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Road Hazard

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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.

"He would do everything when his partner was asleep," Flores-Brown recalls. "He said I could come up there and sit on his lap. He said he wanted to take me to a motel and have sex with me. He wanted me to tell him 'some X-rated bedtime stories.' I tried to ignore him. Then he'd get angry and tell us he was going to take us to the desert and shoot us. I started to get really scared."

After she arrived at a detention center in Bisbee, Arizona, Flores-Brown filed a complaint about her treatment. Officers there regarded her harassment claims as a civil matter, but they did take photos of her arms, badly swollen from the tight shackles, and forwarded them to EI management. According to Darbyshire, Almendarez was instructed to bring the van to headquarters in Commerce City, a summons that only made him more belligerent toward her.

"He got really angry," Darbyshire says. "He was talking to [the other driver], saying he should have taken us out in the desert and shot us, that we were probably federal agents that had been planted on the van. He was paranoid. His partner would just shake his head and laugh at him."

Darbyshire says she awoke several hours later to find the van pulling into a rest stop along I-25. She is uncertain of the location, other than that it was "south of Pueblo." Almendarez took the male prisoners to the bathroom first and then returned to escort her to the women's room .

Once inside, she says, Almendarez told her, "You're fixing to have sex with me."

"I told him, 'No, I'm not,'" Darbyshire says. "He said, 'Well, you're going to give me a blow job.' I told him he was a pig.

"He took off my belly chain and my cuffs. He made me take my shirt and bra off. He told me to put my feet up on the door, to keep anyone from coming in, and then he straddled me. He put his left foot on my right hand, unzipped his pants and told me to play with myself. He couldn't do much, he's so heavy, but he jerked off on me. Then he got paper towels and told me to wipe off. I started scrubbing myself."

When the van arrived in Commerce City, Darbyshire asked to see EI director Ray Pezolt. She says Pezolt told her that Almendarez would be driving her to Steamboat Springs and that "whatever you tell us, we're going to tell him." Consequently, she says, she didn't report the full details of the assault until she was turned over to Routt County deputies.

The van developed mechanical failure on the way, however, and Almendarez was assigned to another van headed for Kansas. James Saunders, a Denver prisoner who was on that trip, recalls Almendarez complaining to his partner about Darbyshire later that day during a stop at a Wal-Mart in eastern Colorado.

"They thought we were all asleep," Saunders says. "He said, 'I should have taken the bitch out in the field and raped her and blew her fucking brains out.' That was the part that caught my attention."

After Saunders got his legal troubles straightened out in Kansas, he returned to Denver and reported the conversation to Pezolt. "I'm prepared to testify about it," he says. "I think this guy was very unprofessional."

EI's Cure says his people have been questioned by several law-enforcement agencies about the matter, but no one has yet been able to locate the rest stop Darbyshire described, much less establish evidence of an assault. A Pueblo County Sheriff's Office commander confirms that his department has closed its investigation after determining the alleged attack did not occur in their jurisdiction.

"I wouldn't trust these guys if they told me the sky was blue," Cure says. "That's not saying it did not happen. But you get one inmate who collaborates with the rest -- she can't tell where it occurred. She doesn't know what state it was in. I can tell you this much. The federal people just dropped it. They said there was nothing there. Routt County has to continue [to investigate] because of her continual bitching. Personally, I don't think it occurred. Our officer swears he never touched her."

Almendarez could not be reached for comment. Cure says Almendarez was a "hard worker" who left the company after two years for personal reasons. "I didn't have any trouble with him," he says. "He could go back to work for us today if he wanted to."

Routt County has stopped using EI's ser-vices during the investigation, but the company has weathered similar allegations before. In fact, right now it's fighting a federal lawsuit filed by a Colorado prisoner, Rosse McLeod, who claims she was fed one meal a day and deprived of sleep and showers during a six-day trip in 1998. McLeod says she was left shackled with unsupervised male prisoners, one of whom exposed himself to her and assaulted another prisoner who tried to intervene.

"We get tons of complaints," Cure sighs. "We get sued because the guy said he wanted McDonald's instead of Burger King, or we didn't provide the right kind of toilet paper, or whatever. We answer them and go about our business. Nobody has ever collected anything from us."

Craig Cowie, litigation fellow for the ACLU's National Prison Project, says it's an open question whether government agencies can be held liable for the actions of a subcontractor such as a private transport company. "It really depends on whether the county did appropriate investigation before hiring them and whether there was a record of prior complaints," he says.

The Washington-based National Prison Project is currently conducting a research study on the incidence of sexual assault among female inmates. "For a long time, people just didn't talk about it," Cowie says. "We're seeing more cases now, but it's unclear whether people are just more willing to come forward."

Late in 2000, President Clinton signed federal legislation designed to increase regulation of the private prisoner-transport industry. The new law seeks to cut down on escapes and other blunders by tightening security, boosting training requirements and limiting driving time; it also calls for various "prisoner safety" measures, including separating male and female prisoners. But it's expected to take several years to implement the new requirements.

Cure insists his company already does a solid job of training and monitoring its employees. "You can give them all types of training, but you can't build in the human factor," he says. "You may get the occasional pervert who slips in. But if it does occur, I will be the first to drag them in in handcuffs and see that they're charged. If an officer does anything like this, I don't want them around."

Darbyshire says EI didn't do a particularly good job in her case. "You're going to have sexual misconduct in prison," she says. "But this didn't need to happen. It was wrong."

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