Abuse Documented In How Prisoners Are Transported Across State Lines

Jul 6, 2016
Originally published on July 6, 2016 11:40 am

David Greene talks to Eli Hager of the Marshall Project about abuse in the private prisoner transportation industry. He co-authored a report published Wednesday in partnership with The New York Times.

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And if you're accused of a crime in another state and you need to be brought there to face charges, you might end up riding in a van operated by PTS of America. That company and others like it transport murderers and petty criminals across state lines. Now, The Marshall Project has done an investigation revealing systematic abuse in this private prisoner transportation industry. We should warn you, you are about to hear some disturbing content. Eli Hager co-authored this report. He says a former guard told him it's like the airport shuttle from hell.

ELI HAGER: So everybody in the vans is handcuffed at the wrists and shackled at the waist and at the ankles. You're sitting upright for days on end. It's dark in there because the windows are blacked out for security reasons. And you're next to people who might be violent. And you're not seatbelted, despite being shackled, so every time they swerve or break, you get thrown around.

GREENE: Can you - I mean, there's so many stories here - I mean, people dying on these vans, sexual assault. I guess I would like you to just sort of tell one story. There was a man by the name of Steven Galack. What happened to him?

HAGER: Well, he was somebody who was picked up in Florida on an out-of-state warrant for not paying child support in Ohio. He hadn't been convicted yet of anything. So he was picked up in July of 2012. It was very hot outside. It was in the 90s. He had a lot of anxiety problems in the past. And so he got in this cramped van, which at one point had 10 other people crammed in next to him. And he began to kind of have a panic attack, saying goofy, delusional things.

So over three days, he was just keeping everybody awake. And nobody could sleep on the van. And at one point, according to deposition testimony by two of the prisoners, the guard who was driving the van pulled over the van and took Galack and put him in between all the other prisoners and told them to beat on him - he said only body shots as a way of quieting him.

GREENE: Only body shots, meaning don't...

HAGER: Don't hit him in the head.

GREENE: Don't hit him in the head, but go after the body.

HAGER: Right. And 70 miles later, after they had crossed state lines into Tennessee, Mr. Galack was found dead. There was blood and urine and vomit everywhere in the van. And nobody said they knew what happened except for one inmate and then another inmate in a later civil suit. And the van just continued on its way the next day with all the people inside.

GREENE: Who's regulating these companies?

HAGER: Not much of anyone from our analysis. The Department of Transportation probably does the most. But they're only charged with monitoring vehicle safety and driving safety. So from time to time, they do audits of these companies to check their travel logs to make sure that they're not leaving drivers on the road for too many hours in a row. But our review showed that they did that very infrequently. And often, they did it only reactively in response to a fatal crash or something. They would come in, and they would see why it happened.

There's also a law that's supposed to regulate prisoner treatment and to prevent escapes from these vans. But that law has only been enforced once in 16 years, despite a rash of escapes. There's been over 60 people escaping from these vans over those 16 years and only one enforcement action.

GREENE: When you spoke to PTS, at least initially, did they have any explanation for this - what's happened?

HAGER: Well, they said that, regarding medical situations, a number of the deaths have been caused by people who were experiencing some sort of medical situation that they didn't know what to do with. So they just kept driving, and the person ended up dying in transport. And, you know, in response to that, they said that they're really not trained to know what's medically wrong in some of these situations. And they can't just open up the van because somebody's complaining. And it would be too much of a security risk to pull over to a hospital every time that happens.

GREENE: Eli, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

HAGER: Sure. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Eli Hager co-authored The Marshall Project's investigation with Alysia Santo. Now, we asked PTS of America for a response. We have not heard back from them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.