Last week, Marshall Project reporters Eli Hager and Alysia Santo published a detailed, disturbing investigation into a little-known system of private transportation companies used to move prisoners long distances between states and localities, primarily in the South and Midwest. They revealed an almost entirely unregulated industry profiting from the extradition of oftentimes low-level offenders in frequently brutal conditions — overseen by underpaid, undertrained and overworked guards. At least four deaths have occurred on private extradition vans run by the largest such company, Prisoner Transportation Services, since 2012. One was Steven Galack, who suffered from delusions and was allegedly beaten to death by other prisoners on a guard’s orders. Another man, who suffered from diabetes, had both legs amputated after three days in a van. The Marshall Project, a non-profit criminal justice news outlet, published the story in collaboration with the New York Times.
Hager and Santo spoke to Salon about the investigation. Below is an edited version of the interview:
This was a remarkable and utterly heartbreaking investigation. It’s also a piece of the American criminal justice system that is, at first blush, pretty obscure. How did you find out about this network of privately run prisoner transport companies?
Santo:It all started with a tip from a lawyer that was representing the family of Steven Galack. He had told the Atlanta Journal Constitution about his case, and we have partnered with that newspaper in the past for other projects, so they passed the tip on to us. We saw the brutality in the case and wondered: What else happens on these vans? How many others might have been hurt or killed while being moved across the country by these companies? And when we started to look into it we realized quickly that there was so much that needed to be exposed about this industry.
That's really interesting. I've always thought of The Marshall Project as ensuring a steady supply of criminal justice journalism that other outlets can't afford or don't have the sense to pay for on their own. But in this case, your history of collaboration actually led to the seemingly unthinkable: one publication handing over a tip to another publication better able to handle it?
Hager: The seemingly unthinkable, collaboration between competitors. That also happened with our big story last year, An Unbelievable Story of Rape. Both The Marshall Project and ProPublica were working on the same story, realized it halfway through, and decided to team up.
(Eli Hager; photo by Ivar Vong)
What were the basic building blocks of this story? What kind of documents and sources did you have to track down to establish what was happening in these vans? I take it the point of entry was interviewing Galack's attorney? Where did you go from there?
Hager: It definitely started with Galack's attorney in Georgia, Larry Domenico. He handed over just about everything he had (there was a lot of stuff he couldn't give us because it was sealed), including logs of all the stops that were made by the van that Galack was on; videotaped depositions of other prisoners on Galack's van; a 2011 PTS operations manual that told us a lot about internal policies; and even the invoice that PTS sent to Butler County, Ohio, billing Butler County over $1,000 for Galack's transport even though Galack was dead! So we built out Galack's case before we did anything else...then we essentially compiled a list of all the for-profit extradition companies we could find. We ran all of those companies through Pacer and Westlaw, and then Nexis, creating a massive database of lawsuits, crashes and escapes that each company had been involved in.
That was a chilling detail. The company charged for every mile up to the point where he was died, or found dead.
Hager: Exactly. They did not successfully bring him to his destination, but they sent a bill anyway
Santo: From there, we went on to survey each state's corrections department, as well as asking major cities whether they hire prison transport companies, to get a sense of scope. We also requested invoices from smaller localities where we had established they used prison transport companies, so that we could identify people on these vans, how far they were coming from, and how much the company was charging. And we filed requests with the federal Department of Transportation about each of the companies we could identify.
(Alysia Santo; photo by Cassandra Santo)
So when you say you compiled a list of extradition companies, you did so by doing the drudgery: contacting each corrections department one at a time? So much investigative reporting is not something out of "All the President's Men."
Hager: No, we compiled a list first. We used the DOT's company listings as well as the most thorough Google search we could muster. Together, that gave us about 25 company names. Then we contacted all 50 DOC's to ask them point-blank, do you use these companies? And meanwhile, as Alysia mentioned, we were filing records requests with the DOT, essentially asking them to give us every audit and enforcement action they'd ever done on all of these companies.
But yes, it was a lot of drudge work at first. It got more personal when we started talking to victims and later to ex-employees of the companies.
It was remarkable how many of the people who suffered horrible abuse in these vans were wanted on the most minor charges imaginable—one person picked up because of charges, later dropped, that she had used someone else’s Bed, Bath & Beyond gift card and another who returned a rental car late. Another violated probation on a theft conviction. Were these the stories you anticipated?
Santo: We didn't really have expectations about what people were being extradited for, but we did find it surprising how low level the charges were. We were also shocked to discover that those being transported to face minor charges were crammed into vans with people convicted of murder or child molestation. And then for days, these people were all forced to remain in very close quarters together, with no way to sleep or stretch. All the while, two guards are expected to maintain a close eye on everyone in the van, while barely getting any rest themselves. The idea that both the companies and the governments that hire them considered this a way to move people without endangering the public or the passengers was quite hard to believe.
One thing that stuck out in the story was not so much that the guards were horrible people—though the guard that directed the prisoners to assault a delusional prisoner is an exception—but that the business model had them working in an impossible situation. It seems like this issue is one where the sorry state of the economy for poor and working people is a factor on both the prisoner and guard side.
Hager: Yes, I agree. We talked to dozens and dozens of guards for this story, and they were almost all aware of the impossible situation they were put in. Essentially, these companies hire a lot of ex-military guys (we were often told that this was because veterans know how to take orders) and give them a training that lasts only a few days and consists of teaching them how to put on handcuffs, how to spray pepper spray, and a review of how to fill out paperwork. Then the companies pay them just a little more than minimum wage, no overtime, to drive 24 hours a day for 3, 4, 5, 8 days in a row, with a bunch of unruly prisoners in the back. So, needless to say, they were in a hard position, and a lot of the problems—crashes caused by guards getting no sleep, escapes allowed by guards with little training; and even some of the abuses—are more the product of the business model than the individual human beings
Was it hard to get former guards to speak to you? Or did the fact that they felt less like targets of your investigation, and more like victims themselves, make them more willing to open up?
Santo: When you report on criminal justice, one of the biggest reporting challenges is getting corrections officers, prosecutors, and others on the law enforcement side to speak candidly with you. But this was the opposite. We found that many people who had worked for these transportation companies were eager to talk about their experiences. So yes, like you said, I think the fact that they experienced inhumane treatment as well made them more willing to open up. A lot of guards we spoke with felt that they had been placed into a situation where the company they worked for didn't care about them. Not only didn't care about them, but actively put them into situations that were dangerous for them and the prisoners they were entrusted with. And they resented that.
What about the company executives? How did you get them on the phone? They seem like the more standard investigation "target" and they likely knew that. Though the naiveté of some people doing bad things can be really striking...
Hager: We tried to know everything we could possibly know about these companies before calling them up. When I first called PTS, I spoke at great length with Robert Downs, their chief operating officer. Within a week after that call, we never heard from PTS again, despite visiting their office in Nashville in person. Some of the smaller companies, though, were a little more willing to talk with us. Alysia had conversations with officials at a few of those companies. They were more like mom-and-pop shops, and despite the inherent problems with the business model, they saw themselves as just trying their best to run a small business.
Local news articles played a role in your investigation. I think that’s true in a lot of big picture national reporting. What did you learn about the current news ecosystem and the role of local journalists?
Santo: Local news stories were an important source of information for us, particularly when it came to our research about escapes and crashes. And that really emphasizes just how important local media is to reporters working on national stories. As local reporting loses resources and in many cases closes down, it's a real loss for everyone, not just the community served by that news source. The negligence of these companies was leading to similar bad outcomes across the United States, and there would have been no way to connect those dots without that local reporting.
One thing that you didn’t get into much in the story, and it was a long story so I’m sure there was a lot you had to leave out, is why and when jurisdictions started to turn to private companies. Did you have a sense of what the history is here? And why do you think the use of private prisoner transport is so concentrated in the South and Midwest?
Santo:Private prison transportation has been around since at least the '80s (although it was a different mix of companies doing the work at that time), and the rise of this business model coincided with the explosion of America's incarcerated population. And it's attractive to cash-strapped municipalities because traditional extraditions, in which local deputies are sent out of state for one person, are very expensive. It's my impression that the concentration of these prison transports in the South and Midwest is due, at least in part, to the geography of the population those areas. People are more spread out, while in the northeast, for example, the population is more concentrated and therefore if a suspect is a few states away, the trip isn't as long.
A lot of people are finishing reading this story and want to know: what can they do to help put an end to this? On one level, it seems like the federal government can do something. It’s interstate commerce of a grisly sort, after all.
With Steven Galack, who was apparently beaten to death by other prisoners on the order of a guard after he became delusional and disruptive, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation looked into it and didn’t do anything. They told you that the investigation was as “thorough as the circumstances warranted.”
Santo: Because these transports cross state lines, different government agencies disagree about who should take the case. And while the Department of Justice is tasked with enforcing Jeanna's Act, the only federal law regulating prison transportation, the law has been used to enforce a penalty against a prison transport company just once. So, that's a place where improvement could start, but I should add that Jeanna's Act has more to do with preventing escapes than protecting prisoners’ rights.
I'm a big believer that journalism can make change, and so one thing that can be done is for reporters to localize these stories, and educate people in their communities about how prison transports are done and where their tax money is going to for this service.
Interesting. Is the Marshall Project actively reaching out to local reporters to collaborate on drilling in deeper to tell the local story?
Santo: We created a reporting guide so that other journalists can do a similar investigation in their state or locality.
Hager: MuckRock also did this the day after our story came out.
Santo: And we are asking that if reporters do their own stories, to send them to us, and we will compile them into one place.
Hager: One of the fascinating — and sad — things about some of the incidents we investigated is that they happened on a van that was in motion — crossing jurisdictional boundaries every hour. So which jurisdiction should investigate if something goes wrong on a moving van? In Steven Galack's case, he was allegedly beaten (according to two of his fellow prisoners and an autopsy report/photos that show bruises all over his body, a broken rib, a chipped tooth, and cuts on his face) somewhere between Athens and Dalton, Georgia. But his body was not discovered by the guards, they say, until the van was 70 miles down the road, in Tennessee. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation arrived on the scene to investigate at around 7:00 p.m. By around 3:00 a.m. that same night, they placed a call to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to say that if a crime happened, it happened in Georgia. And then they let the van, and all its passengers, continue on its route the very next day. Georgia never followed up, in part because the autopsy eventually came back as "undetermined." The point is that this is an industry that likely needs federal oversight, because it operates across state lines. But the federal law that is supposed to generally regulate the industry has only been enforced one time in 16 years.