Death, Abuse and Sexual Assault: The Horrific and Unregulated Private Prison Van Transport Business

July 11, 2016


Alysia Santo

staff writer at The Marshall Project. She and Eli Hager co-wrote the front-page New York Times article, "Private Prisoner Vans’ Long Road of Neglect."

Eli Hager

staff writer at The Marshall Project. He and Alysia Santo co-wrote the front-page New York Times article, "Private Prisoner Vans’ Long Road of Neglect."

Roberta Blake

spent two weeks in 2014 being transported by Prisoner Transportation Services from California to Alabama. She had been arrested on a warrant issued after not returning a rental car on time.

Fernando Colon

former private prison van guard for two years who is now speaking out against the industry. He’s currently a truck driver. Colon just published a piece in collaboration with The Marshall Project and Vice called "The Horrible Things I Saw Driving a Van Packed with Prisoners."

As protests against police brutality spread across the United States, a shocking new joint investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project looks at a little-examined part of the criminal justice system: the horrific, and sometimes fatal, private prison extradition industry. Each year, tens of thousands of fugitives and suspects—many who have never been convicted of a crime—are entrusted to a handful of small private companies that specialize in transferring the men and women across the country. After reviewing thousands of court documents and interviewing more than 50 current or former guards and executives, two reporters with The Marshall Project uncovered cases of two prisoners dying of perforated ulcers, another woman who was sexually assaulted and a third who had to have both legs amputated from complications of untreated diabetes. For more, we speak with the two reporters, Eli Hager and Alysia Santo, as well as Roberta Blake, who was arrested in 2014 after not returning a rental car on time, and a former private prison guard, Fernando Colon.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to a shocking new joint investigation by the New York Times and The Marshall Project that looks at the privatization of prison extradition, in which prisoners are transferred across the country by for-profit van companies. The exposé reveals what the reporters called a pattern of prisoner abuse and neglect in an industry that operates with almost no oversight.

Each year, tens of thousands of fugitives and suspects—many who have never been convicted of a crime—are entrusted to a handful of small private companies that specialize in state and local extraditions, as they’re called. Reporters with The Marshall Project reviewed thousands of court documents, federal records, local news articles and interviews with more than 50 current or former guards and executives in the course of their investigation. They found prisoners were locked in vans for days, with little access to water and food. Companies hired guards without providing proper training. Guards had little incentive to adequately care for prisoners. The article tells the story of a number of prisoners transported in prison vans, including one who died of a perforated ulcer, another who was sexually assaulted, a third who had to have both legs amputated from complications of untreated diabetes.

For more, we’re joined by Eli Hager, staff writer at The Marshall Project, who co-wrote the recent front-page New York Times article headlined "Private Prisoner Vans’ Long Road of Neglect."

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ELI HAGER: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Lay out what you found, Eli.

ELI HAGER: We found that a small handful of companies are hired by sheriffs and police departments around the country to drive people across states to where they’re wanted. And on these vans, prisoners, many of whom haven’t been convicted of a crime, are held for five, six, seven days in a row on the van as it makes its circuitous journeys around the country, with little access to food and water, few bathroom breaks, and they’re shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, and not seatbelted. So it’s a variety of conditions on these vans on these days-long trips across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Name the companies. Who is the government contracting with?

ELI HAGER: So, by far, the largest company is called Prisoner Transportation Services, and that’s a company located in Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve dominated the market in recent years. There are also a handful of smaller, more kind of fly-by-night companies. Inmate Services Corporation is one. Security Transport Services is another. U.S. Corrections is another one that’s actually set to merge with PTS this coming month.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to your Marshall Project co-writer, Alysia Santo, talking about what happened to a woman named Denise Isaacs.

ALYSIA SANTO: Denise Isaacs, she’s a 54-year-old mother who was living in Kentucky. She was on probation with the Florida Department of Corrections for a shoplifting charge. She owed some fines and had not done some community service, so she was picked up in Kentucky by PTS and was transported over the course of three days down into Florida to be brought to face these probation violations. In Orlando is when she really started experiencing a lot of symptoms of having a medical crisis. The guards actually did want to bring her—they tell us that they did want to bring her to a hospital and that they called headquarters and asked for permission, because the way this works is the company’s policy is that you have to seek permission to bring someone to a hospital first, before you can do it, and they were told no. So, they then continued on the journey, and a few hours later, at a Taco Bell parking lot in Miami, she was dead in the back of the van. And even before the guards called 911, they called—they called the company first to let them know.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s your co-author, Alysia Santo, on this front-page New York Times piece. Dead. What happened next, Eli?

ELI HAGER: The Miami police did come in to ask questions of the people on board the van. They took statements. But they waited for the autopsy to come back, and the autopsy said that she died of natural causes and that she hadn’t been taking this diazepam medication, and she went into withdrawal, and there was no homicide involved. So they closed the investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: But she couldn’t; she was in the van.

ELI HAGER: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Was the company held accountable in any way?

ELI HAGER: There is a pending lawsuit that the family is about to bring. But beyond that, no.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to another story that Alysia Santo tells us, your co-author. This is what happened to a man named Michael Dykes, who suffered from untreated diabetes and had to have his legs amputated after spending three days in an Inmate Services Corporation van traveling from South Carolina to Missouri. This was July of 2012.

ALYSIA SANTO: Michael Dykes was living in South Carolina when a warrant was served on him at his home to face theft and fraud charges in Missouri. He was placed in a—the local jail in South Carolina for nearly three weeks to await that extradition. His story is similar to many in that the medical care he received at the jail was not adequate. He was—he’s a severe diabetic. By the time the van had come to get him, he could barely walk. He had sores that had been developing on his feet. He got into the van. He says the insulin that he needed was placed on the dashboard, where it needed to be in a cooler. The company denies this. He was then transported over the course of three days to Missouri, where he—you know, he basically did not receive any care for his wounds, he says, and didn’t get his insulin. And then, by the time he arrived, everything had really gone downhill in a serious way for him. And he eventually—they just could not resolve the sores on his feet, and he had to have his legs removed from the knee down.

AMY GOODMAN: His legs amputated after being on a van for three days. That was Alysia Santo, co-author of this New York Times piece. Eli Hager, you’re the other author. Talk about what happened next for him.

ELI HAGER: Well, he’s had a real struggle. He’s also bringing a lawsuit now against the company, that the company denies the allegations. But that’s another one that’s pending. He currently—as you see in that picture, he had his legs amputated from the knees down, and that’s brought a lot of hardship to his life.

AMY GOODMAN: And for folks listening on audio or radio stream, you can just go to We’re joined now on Democracy Now! video stream by Roberta Blake. She was arrested in 2014 after not returning a rental car on time. She spent two weeks being transported by Prisoner Transportation Services, PTS, from California to Alabama. And on the phone, we’re joined by Fernando Colon. He worked as a private prison van guard for two years and is now speaking out against the industry. Colon just published a piece in collaboration with The Marshall Project and Vice called "The Horrible Things I Saw Driving a Van Packed with Prisoners."

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Roberta Blake, talk about what happened to you.

ROBERTA BLAKE: You know, the trip, it was horrific. The heat exhaustion, the hunger, the fear—there’s really no words to describe what I had gone through. When I was picked up, it was pitch black. There was—I was in the segregation cage, so I was in a—I describe it as being in a cage within a cage in an oven. There was no air conditioning coming back to us. I take blood pressure pills. My medication was not given to me. My shirt was ripped off of me by the male inmates. I was the only female, throughout. There was two legs to my journey, and both sides I was the only female. I was actually in the PTS van right before the woman you spoke about earlier, Ms. Isaacs, had passed away. I was—same guard, same van, same seat, days before that. And I’m sorry, there’s—they have no—there was no accommodations for your civil—for your rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberta, you were picked up for returning a rental car late?


AMY GOODMAN: Had you been charged?

ROBERTA BLAKE: No, I had not been charged with any crime.

AMY GOODMAN: And someone came to your door?

ROBERTA BLAKE: No, I was actually in Ventura, California. And we had—my husband and I had just been married two weeks. We had worked all day, and we decided to pull over on the side of the road and take a nap before we continued the 150-mile drive home. We decided to take a nap, and the police came up on us and ran our names. I had no clue I had a warrant.

AMY GOODMAN: And then they transferred you to Prisoner Transportation Services, the van?

ROBERTA BLAKE: Yes. I spent 10 days in jail in Ventura, and then PTS came and picked me up.

AMY GOODMAN: How common is this, Eli Hager?

ELI HAGER: It’s very—most of the things that Roberta described there are very common. First of all, not knowing that you have a warrant out in another state, that’s very common. Being held in a local jail for several days before being picked up by PTS or one of these companies, also very common. To be the only woman on the van, and yet to be seated near or with men, is also very common. And the problems that—

AMY GOODMAN: This is murderers, rapists and people who have never been charged.

ELI HAGER: Correct. You have people who have been convicted of murder and people who are only accused of small first-time offenses, like DUI or probation violations, all sitting together. And it can cause some violent situations on the van.

AMY GOODMAN: What have you done since this time, Roberta Blake? Have you sued.

ROBERTA BLAKE: You know, I have not. What I’m learning from calling around trying to find an attorney to actually take the case, people don’t realize what actually happens. I believe they feel like I am lying about—that there’s no way it could be as bad as I’m saying, when I explain my story. I had to urinate in a cup in front of 11 male inmates. And I feel like as soon as I start telling them that, they’re like, "OK, we’ll just refer you over to the bar." And I have not found anybody yet that will take my case, because there are no laws governing, it seems, over state line, the practice.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando—I wanted to bring in Fernando Colon, who worked as a private prison van guard for two years, now speaking out against the industry. You’re currently a truck driver. We appreciate you taking this time. The piece you just wrote for Vice and Marshall Project, "The Horrible Things I Saw Driving a Van Packed with Prisoners." You’ve been listening to these examples. You know what Alysia and Eli have written about. How typical is this? Describe your training. Did you see people die on vans?

FERNANDO COLON: Good morning. And it’s my pleasure to be on the show this morning. As far as the training goes, training could last up to two days, as far as classroom training. Basically, you’re taught handcuffing procedures, CPR and basic things like that. As far as real training, you’re going to learn that on the job when you go out with your FTO. And basically, it’s all on-the-job training, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: And these stories—a man whose legs were amputated because of diabetes; another who died; Roberta Blake describing having to urinate in a cup in front of other male prisoners, she is in a van for 10 days.

FERNANDO COLON: Yes, ma’am. There are occasions where prisoners are on board for about seven days. For example, I would pick up all over the United States, and I’d be back in Florida probably on the fifth or sixth day, and then it would take another three days to deliver these prisoners to the different county jails and the different state and federal institutions. Sometimes it’s hard when—there was an escape once upon a time, and companies got really strict as far as opening doors en route. And sometimes, you know, we could only stop in a jail, in a secured area, in a sally port, as they call it. A sally port is a secured area within the jail when you first drive in. And it’s just—there’s not a jail, you know, every five miles. And sometimes from one jail to another might be 150 miles, 200 miles, 300 miles. So it is hard to find a location to pull over to use the restroom. Me, I would call the local sheriff’s department. I would get on the phone and call the fire department. You know, to me, those were all secured areas. As long as there was somebody there watching that can dial 911, that wouldn’t be a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando Colon—


AMY GOODMAN: Why have you decided to speak out now?

FERNANDO COLON: I’m going to give you one example of something that really bothered me. Basically, it was a liability thing for me. You know, I didn’t want to have anything on my conscience that would, you know, ruin me for the rest of my life. There was one instance where I picked up a young lady. I can’t remember the state. I’m going to guess it was somewhere in, let’s say, North Dakota. This girl was about 18 years old. She was five months pregnant. She had an open warrant in Florida, and she was involved in a car accident. And, you know, when you have a car accident, police are involved. And I guess they ran her name, and she came back with a warrant. She sat in the hospital for a couple days. She had a broken neck, and she was wearing one of those metal halos that go around the whole neck, connects to the shoulders, and she was five months pregnant. And I transported her on my van for over five days. This young lady also suffered from seizures.

There were several times on the trip where I would hear the chains rattling in the back and the prisoners yelling for my help, and I literally had to just stop the van in the middle of nowhere. And I opened the doors for her, and I would just hold her in my arms and just help her pass through the seizures. It was later told to me by her that caffeine helps. So every time she caught maybe three or four seizures on board, and I would just be on the side of the highway holding her in my arms and feeding her soda or an energy drink because of the caffeine. And I just thought to myself, this could be my daughter, this could be my mom, my sister. This could be anybody’s family member. And to be transported like that with a broken neck, five months pregnant, it’s just inhumane. It shouldn’t be done, and it needs to be federally regulated.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there right now. We’re going to come back to this conversation after the show and post it online at In just 10 minutes, we’ll do this interview. Fernando Colon, thank you for being with us, private prison van guard for two years, now speaking out against the industry, currently a truck driver. I want to thank Roberta Blake, who has just joined us, speaking to us about being held in a van for two weeks in 2014. And, Eli Hager, thank you so much for being with us. We’ll link to your piece, your and Alysia Santo’s piece, front-page New York Times article headlined "Private Prisoner Vans’ Long Road of Neglect."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Keith Ellison joins us. He is the Minneapolis congressmember, first Muslim elected to the Congress, also on the platform committee representing Bernie Sanders. Stay with us.

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