Road Hazard

Traveling with private extradition companies is no joy ride -- particularly for female prisoners.

Robin Darbyshire is the first to admit that she hasn't led an exemplary life. The bad checks, the multiple arrests and convictions, the Texas parole violation -- they're all a matter of record. So when the 41-year-old woman was arrested in Nevada last spring on an outstanding warrant for theft in Steamboat Springs, she knew she would be spending some time behind bars in the ski town.

What she didn't expect was a five-day journey into squalor aboard a van operated by a Colorado-based private extradition company. According to Darbyshire, the trip included large doses of physical privation, humiliation, threats and harassment, culminating in a sexual assault by one of the two male drivers escorting her back to Routt County.

"I was shocked at what he did to me," Darbyshire says. "What happened was a crime, and he's not going to get away with it if I can help it."

Darbyshire's claims of mistreatment by a former employee of Extraditions International has prompted investigations by law-enforcement agencies in Colorado and New Mexico and drawn the attention of the ACLU's National Prison Project, which now counts Darbyshire as a client in any potential civil litigation. But to date, no criminal charges have been filed in the case, and the head of Extraditions International, which has its headquarters in Commerce City, says he doesn't believe the alleged assault ever occurred -- despite the accounts of other prisoners in the van who corroborate key pieces of Darbyshire's story. The entire episode illustrates how difficult it is to determine what happens on the road in the loosely regulated prisoner-transport industry.

"I'm not saying our nose is clean all the time," says Jim Cure, EI's founder. "I don't know what these officers do half the time. But when you have multiple jurisdictions investigating [her case] at astronomical cost, and none of them come back with anything, you have to look at this lady. She lies too much."

Controversy over the booming felons-on-wheels business is nothing new. As with so many other aspects of corrections, the private sector has found a profitable niche in transporting prisoners -- everything from nonviolent pre-trial detainees, parole absconders and other extradition cases to convicted murderers being shipped to private jails in another state -- for a lower cost than most law-enforcement agencies can do it themselves. The industry giant, Transcor, now moves upwards of 60,000 prisoners a year. But the stupendous growth has also brought numerous lawsuits, civil-rights complaints and increasing government scrutiny.

Heavily shackled and caged in small vans for long hours on the road, prisoners have complained about inadequate food, water and rest stops; mechanically unsafe vehicles; poorly trained guards who abuse them, fall asleep at the wheel or speed recklessly; and punishing, circuitous routes designed to pick up and drop off as many prisoners as possible in one cross-country trek ("Just Hop on the Van, Man," December 18, 1997). Female prisoners have claimed to have been assaulted by male inmates or the usually all-male driver teams. In addition, the industry has had numerous well-publicized escapes and fatal accidents.

A former Colorado state trooper, Cure launched Extraditions International in 1993. The company now transports from 500 to 1,000 inmates a month under contracts with various sheriff's departments and other agencies across the country. Cure says it is company policy to provide two fast-food meals and a snack every day; to offer bathroom stops every few hours, when the drivers stop for fuel; and to arrange housing, showers and several hours' rest at a local jail at least once every 24 hours. As for providing a female agent aboard vans carrying female prisoners, "if we have one available, she will go on," Cure says. "But a lot of the time, we don't have one."

The absence of a female employee was one of many problems Darbyshire encountered after boarding the EI van in Nevada last May. She says the prisoners often received only one meal from McDonald's a day, while driver Richard Almendarez, a huge, heavyset, 29-year-old man -- Darbyshire estimates that he weighed more than 300 pounds -- stopped frequently to feed himself. "He was using the money they allotted for us," she says. "He would stop and eat several times a day, right in front of us."

Although his partner was more reasonable, she adds, Almendarez taunted the prisoners by pulling into rest stops and then driving on. The prisoners traveled seventeen hours without a bathroom break, she says. Even more disturbing, in Darbyshire's view, were the increasingly explicit sexual advances Almendarez directed at her, the only female on the van.

"He started making comments right off the bat," she says. "He said, 'You can come up here and ride with me' -- stuff like that. I told him I wouldn't go anywhere sexually with him. He was stroking himself through his clothes, saying, 'I'd fuck anything with hair on it.' It just got worse and worse."

After a winding journey through northern California, the van headed south to Los Angeles and picked up another female prisoner, Alberta Flores-Brown, who was bound for Arizona. Flores-Brown says Almendarez began to harass her, too, and the comments soon became more threatening.

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