By Christopher Zoukis
A front-page New York Times story headlined “On Private Prisoner Vans, Long Road of Neglect” examined the little-known for-profit firms providing interstate transport in large vans for persons being extradited to face out-of-state court hearings or shuttled to distant prisons.
The companies give law enforcement agencies an alternative to assigning their own deputies to handle extradition of fugitives or suspects, but the business faces growing claims its providers are ill-trained, poorly equipped or otherwise unsuited to providing efficient or even safe service.
The July 6 Times article, jointly prepared by a reporter for the newspaper and a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a non-profit newsgroup on criminal justice, recounts deaths and serious injuries suffered by private extradition service passengers. It began with Steven Galack, a 46-year-old Florida man who in July 2012 was arrested on an out-of-state child-support warrant and ordered to appear at a hearing in an Ohio county over a thousand miles away.
The county ordered Prisoner Transportation Services of America, the nation’s largest private extradition service, to send a van to pick Galack up at the Florida jail where he was being held. Like the 10 other persons already in the van, he was handcuffed and put in ankle and waist shackles on a seat inside a cage in the back of the van. No toilets or beds are provided; uniformed guards ride in the driver’s compartment, take turns driving and usually stop overnight only if they can find a local jail willing to put their passengers up.
To maximize revenue (law enforcement clients pay $0.75 to $1.50 per passenger mile), the company’s routes are not direct, but include numerous pick-ups and drop-offs along the way (the log for Galack’s van’s showed 41 stops along its Ohio to Florida round-trip). The van’s air conditioning failed in 90-degree temperatures, and Galack soon began acting oddly, complaining of pain, and making so much noise the other passengers could not sleep while chained in their seats for the first two nights of the northbound trip.
The third day, two prisoners later testified, a guard suggested passengers beat Galack into silence. After reaching Tennessee an hour or so later, guards discovered Galack had died. Local authorities did not act, saying any crime had likely been committed in Georgia; state police there only briefly investigated the death (whose cause was never determined), and let the van continue.
The Times article noted at least three other passenger deaths since Galack’s, two from perforated ulcers for which no medical help was provided, and another from withdrawal from medication. It also detailed other harm befalling prison van passengers, including a diabetic who needed a double-leg amputation after several days on the road in a private prison van. Further, crashes have killed at least a dozen passengers and guards, and over a dozen female passengers have charged they were sexually assaulted during van trips. About 60 passengers also escaped during van trips.
The Marshall Project, which interviewed dozens of former private van guards, added most receive only an hour or so of training and no medical preparation beyond CPR. The article also reported the guards say they’ve seen little sign of Justice or Transportation Department oversight of regulations for interstate van passenger service.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com