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Just Hop on the Van, Man

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

Transcor's Kupferer, a former federal marshal, says his company has come to dominate the field through high-quality service, intensive training of its security guards (known as "agents"), and strict policies governing vehicle safety and the treatment of prisoners. As a result of its growing reputation, the company is now handling more inmates--and more violent offenders--than ever before.

"Two years ago the overwhelming majority of our extraditees were probably nonviolent," Kupferer says. "Not so anymore. That's because of us. The law enforcement communities didn't trust us like they do now; they'd handle the tough ones themselves."

Transcor's policy manual states that prisoners should be in transit an average of four days or less; a similar provision is contained in the company's $120,000 annual contract with the Colorado Department of Corrections, which pays the company on a straight-line per-mile basis, with a minimum of $200 per head. But due to the vagaries of weather and the necessity of picking up and dropping off passengers at jails hundreds of miles apart, that standard isn't always met, Kupferer admits.

"If a guy wrote to you and said he was on the road for fifteen days, I have no doubt in my mind that he was," Kupferer says. "It's not rare, but it's not usual."

But the Transcor executive disputes Minnix's account of being on the road and shackled for more than 24 hours at a stretch. Transcor requires its agents to take an 8-hour rest period in every 24, he notes. "It may have happened, but I would have serious doubts about it," Kupferer says. "If it did happen, our agents are instructed to take some measures--stop, let them out of the vehicles, take the shackles off, let them stretch and have a smoke. But those are rare instances."

Other prisoners, though, say such instances aren't rare at all. Colorado prisoners shipped back from Texas--and in some cases, on to Minnesota--in forty-passenger buses operated by Transcor have complained of being on the road for up to forty hours without a break. (The mass transfers aren't part of the state's contract with Transcor; they're paid for by the private jails, which agree to arrange transport as part of their contract with the Colorado DOC.) Some prisoners have described being trapped on the buses for several hours without adequate food or toilet facilities after a breakdown or accident en route.

"I was one of those who could barely walk to exit the vehicle after such a trip," one inmate wrote in a letter to Westword. "I know of no jail that could confine forty inmates in a tight, cramped space, chained hand and foot and together, given no water and limited restroom use, and not allowed to stretch for up to forty hours. It would be considered inhumane."

Another Colorado inmate, Earby Moxon, says he was traveling at night through northern New Mexico last July on a Transcor bus with faltering headlights. The driver wound up negotiating Raton Pass with a flashlight stuck out the window, Moxon says. Another prisoner, Richard O'Donnell, sums up a similar headlight failure on a September trip across I-80 in Nebraska as follows: "Forty prisoners! A bus! No headlights! On an interstate in the middle of the night! At 50/60/70 mph! No lights! I've just decided to sue Transcor!"

Kupferer is skeptical of such claims. "I find it hard to believe that local law enforcement would let one of our vehicles proceed with no lights," he says.

Inmate Minnix contends that the agents on his trip frequently ignored Transcor's safety policies; one speed-happy driver even boasted of having disabled the electronic governor that is supposed to keep the vans from traveling at more than 65 miles per hour. Minnix's account of the trip, recorded in a diary with a pencil he kept in his shoe (see related story, page 9), reads like an outline for the next National Lampoon's Vacation sequel, with a cast of surly and nearsighted drivers, a neglected, mentally ill prisoner who thought he was on an airplane, and one agent who quit in disgust after numerous delays.

"I couldn't sleep on the van," says Minnix, now incarcerated at the Fremont Correctional Facility outside Canon City. "I was worried about my life. They sometimes drove sixteen, eighteen hours without relieving one another, and there were quite a few times we had to holler at the driver to wake him up. I didn't feel safe at all."

Near the end of his trip, Minnix claims, he suffered neck injuries in an accident outside Leavenworth, Kansas, but didn't receive medical attention until several hours after the incident. But Kupferer says that he's "comfortable" with his company's safety record and that most inmate complaints about driving mishaps are exaggerated.

"I have seen and know of instances where you bump a curb accidentally when you're parking and they're screaming that they've got whiplash," he says. "It's bullshit."

The most serious allegations raised against Transcor have to do with deliberate mistreatment of inmates during their meandering trip to prison. Two federal lawsuits filed in Denver against the company claim that a male Transcor employee sexually assaulted female prisoners on two separate trips to Colorado; on both occasions, no female employee was present, contrary to the company's stated policy that women inmates must be escorted by at least one female agent.

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