At 7:05 a.m. September 29, 2009, a van picked up Tommy Lee Benton at the Hernando County Jail and took him to the Broward County Main Jail, where he would serve out his three-year sentence after pleading guilty to being an accessory to armed robbery.
According to a lawsuit the Fort Lauderdale resident later filed, the van was only supposed to hold eight prisoners, but drivers stuffed in 12 anyway. All wore leg shackles and waist chains. Whenever the van stopped to drop off an inmate, drivers would turn off the fans that pumped air into the cargo area, and Benton, who was age 49 at the time, found it hard to breathe.
More than 12 hours later, when the van was only ten minutes from the last stop, Benton couldn’t take it anymore. He asked the drivers to turn on the ventilation. “You motherfuckers need to learn how to say please!” one of the drivers answered.
Benton responded by reminding him of his constitutional rights. The van’s two drivers, who were later identified as Stephen Rousseau and Michael Rosario, pulled over by the side of the road, dragged Benton out of the van, ripped off his shirt, slammed him onto the hot pavement, and kicked him while he lay there, unable to move.
Four years later, a judge approved a settlement of $60,012.00 for Benton. But the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office still relies on U.S. Prisoner Transport, the Melbourne, Florida-based company that provided the van and employed the two drivers, to extradite prisoners. (The Broward Sheriff’s Office terminated its contract with the company in 2010.)
The company also does business under the name Brevard Extraditions and is a division of Prisoner Transportation Services, LLC, the country’s largest for-profit extradition company. It’s been the subject of countless lawsuits alleging inhumane conditions and brutal abuse since Robert Downs, a former logistics manager for the Mid Florida Security Group, started the business in 2004. Most of the suits have been dismissed, but viewed together, they show a disturbing pattern.
Among the claims filed in Florida courts are the following:
-Drivers allegedly denied inmates bathroom breaks for five hours at a time and told them, “Just go ahead and piss in your pants; you can take a shower when you get to where you’re going.” Others were handed ten-ounce cups for urination.
-A prisoner was denied medications he took for heartburn, arthritis, and high blood pressure for the entirety of a 3.5-day trip. When he spoke up, van drivers retaliated by slamming on the brakes and taking hard turns so that the shackled inmates would fall on top of one another, telling the other prisoners that it was because he had complained.
-Inmates were locked inside steel cages in the back of the van for hours at a time, unable to move or stretch their legs. Meanwhile, in order to save gas, drivers refused to turn on the air conditioning even when temperatures reached over 100 degrees.
-A passenger dislocated his shoulder when a van driver abruptly slammed on the brakes and he fell over. Although the injury required surgery, drivers refused to take him to a doctor or hospital.
(All of these cases were dismissed. In each one, prisoners represented themselves, which is rarely a formula for success in court.)
Earlier this year, the company faced national scrutiny when the New York Times and the Marshall Project published a joint investigation into what they termed “the deadly world of private prisoner transport.” It started off with the harrowing story of Steven Galack, who was arrested in Palm Beach County for failing to pay child support and was beaten to death by fellow prisoners while being extradited to Ohio. He was one of four passengers who have died in Prisoner Transportation Services’ vans since 2012.
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The investigation placed the bulk of the blame on the company and not the drivers, who received minimal training and were encouraged to take as few breaks as possible. Prison Transportation Services doesn’t charge law enforcement agencies by the hour. Instead, it bills them based on the number of prisoners moved and miles traveled. Employees are encouraged to get from one prison to another as quickly as possible, sometimes at considerable danger to themselves and their passengers.
As one anonymous former employee complained on RipoffReport.com, “In my experience with this company, drivers never receive enough sleep while being on the road for 16 days driving vans with an inadequate sleeper berth. I had seen first hand drivers get into accidents because they were falling asleep at the wheel. When I was at the wheel on several occasions I swerved into oncoming traffic because I was falling asleep at the wheel. The owner, Robert Downs, does not care if drivers need sleep, he just says get it done.”
Downs told reporters from the Marshall Project that the company was taking steps to ensure drivers' safety, installing sleeper berths and requiring them to stay in a company-paid hotel room every 36 hours. He added, “It’s a tough industry. The profit margins aren’t as good as you would think they are.”
It’s not hard to understand why the PBSO has turned to for-profit van services: They charge considerably less than it would cost to send an individual deputy to extradite a prisoner. But what’s not clear is why they continue to use a company which has such a questionable track record. So far, they’ve declined to comment on that.