U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told lawmakers Tuesday her office would investigate apparent lapses in federal oversight of private prisoner transportation companies, the subject of a recent Marshall Project investigation that revealed a pattern of deaths and abuses in the industry.
Under questioning by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Lynch told the House Judiciary Committee that she was unfamiliar with the industry, which the Justice Department is tasked with monitoring under a 2000 law that has been enforced only once.
At a key moment in the questioning, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) interrupted to insist that Lynch “look into this in depth, and report back to the committee.”
“We would very much require that,” he added.
Also on Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) urged Lynch in a letter to probe possible abuses on for-profit transportation vans, which carry tens of thousands of people every year across millions of miles. “It is critical that the Justice Department uncover whether abuse of prisoners and conditions of confinement violations by private prison transport companies and their officials violated laws and regulations within the Department’s jurisdiction,” Booker wrote.
The Marshall Project story, published July 6 with The New York Times, was the result of a seven-month investigation into private transport companies used by 26 states and countless localities to extradite suspects and fugitives.
A review of thousands of court documents, federal records and local news articles and interviews with guards and executives revealed a pattern of deaths, neglect, escapes and accidents in the industry. Four people have died since 2012 on vans run by the largest company in the business, Prisoner Transportation Services.
Among them was Steven Galack, whose story Deutch recounted during the committee hearing. Galack was living in Florida when he was arrested for failing to pay child support and placed on a private van for extradition to Ohio. He grew agitated on the trip, and two prisoners said a guard on the van directed the other prisoners to beat him. Mr. Galack was found dead in Tennessee. His cause of death was undetermined.
Deutch asked why a 2000 law intended to regulate the industry has been enforced by the Justice Department only once in 16 years.
“General Lynch,” he said, “I’d just ask what else can be done for us to focus on an issue that we were so concerned about here in Congress 16 years ago that we passed legislation, but that legislation seemingly goes unnoticed or certainly unenforced.”
Lynch responded that all prisoners should be treated humanely and fairly and offered to review the issue, which she said was new to her. At that point, Goodlatte interrupted.
Reached later by phone, Deutch called the chairman’s intervention pivotal. “The chairman going on record to ask that the Attorney General provide a report to us — that elevates this issue into a priority for the House Judiciary Committee,” Deutch said. The committee hearing focused primarily on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Deutch’s office plans to send follow-up questions to Lynch’s office, including examining the four deaths.
Steven Galack’s brother Robert said he was struck by news of the hearing.
“Who would ever imagine something positive would come of this?” he said. “For a guy who died penniless on a prisoner transport van to be mentioned before Congress, that is almost vindication.”