On April 3, 1997, six prisoners were roasted alive when the privately-operated van that was transporting them to Florida caught fire on I-40 near Dickson, Tennessee. Both of the guards in the van escaped serious injury. One of the guards burned his hands while attempting to release the doomed prisoners, who were locked in a wire-mesh cage in the back of the van. The prisoners were being extradited for parole and probation violations by the Memphis-based Federal Extradition Agency -- which despite its official-sounding name, is operated by former bounty hunter Clyde Gunter.
A female prisoner who had been dropped off at Memphis prior to the accident said that the van had been making "knocking noises," but the guards refused to stop and investigate the problem. According to news reports, the van's drive shaft came loose, bounced off the road and punctured the gas tank. The vehicle had logged more than 260,000 miles and the universal joint apparently failed due to excessive wear.
To further compound the tragedy, two of the prisoners' charred bodies were misidentified and were sent to the wrong families. One family has since filed suit.
With a growing demand for prisoner transport services, private for-profit companies have entered the market to fill this lucrative niche. Many of these companies are small-scale operations that are paid flat-rate fees and per-mile expenses by state and local governments. And because the majority of small private transport services utilize vans and other passenger vehicles, they are exempt from most federal regulations regarding the operation of commercial vehicles (except for a requirement to carry liability insurance). Private prisoner transportation services that use vans or cars are not required to hire drivers with commercial licenses, mandate rest stops for drivers or provide regular vehicle maintenance.
Ironically, there are more regulatory guidelines for shipping cattle or other commodities across state lines than for extraditing prisoners. This lack of safety standards and government oversight of the prisoner transport industry has had deadly consequences.
Around the same time the April 3 accident occurred, the Tennessee state legislature was considering a bill sponsored by senator Robert Rochelle that would exempt private prisoner transport guards employed by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) from state training requirements. CCA operates a subsidiary, TransCor America, that transports prisoners nationwide with a fleet of more than 100 vehicles. In 1996, TransCor earned $10.6 million in gross revenue.
But most privately-owned prisoner transport companies are much smaller -- some of the literally "mom and pop" operations -- and have less political clout. Further, these operations have been plagued by accidents and other mishaps, including escapes and misconduct by private employees entrusted to perform what has traditionally been a government function.
In September 1993, two CCA guards transporting prisoners to the South Central Correctional Center (a CCA prison) in Clifton, Tennessee, shackled prisoner Ronnie McKnight in excessively tight restraints. When he complained, the guards mocked and taunted him. McKnight was subsequently hospitalized and placed on medication for circulatory problems.
On October 8, 1994, Arnold H. Faulhaber and Joseph Jackson, co-founders of Fugitive One Transport Company, were arrested and charged with raping a female prisoner they were transporting from Connecticut to Texas. Both men await trial in Monmouth County, New Jersey, on sexual assault charges.
The for-profit prisoner transport business can present a danger not only to the human chattel they carry, but also to the low-wage employees who transport them. In August 1996, Rick Carter and Sue Smith, a husband-and-wife team who operated R & S Prisoner Transport, were overwhelmed by six convicts when they stopped at a Texas rest-area. The two were held hostage during a getaway attempt that ended in a wild high-speed police chase.
And on May 23, 1997, less than two months after the fatal van fire on I-40, another vehicle operated by Federal Extradition Agency crashed near Collyer, Kansas, injuring five prisoners and killing one guard.
Although private prisoner transport companies do not have a monopoly on poor safety records or incompetence, as the market for prisoner extradition services grows in proportion to the burgeoning U.S. prison population, the likelihood of more fatal accidents and other dangerous incidents will also increase. Until effective federal regulation of the prisoner transport industry is put in place, prisoners, corrections departments, and local municipalities will remain dependent on low-bid transport companies who profit at the expense of their imprisoned passengers.
And if states begin to ban the use of such companies due to the backlash from accidents, escapes and malfeasance, private prisoner transport companies may find themselves driving down a dead-end street.