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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.

Both women, Beverly Hirsch and Joann Gwynn, claim that they were placed in the front of the van rather than with the rest of the prisoners; that Transcor agent Jack ter Linden fondled and assaulted them and bragged of his encounters with other women prisoners; and that ter Linden and the other male agent on the trip skimmed from the prisoners' food allowances and "falsified their trip logs, food forms and other Transcor forms."

In court filings, attorneys for Transcor and ter Linden, who no longer works for the company, have denied the allegations; although placing prisoners in the driver's cab is a security breach, an affidavit from a Transcor executive states that having all-male guards looking after female passengers "had no impact on prisoner safety." The allegations in each case stem from trips that occurred in 1993, before CCA took over the company. Kupferer says he can't comment on pending litigation but insists that Transcor no longer transports females with two male agents "unless it's an emergency situation."

Transcor's critics say that what happens in the vans may be quite different from the policies issued by the home office. "There's no supervision at all," says attorney Todd Jansen, who represents both Gwynn and Hirsch. "They call in to headquarters every few hours, but they could take eight hours off, drive the rest of the time and tell them they're wherever. Who's going to know?"

The larger question is whether public corrections agencies, such as the Colorado Department of Corrections, can be held liable for Transcor's actions as a subcontractor.

"It's certainly an area of law that hasn't been litigated a lot," notes Brian Stern, a New Hampshire attorney who's pursuing a lawsuit against Transcor on behalf of another female inmate who's alleging harsh treatment at the hands of male guards.

But Stern believes Transcor's customers could wind up in court as well. "They're acting as an agent of the state," he says. "They're a private, for-profit company that's mistreating prisoners, and Colorado has to look at that. Their prisoner is their responsibility. They can be held liable; the question is whether there's enough proof."

Brian Burnett, the DOC's director of finance and administration, says he's unaware of any complaints about mistreatment of prisoners extradited to Colorado. "Everything I hear from our parole and community corrections people is that they're very pleased and have had no problems at all," he says.

The fact that Transcor may take weeks to deliver a prisoner, Burnett adds, is more than offset by the cost savings involved. "It really doesn't matter to us if they fly them around the world and back," he says. "There are speedy trial issues, of course, at the front end of the system, but we're talking mostly about people at the back end of the system. We're not telling them they have to use the most direct route. We're most concerned about cost."

When Colorado first began to arrange mass transfers of prisoners to private jails in Texas, Burnett notes, the jail operators were eager to pay for charter flights so that they could start being paid for housing the state's overflow. Many of those prisoners are now returning on Transcor vans and buses because "the incentive to fly them back isn't there," he says. Yet most of the Texas inmates are being sent to the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minnesota, or the newly opened Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenburg, both of which are private prisons operated by Transcor's parent, CCA; the sooner the prisoners arrive, the sooner CCA begins receiving money from the state for them.

Transcor's contract with the DOC is up for renewal soon. Burnett says the contract will be put out for bid, but Transcor is clearly the dominant player in the field. "It's been a cost-effective contract for the state," BurneR>tt says, "and unless something dramatic changes, I don't see why we wouldn't continue it in the future."

Kupferer says Transcor is in a "constant growth mode"--with good reason. "We do as good a job as any law enforcement agency in the country moving prisoners," he boasts, "taking into consideration the unique type of movement we provide."

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