The security guard was a big guy of about 270 pounds, and 5-foot-10. The three other guards on the prison bus called him Abram. Over the course of a two-day bus ride through four states last fall, Abram wielded his authority over handcuffed and shackled prisoners, one prisoner recounted, sexually groping men.
“He rubbed up against me, touched me on my buttocks,” Woodrow Wilson, 58, of Detroit told Bridge. “I was handcuffed. I felt violated.”
The alleged abuse is outlined in a federal lawsuit Wilson filed in October against Prisoner Transportation Services of America, LLC, a private, for-profit company hired by the Michigan Department of Corrections to transport prisoners across states. Based in Nashville, Tenn., PTS is one of the largest private prisoner transportation companies in the nation and has been the subject of lawsuits, public scrutiny and allegations of mistreatment of prisoners.
At least four people have died nationally in PTS vehicles since 2012, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit, Pulitzer-Prize-winning news organization focusing on criminal justice, which this year investigated for-profit extradition companies in collaboration with the New York Times.
Prisoners in Michigan and elsewhere have sued for injuries suffered during their transport, while others have escaped while in the custody of these companies, in some instances causing harm to the public.
A month after the Marshall Project investigation and several months after Wilson said he was abused, PTS said it had improved safety measures, including adding cameras and satellite tracking systems to its vehicles. The company did not respond to questions about its record from Bridge.
In Michigan, contracts with private transport companies contain rules that address security measures, such as minimum officer training requirements, and requiring transported prisoners to be handcuffed, wear seat belts and be given food and medicine on a regular basis.
However, the state continues to leave other measures to the discretion of individual vendors, such as the decision to require cameras or to schedule regular bathroom breaks for the fugitives or suspects they carry. And because companies are paid per prisoner per mile, they can make more money by packing inmates tightly into vehicles and stopping infrequently, putting speed of delivery ahead of safety and security concerns.
In Michigan, it remains unclear what steps, if any, the state takes to ensure private transport companies follow safety and security rules.
That’s because the Michigan Department of Corrections would not reveal if it inspects private transport vehicles, or discuss its enforcement protocols, saying its security measures are “exempt from public disclosure” under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, according to state prison spokesman Chris Gautz.
Critics of the private prisoner transportation industry say PTS and companies like it interact with thousands of prisoners with little oversight, making it too easy for profit-minded companies to cut corners on prisoner safety and public security. The federal law regulating these companies has been used to fine a private business only once since it was enacted in 2000 despite deaths and dozens of escapes, said Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoner advocacy group based in Florida.
“There are more regulations for transporting cattle than for transporting prisoners,” Friedmann said. “And very rarely are those regulations enforced, even on a federal level.”
Earlier this year, PTS announced plans to merge with a rival, a company Michigan had previously fired. Federal approval was delayed in August after Friedmann’s group objected to the merger, citing PTS’s history of safety, sanitation and security problems.
More stick, less carrot
Critics argue states like Michigan that outsource prison transportation should be more vigilant and transparent about the care these companies take to protect their passengers -- many of whom have not been convicted -- as well as the security of the guards and the general public.
Prisoners complain of being packed into speeding vehicles for days with no seat belts, too little food or water and lax medical care, with passengers sometimes left to urinate or defecate on themselves.
Friedmann’s research cites two notorious incidents. In 1997, six prisoners were burned alive in a private company van near Dickson, Tenn., after parts on the 1995 Ford E150 broke away and the van caught fire. The vehicle had logged more than 240,000 miles in two years. The company, Federal Extradition Agency, shut down in 1998 and Friedmann reported the case was settled for about $24 million.
In another case, 39 Wisconsin prisoners filed a federal suit in 2000 against the nation’s largest prison transport company, TransCor America, claiming that during a 30-hour bus ride to Oklahoma prisoners were “splashed with waste from the overflowing toilet” and arrived with frostbite and hypothermia from exposure to the cold.
Wilson is one of at least three Michigan prisoners who have sued PTS. A second prisoner, who did not have a lawyer, withdrew his case. A third, Jim Henry Redd of Detroit, sued PTS in 2011 alleging that he was injured in North Carolina when a PTS van crashed into another vehicle en route from Michigan to Georgia.
Redd claims in the suit he was not in a seat belt when the driver made a sudden, improper lane change, causing Redd to be thrown to the back of the van, injuring his neck and back. A default judgment was entered against PTS after the company did not respond to the allegations.
Urine bottles, taser and abuse
The cuffs on his hands and the leg irons on his ankles were proof to Wilson that the full weight of the law had fallen on him as the PTS bus moved him through the Midwest last year.
Wilson was being returned to Michigan from a jail in Lima, Ohio in 2011 on a parole violation following his conviction for car theft. He recalls about 10 prisoners in the van.
The first leg of the trip was relatively short -- a three to four hour ride to an overnight layover at a jail in Kentucky. The prisoners were given bottles to urinate in to so the van could avoid stopping during the journey, Wilson told Bridge.
At the Kentucky jail, the PTS security guard known as Abram set his sights on one prisoner, Wilson said. “What you looking at?” Abram asked the prisoner, to which the man responded, “I ain’t looking at you.” Wilson said a few words were exchanged, Abram was angered and soon tased the man, crumpling him to the ground.
The following morning, there was more trouble as the prisoners were loaded back on the vehicle. According to Wilson, Abram was telling a younger prisoner that if they had met in prison, the guard would have “made him his bitch.” Wilson said he had had enough.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you leave him alone?’” Abram responded that he’d had his eye on Wilson.
And so it began.
Over the course of two days as the bus picked up and unloaded prisoners, Wilson said Abram touched his thigh and buttocks. He also gave Wilson Pop Tarts and extra sandwiches. “I think he was trying to hook up with me,” Wilson said. At one point, he said, Abram sat down on Wilson’s lap. “I tried to push him off, and he put his arm around my neck.”
The poor conditions didn’t stop at sexual abuse, Wilson said. There were no seat belts on the van that picked him up in Ohio, nor on the bus that he boarded in Kentucky.
And the stench from an on-board lavatory was nauseating to the point that the guards made a stop to buy a liquid solution to tamp down the smell. The waste was never emptied over two days.
Through it all, Wilson, who records show suffers from depression, said he was denied some doses of his twice-daily prescription during the trip. “They would say, ‘We’ll get to you,’ or ‘We’re busy right now.’”
Wilson’s account echoes complaints from across the nation in the investigation by the Marshall Project and the New York Times. Reporters reviewed thousands of court documents, interviewed more than 50 current and former guards to expose rampant abuse that flourishes due to “almost no oversight” in the industry nationwide.
Wilson’s fiance’ filed a grievance on his behalf in August with the state prison system under the Prison Rape Elimination Act and is still awaiting a response.
Saying he could not afford to hire an attorney, Wilson filed his federal lawsuit against PTS in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in October. He was released on parole on Oct. 18. The company has not yet filed a legal response, court records show.
Michigan outsources transport
The Michigan Department of Corrections contracted with PTS in 2008 for $3.7 million to provide extradition services through 2015. Most prisoners or suspects are wanted for failure to pay child support or parole violations. Others are federal inmates sent to Michigan to serve out sentences on state charges.
After re-bidding the contract, MDOC briefly contracted with another private vendor, U.S. Corrections, in March of this year. However, that company was fired after less than two months when the state found out the firm was not veteran-owned as it had claimed, according to Gautz, the prison spokesman (The state gives contract preferences to veteran-owned businesses).
But that was not the only problem cited by the state. A letter from Michigan prison officials in April, made public by the Marshall Project, shows MDOC also had concerns about late prisoner pick-up and drop-offs. MDOC acted to terminate the contract after U.S. Corrections notified state prison officials that two prisoners had escaped its custody in Florida.
After ending that contract in April, MDOC re-upped with PTS, signing a three-year, $655,500 contract. Under the deal, the company receives about $300 per prisoner and 85 cents per mile.
Gautz said the state has outsourced prisoner transportation since at least 1994, a practice that he said saves taxpayers money.
"Given that these transport runs happen infrequently and often require travel across the country, it makes much more sense to have someone do this service for us rather than pay to have several state employees go on a week-long bus trip to pick up one prisoner," he said. "This is a much more cost effective way of doing business, and just makes sense."
In fiscal year 2016, the state spent just over $170,000 on prisoner transport costs, which he said is low compared with the $200,000 to $400,000 spent in a typical year.
On a federal level, the Interstate Transportation of Dangerous Criminals Act of 2000, commonly known as Jeanna’s Law, requires companies to notify police when a prisoner escapes custody. It also establishes minimum security and training standards for guards -- such as a 1-to-6 guard-to-prisoner ratio -- along with minimum standards for safety of prisoners, with a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation.
The law is named for Jeanna North, an 11-year-old who was killed in 1993 by her neighbor, Kyle Bell. He was convicted of her murder in 1999 but escaped from a private prisoner transport bus in New Mexico. Bell was found three months later in Texas after a nationwide manhunt that included the television show, “America’s Most Wanted.”
But despite the existing regulations, there is no evidence the private companies are held accountable. Asked how MDOC enforces state regulations or how often vehicles are inspected, that state responded that such information is exempt from public disclosure.
“Per the contract with PTS the company is required to follow MDOC’s policies, but due to security concerns, those policies are exempt, so I can't get into the standards and how they are enforced and the inspections,” Gautz wrote Bridge in an email.
States can do better
The nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center based in Florida and its Prison Legal News project is considered a leading expert on prison privatization issues, according to In the Public Interest, a Washington DC-based research and policy group that focuses on transparency in government contracting.
PTS’ application to merge with U.S. Corrections, one of its competitors, was delayed after the HRDC filed an objection to the merger. The merger is under consideration by the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency.
Friedmann, of HRDC, takes a hard line when it comes to states hiring private companies to take on public services such as operating prisons and transporting prisoners. Whatever states save in upfront financial costs, must be balanced against the widespread allegations of rights abuses and the legal consequences that sometimes follow.
“If someone is hyperventilating and (the company) won’t stop at a hospital because they want to complete the trip … their goal is not to provide a secure public service, it’s to make money,” Friedmann said. “It’s like UPS and the prisoner is the package. We want the goal to ensure public safety.”
Friedmann said there are some simple changes states can make to improve safety: Interview prisoners before and after transport to get information about transportation conditions; require video cameras on vehicles, require GPS on vehicles and enforce regulations such as Jeanna’s Law and state policies requiring seat belts and giving prisoners medication in a timely manner.
Wilson, the Michigan offender, said that after PTS dropped him off at the state prison in Jackson, he reported the sexual assault incident. Without that complaint, he said, no one would have known about the security guard’s actions. He agrees that prisoners should be interviewed or given a questionnaire about their transportation to help ensure accountability.
“The standards in place right now,” he said, “obviously are not sufficient.”