By Eli Hager & Alysia Santo
The Marshall Project
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.
Robert Downs, the chief operating officer of PTS, declined to comment on the deaths. He said guards were instructed to contact local officials when a serious medical emergency arises. “Unless it’s life or death, we can’t open the cage on the vehicle,” Downs said. “We don’t know if they’re setting us up for something.” This concern was echoed by guards at several companies, who said prisoners often feigned illnesses and injuries.
Training for guards, many of whom are military veterans, is often limited to a tutorial on handcuffs and pepper spray and a review of policies and paperwork, leaving them unprepared for the hazards of driving a van full of prisoners. At least 60 prisoners have escaped from private extradition vehicles since 2000, including one who later stabbed a police officer and another who was accused of sexual assault on a minor and is still missing.
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.
At least 14 women have alleged in criminal or civil court since 2000 that they were sexually assaulted by guards while being transported by these companies.
“Just stay in jail. It’s better,” said Lauren Sierra, 21, who said she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a guard in 2014 while being transported by U.S. Corrections, a rapidly growing company registered in North Carolina.
Picture: BLM Nevada (The Open Road) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons