While incarcerated, prisoners and detainees are transported to court appearances and medical visits, and in some cases, for extradition or deportation, or to be returned as fugitives. The transportation of incarcerated people requires prison-level security in a mobile setting, making it one of the largest expenses in prison management. Some prison and immigrant detention centers contract with for-profit companies for transportation services, creating a multi-million dollar private prison transportation service industry.
While the transportation services industry has grown, there are some jurisdictions that have resisted the privatization of these services. For instance, in 2005, the U.S. federal government created the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System under the U.S. Marshals Service, and it is the largest prisoner transportation organization in the world, handling 800 requests each day and transporting over 280,000 incarcerated people every year. In 1978, twenty states formed the Northwest Shuttle Service, handling in-state warrants and out-of-state fugitive returns. Some individual states, such as Michigan and Ohio, have their own prisoner transportation service. However, private-public partnerships between for-profit companies and governments are becoming more common.
Private Prison Transportation Services
In 2000, the U.S. Congress enacted the Interstate Transportation of Dangerous Criminals Act, in order to protect prisoners in transit. The law established federal standards, including staff certification and training, meal and restroom breaks, proper heating, ventilation, and safety of vehicles, first aid kits, and female staff supervision of women prisoners. However, the prison transportation services industry is comprised of several small, private companies, the majority of which use vans and other passenger vehicles that are exempt from most federal regulations. Prisoner transportation services using vans or cars are also not required to have commercial driver’s licenses, provide regular vehicle maintenance, or observe federal regulations restricting the number of hours that drivers can travel between stops.
The privatization of prison transportation services has proven antithetical to ensuring the well-being incarcerated individuals because the companies involved are primarily interested in profit. The transportation companies provide guards, vehicles, and prisoner restraints, and charge prisons per prisoner and per mile traveled. This incentivizes the transportation companies to fill each vehicle with as many incarcerated individuals as possible, and to make as few stops as possible. Consequently, incarcerated individuals have been subject to poor conditions during transport, which in some cases have resulted in death.
Prisoners are transported along circuit routes connecting several stops, spending hours in handcuffs and leg shackles. Bathroom and meal breaks are not guaranteed because the vehicles are exempt from federal regulations. Accidents, escapes, and abuses are rampant and have resulted in several lawsuits against transportation companies. According to The Marshall Project, between 2012 and 2017 five people have died in transit, allegedly from medical neglect. In January 2017, a prisoner in transit died from a “perfectly treatable” perforated ulcer, after officers ignored his complaints. Between 2000 to 2016, there have been 29 deaths or serious injuries, at least 14 reported cases of sexual assault, and more than 50 crashes.
Rape and sexual assault have also been widely documented, although it is assumed that most cases of sexual assault go unreported due to fear of retaliation. In June 2017, a transport officer was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting three prisoners at gunpoint. In 2002, the ACLU sued a transportation company for the sexual harassment of two prisoners.
In 2018, a lawsuit was filed against Prisoner Transportation Services (PTS), a private Tennessee-based company, for allegedly keeping an individual shackled in the back of a van for 18 days. PTS has been the source of many allegations of abuse and misconduct. In 2017, the Justice Department opened an investigation regarding PTS, over allegations that in 2014, the company’s guards physically abused a prisoner in transit, burning him with cigarettes, spraying him with pepper spray, and forcing him to sit in urine for hours.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract with ground and air transportation companies to transport immigrants, including children, to detention facilities and shelters. In addition, ICE relies on private companies to provide deportation services.
From 2010 to 2014, the U.S. deported over two million people, and ICE spent approximately $464 million on chartered flights for these deportations, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The report estimated that ICE paid an average of $8,419 per flight hour.
In 2018, during the surge in immigrant deportations due to the U.S. administration's “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, ICE agents were seen accompanying immigrant children on flights by major commercial airlines, including American Airlines. American Airlines has since released statements requesting that the government stop using its flights to transport children that have been detained separately from their parents.
ICE is also contracted with G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, to transport immigrant detainees found at the U.S.-Mexico border to processing centers. In a 2013 contract for $234 million, G4S boasts “logging millions of miles and transport[ing] hundreds of thousands” of immigrant detainees.
CSI Aviation is the main company involved in deportation services. It is a private company, headquartered in New Mexico. According to USASpending.Gov, ICE’s contracts with CSI Aviation from 2009 to 2018 amount to over $725 million.
The main companies involved in this sector
There are many regional and locally-owned companies involved in prisoner transportation services. Two of the largest ones are TransCor America LLC and GEO Transport, Inc., which are wholly-owned subsidiaries of CoreCivic and GEO Group, respectively, the world’s largest private prison companies. Motor Coach Industries, owned by New Flyer Industries, is another publicly traded company that provides prison transportation. Greyhound Lines, operated by FirstGroup Plc, a publicly traded company headquartered in the UK, provides transportation for released prisoners.
As of 2018, TransCor has transported 1.3 million people, averaging 2.5 million miles traveled each year, since 1990. In 2008, the company stopped carrying out extraditions due to concerns over liability and costs, and now only transports between CoreCivic facilities. Between 2007 and 2018, GEO Transport transported over 2.25 million people over 33.4 million miles globally. GEO Transport has contracts with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Marshals, and agencies in 27 U.S. states. G4S, which operates private prisons in the U.K., Australia, and South Africa, is also involved in prisoner transportation services.
In addition to these publicly-traded companies, privately-owned companies involved in prisoner transportation services include Prisoner Transportation of America, In-Custody Transportation, Inc., BlackTalon enterprises, CSI Aviation, and Emerald Correctional Management, a subsidiary of Emerald Companies.
- G4S PLC, of Crawley, England (LSE : GFS, OMX : G4S)
- TransCor America LLC, a subsidiary of CoreCivic, Inc., of Nashville, TN (NYSE: CXW)
- GEO Transport Inc., a subsidiary of The GEO Group, Inc., of Boca Raton, FL (NYSE : GEO)
- Motor Coach Industries, a subsidiary of New Flyer Industries, of Des Plaines, IL (TSE: NFI)
- Greyhound Lines, a subsidiary of FirstGroup Plc, of Aberdeen, U.K. (FGROY:US)
- CSI Aviation of Albuquerque, NM (Private)
- Emerald Correctional Management, a subsidiary of Emerald Companies, of Shreveport, LA (Private)
- In-Custody Transportation, Inc., of San Dimas, CA (Private)
- BlackTalon Enterprises, Inc., of Napa, CA (Private)
- Prisoner Transportation Services LLC, of Nashville, TN (Private)
- Con-Link Transportation Corp., of Memphis, TN (Private)
- Motor Coach Industries International, Inc., of Des Plaines, IL (Private)
- U.S. Prisoner Transport Services, Inc, of Melbourne, FL (Private)