Just Hop on the Van, Man

Transported by private companies, wayward inmates discover that their journey to prison can be a long, strange trip.

When William Minnix was arrested in Ohio last summer, he thought he knew what to expect. He knew he would be extradited to Colorado to face a charge of violating his parole on a felony theft conviction. He also knew that the 1,000-mile trip back to prison, shackled in a van operated by a private extradition company, would probably take longer than the 24 to 36 hours such a journey usually requires.

What Minnix didn't know was exactly how long his road trip would last. Four or five days, he figured. A week, tops.

"I'd heard the horror stories about the long trips," Minnix says. "It was a joke to the drivers. They'd kid me and the other prisoners that we might end up in Florida, that we might not see Colorado for months."

As it turned out, the drivers weren't entirely kidding. Minnix spent most of the month of July in transit, a bizarre odyssey that included side trips to pick up and drop off prisoners in New York, Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, Wisconsin, South Dakota and several more swings through Ohio before fi-nally reaching Colorado.

In all, Minnix managed to visit twenty states in twenty days --during which time, he claims, he was shuttled from van to van, remained shackled for periods of up to 36 hours, slept on the floor of county-jail drunk tanks, was frequently denied showers and other basic hygiene needs, and suffered injuries in a traffic accident caused by a careless driver employed by the extradition company, Transcor America, Inc. He's since filed notice of intent to sue Transcor and the Colorado Department of Corrections over what he terms "the barbaric and violative treatment" he received.

Minnix's is one of a tide of inmate complaints that have been lodged against private extradition companies, which have become one of the hottest growth areas for private-sector involvement in the corrections industry. Increasingly, overcrowded state prison systems are turning to such companies to carry not only extraditees but thousands of prisoners moved to and from private jails out of state. Despite growing concerns about unsafe conditions, the threat of escapes, circuitous routes that keep inmates on the road for days or weeks, and even allegations of mistreatment of female prisoners by male security guards, the private companies are generally considered more economical than using state personnel or hiring the U.S. Marshal's Service, the federal escort service featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Con Air.

The private services usually operate small vans with fewer than fifteen passengers, which means they're exempt from most federal regulations concerning commercial interstate transport. (In fact, there are more stringent federal laws for shipping livestock than for shipping prisoners.) And since the companies' profits depend on volume, they typically make numerous stops to pick up prisoners bound for hoosegows in several states, housing them overnight in county jails along the way--a process that involves moving armed private guards and dangerous offenders through dozens of jurisdictions with little or no notice to local law enforcement.

"We coordinate every trip within reason to pick up as many people and deliver them to the customers in the shortest period of time," explains Chuck Kupferer, executive vice president of Transcor America. "That causes some variations geographically in the route of travel."

All that road time has produced its share of accidents, escapes--and tragedies. Last April six prisoners burned to death when a van caught fire in Tennessee; all six were locked into a wire-mesh cage in the back. The van, operated by the Federal Extradition Agency (FEA), a private company headed by a former bounty hunter, had been in service for more than 260,000 miles; state investigators believe the vehicle's driveshaft fell off and punctured the gas tank.

Prisoners complain that van drivers often ignore the speed limit and sometimes stay behind the wheel until they nod off. A snoozing guard may have been the key to an escape last summer from a Federal Extradition van that stopped in southeastern Colorado to pick up a prisoner. Authorities say that Dennis Glick, a lifer being transported from Utah to Arkansas, overpowered the sleeping guard, took his guns and sped off in the van with the rest of the prisoners in the back. Glick, who later commandeered a horse, was captured by a dragnet of local and state law enforcement personnel. FEA has been billed more than $17,000 for the costs involved in retrieving Glick and the other prisoners, but Chip DeLuca, director of law enforcement for the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office, says his agency "hasn't heard a word from them" in response.

FEA, though, controls only a small part of the private inmate-transport business. The giant in the field is Transcor America, a Tennessee-based company that moves a staggering 45,000 to 50,000 inmates a year--including mass transfers of state prisoners housed in private jails, such as the Colorado inmates in Texas and Minnesota. Started on a shoestring in 1990, Transcor was purchased three years ago by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the world's largest private corrections company, and now boasts contracts with a total of 1,100 corrections agencies from all fifty states, a fleet of 125 vehicles, and annual revenues of more than $10 million.

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