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A decommissioned prisoner transport van, similar to the ones Fernando Colon would operate, at an automotive repair shop in Smyrna, Tenn.
Life Inside

The Horrible Things I Saw Driving a Van Packed with Prisoners

Dehydrated, hungry prisoners defecating on themselves.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

From 2013 to 2014, Fernando Colon worked as an “extradition agent” tasked with driving prisoner transport vans across America. He was employed by USG7 and later U.S. Corrections, private extradition companies hired by local sheriffs and police who need a suspect, fugitive, or other prisoner picked up or dropped off in another state. USG7 is now defunct, but U.S. Corrections1, registered in North Carolina, is growing rapidly, transporting over 5,000 prisoners every year.

Colon’s job was grim, by his telling. He received barely more than minimum wage — and after initially getting just two days of training, he hauled a rickety, poorly ventilated van filled with (sometimes dangerous) prisoners for days at a time. Paid per inmate, by the mile, his company had every incentive to send him out on the road for long stretches, making as many pick-ups and drop-offs as possible. He rarely stopped for food, water, bathroom breaks, showers, or sleep.

He’s a trucker now, and he says he likes that job much better.

Here's how it worked: I'd show up at headquarters as early as 12:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, and they'd give me a van.

Related 07.06.16Tens of thousands of people every year are packed into vans run by for-profit companies with almost no oversight.

Inside the Deadly World of Prisoner Transport

Then they'd hand me a manifest — a list of the prisoners to be picked up and delivered around the country. This usually had only the most basic information about the human beings I would soon have on my vehicle: their destinations, the charges they were facing, and maybe the medications they took.

Then I'd hit the road.

When I got to the first jail, there would be one or two prisoners to put in my vehicle. I'd search them, pat them down, put on their belly chains, their ankle shackles, meet with the nurse there for maybe a few minutes, and load them on.

Then back behind the wheel. Pick-up, drop-off, pick-up, drop-off, maybe a bathroom break or McDonald's, pick-up, drop-off, sunrise, sunset, three days on the road, seven days on the road, 15 prisoners on the van by this point, always on the road.

I considered it a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week job — and that's all the time there is, by the way.

There were aspects of being an extradition agent that I found to be incredible. I saw parts of the U.S. I never would have seen. I got to understand the way the system works, the ins and outs of local jails and courthouses, the charges that criminals in this country are generally facing. I was allowed to carry a gun wherever I wanted, and I had this feeling of going into jails in my full battle rattle, seeing the fear in these inmates' eyes — Who's he coming to get? I hope not me.

And when I showed up at some of these rural jails, the cops there looked at me with a measure of respect — Look at this glamorous Extradition Agent coming in from out of town, he must be like the U.S. Marshals!

They didn't know what it was really like.

My prisoners got sick and threw up on each other all the time. They passed out from heat stroke — the windows barely opened, for security reasons, and the air conditioning was always broken. It got so hot that they would strip down to their underwear, and I would have to buy them buckets of ice and water.

They were car sick, dizzy, panicked, and claustrophobic.

Only one of our vans had cushions on the seats. In the rest of the vehicles, they were just sitting upright on a metal bench, squeezed in tight next to each other, with no way to lie down to sleep — for up to seven days in a row. Usually they'd just take off their shoes and sit on those.

Imagine having convicted murderers next to you when you're a first-time DUI offender. There were guys who were past due on child support sitting next to a murderer. That’s crazy — speeding-ticket people next to three-time felons.

Meanwhile, your hands are bound but there ain't no seatbelts, so if I put on the brakes or swerve, you get thrown like a pinball across the van and slammed against the wall, with no way to brace yourself. I would hear them slamming around back there.

One night I was driving down the road, and I heard some chains shaking all the way in the back. Rattling, shaking — like a seizure of chains, and now the prisoners were all yelling up to me that this girl needed help.

This woman had recently been in a car accident. She had metal headgear on, like a head brace, which I think was to keep her from banging her head on anything — and she was also five months pregnant. They actually let us transport individuals like that.

So we pulled over, I jumped out of the passenger seat, and tried to go back and hold her. I fed her a soda, and she calmed down slightly. Then it was just back to business.

Sometimes the inmates were 400 pounds and couldn't even fit back there. I once transported a guy who couldn’t hold his bowels — he was taking a dump on himself and throwing up on himself the entire time. Others were constantly urinating in bottles.

When we got to the next jail, "inmate cleaning teams" would clean the shit and vomit out of the vans, although sometimes I had to do so myself.

I had to be a nurse, too. I gave insulin shots while we were on the road, and most of us guards had no idea how to give injections. Sometimes we were in emergency situations, and we had to make a call — could we make it to the next jail for an actual medical professional to administer it, or did we need to do this on the fly?

You have to understand, training to become an extradition officer is a crash course. It was two days, at most, of seminars before they put us on the road. They taught us to secure a belly chain and shackles, and how to do a pat-down and a strip-search. We were expected to already know CPR. And that was it — the rest is learned on the job.

We Are Witnesses

Intimate portraits of people who have been touched by the criminal justice system

Meanwhile my company wouldn't pay for anything — it was profit, profit, profit. I got paid $8.50 an hour, and all my food was all out of pocket. For the prisoners, they let us put their meals on a company credit card...but only $4 a day per inmate.

Four dollars a day for food. I would have to feed them on that.

That could only be the dollar menu at McDonald's. For breakfast, a sausage biscuit; for lunch, a McChicken; for dinner, a McChicken, then run it back the next day and the next day and the next. And my company only allowed us to give the prisoners the courtesy kid's cup of water that comes with the meal — that way we wouldn't need to pull over for them to go to the bathroom as often, and we could just keep driving and driving and make it to the next jail.

Sometimes I would buy bottled water. Somebody gets dehydrated, I would buy ice and water out of my pocket. We had one woman, five months pregnant, I had to buy her extra food out of pocket; I would buy her things with more nutrition. Or I'd buy apple pies because the morale was so horrible, not just for them, but for us guards. I would easily spend $200 a trip on these guys because I felt so bad for them.

They told us at first that the trips should not last more than four days, but often it stretched out to ten or 11 days.

On the road that long, you'd fall asleep at the wheel. But in a prisoner transport van, because of that metal cage behind you, the front seats do not recline at all. You have to sleep straight up, for a whole week in a row. Your body is just exhausted, and it's all you can do not to crash.

You switch with your co-driver every eight hours at first, but it gets to a point where you switch every three, four hours because you just can’t do it. The bosses would be on the phone, saying, "What, you can't do it, you can't push it, you can't make it to the next jail?" We're all ex-military2, so we’d just do a cocktail of Five-Hour Energy and caffeine pills.

They used to let us pull over at rest stops for a break and the bathroom, but then a guy escaped, and after that we could only stop at a secure jail or maybe a local police department. Southern jails mostly allowed us to stop in, but on the east coast, like in New Jersey and New York, the jail staff always said, “No, you can’t stop here.”

It was hard to find a jail willing to take on the liability of accepting prisoners who didn’t belong to them — they were more wary of taking on prisoners with possible medical problems than we were. A lot of them would just laugh at us and say, “We’re not opening our doors, keep driving.”

My bosses, they would say in so many words, “You figure it out, we got to make this happen.” They knew we would keep driving. They knew we would make the deadline.

And they knew that after the trip was over, we'd want to get at least two days off — but they also knew that after just a day, they could call and say, “Can you go back out? We need you. We've got all these prisoners to pick up. We need you back on the road.”

For more on the for-profit extradition industry, read The Marshall Project’s recent investigation into the pattern of deaths, escapes, crashes, and sexual assault on prisoner transport vans like the one Colon drove.