corrections departments in 26 states, law enforcement in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and Las Vegas, and local agencies nationwide use extradition companies. Although about two dozen private prisoner transport companies have registered with the Department of Transportation, only seven have state-level extradition contracts, with PTS [Prisoner Transportation Services of America] having the most by far.

But maintaining tight profit margins depends on relentlessly shaving time and costs on the road, industry veterans said….

Guards — who earn about $150 to $250 per 24-hour shift, and who rotate driving duty — are generally paid only while they are on the road. Because they often have to pay out-of-pocket for a hotel room, most said they rarely chose to stop.

Bunking overnight also requires finding a jail willing to offer beds and showers to prisoners, which is difficult because jails do not always want to house unknown prisoners from other jurisdictions….

On most trips, every meal for days is a fast-food sandwich. Water is rationed and bathroom stops limited. Prisoners who cannot wait often urinate in bottles or on themselves, and sometimes defecate on the floor of the van, according to guards and lawsuits….

For some prisoners, the ride ends in serious injury, or even death….

When suspects are arrested on a warrant, they often spend considerable time in a local jail before being picked up for extradition. About a dozen guards from several transport companies said jails provided substandard medical care and little information about prisoners’ health status or prescribed medications, which the guards are expected to dispense en route. Guards are not required by law to have any medical experience other than training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation….

Jeanna’s Act [passed in 2000] mandates that extradition companies must notify local law enforcement immediately after an escape, dress violent prisoners in brightly colored clothing and maintain a ratio of one guard for every six prisoners. It also sets broad standards for training and background checks of guards, and for treatment of prisoners.

But the federal law is almost never enforced. The Justice Department could identify just one instance…

Extradition companies are not required to report escapes to federal regulators, and there is no centralized tracking. But a review of dozens of local news accounts shows that since Jeanna’s Act was passed, at least 56 prisoners were reported to have escaped from for-profit extradition vehicles. At least 16 were reported to have committed new crimes while on the run.

By comparison, the prison systems of California, Florida and Texas — which together transport more than 800,000 inmates every year, most of them in-state — have each had just one prisoner escape from transport vehicles over the same period….

While the Department of Transportation has no role in responding to escapes or prisoner mistreatment, it is responsible for monitoring vehicle and driver safety, including whether guards get enough downtime away from the wheel, under the same regulations that govern all passenger carriers.

A Marshall Project review of Department of Transportation records shows that the agency’s monitoring is infrequent, and companies are typically given advance notice of an audit…..

Local news reports and court records show that there have been more than 50 crashes involving private extradition vehicles since 2000. In almost every instance, the prisoners were shackled but not wearing seatbelts, leaving them unable to brace themselves.

In addition to the dozen deaths, a dozen prisoners have suffered injuries to their necks, skulls or spines, according to lawsuits, hospital reports and accident reports obtained from state and local agencies.

Fatigue seems to have played a role in many of the accidents. Of 26 accidents for which a time could be determined, 14 occurred between midnight and 6 a.m.