Before his first phone interview, Tim Burgess, a former prisoner, sent Truthout an email describing his experience during transport from a state prison in Vermont to a private prison 1,000 miles away in Kentucky.
“Imagine being ripped from a sound sleep, told to pack your belongings,” he wrote. “Having orders shouted at you, and being shackled at 2 am, when you have not done anything wrong and were a model inmate. When you ask questions because you have a heart condition, the only answer is, ‘Quiet inmate!’ And that was the first 20 minutes…”
Prisoners are secretly moved through US cities every day by bus, van or even airplane. The longest trips can involve days in cramped seats with a limited range of motion; prisoners remain heavily shackled even on rest stops and during meals. Being transferred is already a disorienting experience for any prisoner, usually tearing them away from their families and friends. Prisoners are often forced to drop out of classes or lose some of their valued possessions like books or musical instruments.
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However, an issue that is rarely touched on is the brutality of the transport itself: The journey between prisons can be a traumatic experience that lingers long after the hours spent on the road.
Going “On the Draft”
Prisoners and correctional officers refer to transport as going “on the draft,” according to Glenn E. Martin, founder of Just Leadership USA, a nonprofit that seeks to cut mass incarceration in half by 2030 by putting former prisoners in leadership roles.
Martin was himself imprisoned for six years in New York state prisons, during which he spent time at several facilities, including a year on Rikers Island. He said transfers are a standard part of prison life for most prisoners, who can expect to be moved one or more times during their stay, whether from their initial “reception” prison to more permanent facilities, for medical treatment, after riots or protests or to relieve overcrowding.
In an interview with Truthout, Martin outlined what a prisoner can expect from a typical transfer experience. “You get all your stuff being taken away from you; you’re not sure why you’re on the draft; and they don’t tell you until the phones go off at night.”
Officers often wait until the last possible minute to tell prisoners about an impending transfer, usually right before they are told to pack up the belongings in their cell. Most of their possessions will be transferred to their new prison, but some may lose belongings or be forced to ship them back to friends on the outside or face delays in which they arrive before their things.
Transport sometimes begins almost immediately after packing, but often prisoners are held in solitary confinement, or in separate cells shackled to other prisoners awaiting transfer. Prisoners lose their phone and mail privileges from the time they are told they’re being moved until sometimes days after arrival at their new facilities. They aren’t allowed to communicate at any stops along the way, either, according to Martin.
Although the prisoners are sequestered for security purposes, reducing the likelihood that outsiders will attempt to free a prisoner who’s outside a prison’s walls and in tight security, Martin explained it also rips them away from their family, especially since the trips themselves can take days, usually far longer than the time needed for a direct journey between the two sites.
“I find it strange that I can drive from New York to Canada in a day if I really were interested in doing so, but for New York Corrections, it can take three or four days to go from New York City all the way up to Attica, which is 8 or 10 hours away,” Martin recalled.
On the draft, a prisoner’s ankles are shackled together and their wrists handcuffed, then all four limbs are chained together. The handcuffs are then placed in a plastic box, which drastically limits their range of motion. The box is designed to prevent lock-picking or violence, but holds the wrists at a painful angle. Finally, the prisoner is shackled to another prisoner being transported; they will not be unlinked even during bathroom breaks.
The result is hours or days spent hunched, never more than a foot from a stranger – a position that every former prisoner I spoke with described as intensely uncomfortable. Tim Burgess told me that he and other prisoners learned to throw McDonald’s French fries or chunks of hamburger into their mouths on meal breaks because it was the only way it was possible to successfully eat with the chains and boxes on their wrists.
The buses, which are typically refitted passenger buses, often lack adequate heat or air-conditioning. Martin recalled being uncomfortably cold, but other prison buses can be dangerously hot. Last July, a prisoner from Texas sued Prisoner Transportation of America, a private transfer company, claiming she spent a two-day ride in sweltering temperatures without water.
Of course, there are exceptions. Martin shared a rare, positive but illuminating experience from his time on the draft.
“I was being transported from reception, which is Ulster Correctional Facility, maybe an hour and a half outside New York City, all the way up to Attica Correctional Facility,” he recalled. “I remember getting close to the prison earlier than the officers thought we’d arrive, and they pulled over at a rest stop and let us all off the bus, shackled; bought a pack of cigarettes; gave us all a cigarette and told us to ‘Chill out, smoke a cigarette because we don’t want to get there early.’ “
Martin explained that the correctional officers were more worried about losing the overtime pay they earned on the road than the security of dozens of prisoners. “I marvel at that attitude and what it took for them to be so bold as to stop a busload of prisoners by the side of a highway so they could get more hours out of it,” he said.
Of course, experiences like that roadside smoke break are by far the exception. “The rest of it is horrible,” said Martin.
Transfer buses frequently stop overnight in other prison facilities along the way, which means being temporarily housed with new roommates, in frightening new surroundings. “Some people who are going to minimum or medium end up in maximum security while they’re on the draft,” Martin explained. “Sometimes if they know your draft movement is going to take more than 2 or 3 days, they’ll put you in general population [circulating freely with other prisoners].”
Martin spent multiple nights during transfers at Auburn Correction Facility, a maximum security prison he described as a “frightening place and freezing cold. You don’t have your toiletries, you can’t take a shower; if you get there on Friday, good luck, you’re there till Monday!”
Trauma in Motion
During his time as a prisoner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, Tim Burgess was transferred a few times within the state, but these were short trips that didn’t leave much of an impression on him. That all changed when he was transferred to a private prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), part of a plan to relieve overcrowding in Vermont prisons by sending hundreds of the incarcerated out of state.
Burgess recalled that four officers entered his cell in the middle of the night, ordering him to divide his possessions between those he wanted transferred and those he wanted sent home. Bewildered by the sudden news and believing he was being sent to a medical facility in Springfield, Vermont, for treatment for his heart condition, he barely had time to give his cellmate a prearranged signal to contact his parents before he was loaded onto the CCA buses.
“A lieutenant came on our bus, took a shotgun, and he put it into a holder,” recalled Burgess. “He looked at our bus full of Vermont prisoners, and he said, ‘You’re no longer in Vermont in custody. And you’re not in CCA’s custody, you’re in my custody.’ It scared the hell out of me.”
CCA outsources transport to a wholly owned subsidiary corporation, Transcor America, based in Tennessee. The threatening of prisoners with guns has sometimes gone further than the threats Burgess experienced; in 2010, the federal government charged Albert Preston Long, an armed employee of Court Services International (another private prison transport company) with sexually assaulting female prisoners in his custody. And in 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union accused employees of Extraditions International of sexually assaulting another prisoner.
It was only when Burgess’ bus arrived in Springfield, after picking up more passengers at another prison, that Burgess learned the truth about his destination.
“They put us in this enormous, long cell and threw mats on the floor. They came in with bagged lunches, which were dried turkey or tuna melts, and said, ‘You guys are gonna want to eat,’ ” Burgess said. “I told the guards I was being sent to the medical unit, and they said, ‘You’re being sent out of state.’ “
Burgess’ out-of-state transfer took place in 2006. While Vermont Department of Corrections claims to now only transfer healthy prisoners with long-term sentences, he said, back then, the attitude was “anything goes,” despite assurances he’d received from prison officials that his heart condition disqualified him being moved out of state.
His family, tipped off by his former cellmate, soon began calling the Department of Corrections objecting to his transfer, but, rather than change their plans they treated Burgess as a security risk, placing him alone in a separate cell for hours and subjecting him to a cavity and strip-search. They also confiscated his nitroglycerin heart pills. On his way to the bus he saw his bags, labeled for shipment to Kentucky – the first time he learned where he’d be going.
Conditions on the bus were uncomfortable, both because of his shackled, hunched-over position but also because it was very hot despite occurring in October, with very little air circulation, all of which can exacerbate Burgess’ heart condition.
Dominic Damato, the operations manager at Vermont Department of Corrections, confirmed that prisoners are not allowed to have any possessions, including medication, during transfer. Instead, he said, “There’s staff on board who administer those medications as needed,” and prisoners that regularly take medications are provided with them during interstate transport at rest stops or meal breaks.
Though he confirmed there had been a stop for medication, this was little comfort for Burgess, who recalled a guard on the bus derisively telling him, “You think we’re going to give you nitro? C’mon!”
And rest stops did not come often enough for Burgess and the others on his bus. He recalled one passenger near him who began shouting to the guards about an urgent need to defecate.
“The guards looked at him and asked, ‘Is the bus stopped?’ “
Despite repeated pleadings about the urgency of his need to defecate, the guards ignored him until he lost control of his bowels and defecated into his pants.
Burgess paused to describe that the bus he was transferred on, a refitted school bus, had three sections. In the front were the staff who traveled with the prisoners. Most of the prisoners would be chained together in the rear section of the bus. However, the middle section contained what Burgess described as “cages” or “solitary.”
Though the other prisoners shouted angrily at this mistreatment, Burgess recalled the guards placing the prisoner who had defecated in one of these separated cells, and they left him to sit in his own soiled pants for the journey.
During our conversation, Damato confirmed that these sections exist on prisoner transport buses, but denied that “solitary” was an appropriate term for them, since he claimed they were separated but always within sight of guards or other prisoners.
I asked Damato to describe these separate sections. “Think of a row on a school bus or on a commuter bus,” he said. “In back of that seat, to in front of that seat is contained in a metal and Plexiglas fabricated wall. So we can open a door and sit you on your bench and then close a door.” He compared them to the bulletproof sections in police cars.
Damato also stressed that people placed behind these barriers were still allowed the same meals and rest stops as other prisoners.
A normal drive between Vermont and Kentucky might take about 15 hours, but Burgess estimates the journey took at least twice that long. “The shackles on my handcuffs were on too tight, and they told me ‘tough.’ But my hands were so swollen, probably three-times their normal size. I couldn’t close my hand and that took the better part of three or four days to finally get my hand back to where I could exercise it,” he recalled.
Even shorter trips can leave psychological scars. Another former prisoner, who spoke to Truthout on condition of anonymity because he remains on parole, recalled being moved 3 times during his 11-month stay in Vermont prisons. “The seats are small and uncomfortable and being shackled both feet and hands (with the box on my hands) in a crowded chamber while traveling well over the speed limit was frightening,” he said.
“If we’d got into an accident, we’d be toast, and these guys were driving really fast,” he added. “It was nice to see trees out the window but the lack of control was disconcerting.”
Political Prisoners on the Draft
Transfers happen for many reasons, but prison officials have a history of using them punitively, to target prisoners who are doing organizing work inside, communicating with the media, or agitating for the restoration of their rights. While Just Leadership USA’s Glenn E. Martin said solitary confinement was a more common punishment, he’d also heard of cases of so-called “diesel therapy” carried out in response to activism.
“I met people that had been on the draft for months, literally, they come into a facility and they tell you stories of being moved around from place to place,” he said. And, he noted, the potential is far worse in the federal prison system, where prisoners can be easily “lost” in a nationwide system of prison facilities and transport vehicles.
Recently, Barrett Brown, a federally-imprisoned journalist punished for his collaboration with the Anonymous movement, has been moved multiple times and subject to other punishments like solitary confinement. And last year, officers threatened to put CIA torture whistleblower John Kiriakou on the road indefinitely in retaliation for writing letters to the media.
Dominic Damato also admitted that Vermont’s prisoners might be transferred out of state for punitive reasons. Normally, he told us, prisoners are selected who are in good health and have longer sentences, preferencing people who are not yet eligible for reintegration programs. But he added, sometimes, “They’ve refused programming, or they’ve failed a program multiple times, or they’ve failed multiple times to reintegrate into the community on probation furlough, so there are multiple qualifiers for candidates.”
Even when they aren’t being punished, transfers are still a painful experience for many prisoners. Alvaro Luna Hernandez, a political prisoner whom supporters believe was framed for exposing police corruption, has spent the last 13 years in solitary confinement. Last July, he was transferred between Texas state prisons because his original solitary housing unit at Alfred D. Hughes Unit in Gatesville, Texas, was converted into housing for mentally ill prisoners.
In a letter to Azzurra Crispino, an organizer with the Austin, Texas-based group Prison Abolition and Prisoner Support, Luna wrote of his journey to the James V. Allred Unit, over 300 miles away in Iowa Park, Texas:
[They] “hog-tied” us with cuffs, loop-to-feet shackles, and we had to walk stooped over in this humiliating, painful condition. My cuffs/shackles were so tight that it was cutting off my circulation, and one of my hands got numb. … Hughes Unit put out the word, or stigma, that we all were a bunch of “troublemakers,” radicals and “writ writers” and would certainly create problems. […]
But, while the chain bus is backing up at the Hughes back gate, the incompetent bus driver backed up into the gate. So, here we are, shackled in such a stooped position, in a hot bus, no drinking water, for 2 hours until they filled out reports and allowed our unit exit. Then, the idiot driver got lost on the trip, which was about a 4½-hour trip.
Prisoners were denied drinking water and their medication. They ran us through a “medical check up” with blood pressure check, etc,. and all of us were running high blood pressure readings, especially me. Prisoners with prescribed medication began to experience “heat stroke” symptoms like vomiting on the bus because it was hot as an oven. Some prisoners began falling out after they put us all in our current cells.
The Texas Department of Corrections denied these allegations when Crispino filed a formal complaint about the treatment, replying in part:
The transportation bus did bump into a pole near the back gate … All offenders were interviewed and evaluated to include offender Hernandez by the Hughes Unit medical providers. No injuries were noted and the incident was properly documented.
Regarding the allegation offenders had no drinking water for two hours is untrue. All offender transportation buses to include the bus offender Hernandez was on are equipped with two water coolers filled with ice, water, and paper towels to alleviate the heat. The buses are equipped with two exhaust fans to allow more air circulation in addition to lowering the windows on the bus. In addition, every effort is made to transport offenders during the coolest parts of the day to avoid heat related illness. The bus offender Hernandez arrived at the Allred Unit at 12:43 p.m. None of the offenders on the bus passed out as a result of the heat.
Regardless of what Hernandez underwent in his journey, the transfer had lingering consequences for his life. His possessions took days longer to arrive, including legal papers and notes crucial to his work as a renowned jailhouse lawyer, documented at length in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s book Jailhouse Lawyers. And he is now hours further away from supporters like Crispino, isolated in the panhandle of the massive state. It’s a typical story for prisoners and a primary way that transfers hurt their chances for successful reentry into outside life.
Transfers Hurt Prisoners and Enable Private Prisons
According to multiple researchers who study prisoners, access to family and friends is a key factor in preventing recidivism and ensuring a successful integration into the community upon release. For example, in 2008, criminology researchers William D. Bales and Daniel P. Mears, based on a study of Florida prisoners, concluded, “The findings indicate that visitation reduces and delays recidivism.” And a 2011 study, published in Justice Quarterly, found that “visitation has a small to modest effect in reducing recidivism of all types … the effects may be most pronounced for spouse or significant other visitation.”
Transfers put a strain on these crucial relationships. The anonymous former prisoner we spoke with cited his in-state transfer as a major factor in the dissolution of his marriage, and for prisoners transferred hundreds or thousands of miles away, the pressures can be even greater.
“When I was in Vermont, I saw my family every weekend, come hell or high water. One or another of my family showed up,” Burgess said. “When I was in Kentucky, my parents showed within the first two weeks I was there, and then they showed up that Thanksgiving in 2006, and then I didn’t see another member of my family until May of 2008,” when he was transferred back to Springfield, Vermont.
His parents, retired on social security, were unable to visit more often. Instead, they talked frequently on the phone, at outrageously high prison collect-call prices. Other prisoners Burgess knew in Kentucky never saw their families at all.
Transfers also disrupt prisoners’ efforts to take educational classes or improve themselves. Burgess worked in a “transitions” office, helping prisoners on probation find information and access resources to benefit them on the outside and was preparing to teach a class on STD prevention, when he was transferred.
Glenn E. Martin said this is one of the biggest harms caused by transfers. “We send people to prison, and we hope they’re rehabilitated while they’re there,” he said. “If you have no sense of when you’re going to get moved and why, it’s really difficult to do any sort of programming.”
While some programs, such as a college-run secondary education program Martin participated in, will petition prisons not to transfer participants, in most cases the programs are run by the prisons, and there is no incentive to ensure prisoners complete their work.
Further, the transfers enable and expand the prison-industrial complex. “When I was at a budget hearing a few years ago,” Martin recalled, “I heard someone say that there’s a prison worth of corrections officers on the road on any given day in New York State, and that’s part of the union’s negotiation to keep officers’ employed.”
Out-of-state prison transfers are also a key factor enabling the growth of the private prison industry, according to Grassroots Leadership, an organization based in Austin, Texas, that opposes profit from human incarceration. In November 2013, Grassroots Leadership’s criminal justice organizer, Holly Kirby, compiled a report called Locked Up and Shipped Away, which documented the extent to which prisoners from state prisons were being sent to out-of-state private prisons.
Kirby found a total of four states, Vermont, Idaho, Hawai’i and California, that contracted with out-of-state private prisons to receive a portion of the population from their overflowing facilities, adding up to over 10,500 prisoners at the time of writing. Overall, she found that there are few laws governing interstate transfers and little oversight over the extent of the practice.
Some of Kirby’s closest work has been with Vermont’s prison system, through a partnership with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform (V4CJR), leading to a supplemental report about the state, detailing the experiences of many prisoners who were transferred. (V4CJR also helped Truthout connect with prisoners like Tim Burgess and our anonymous source.)
In a conversation with Truthout, Kirby used Vermont as an example of the ways transfers enable the growth of private prisons while simultaneously allowing states to put off fixing the issues that lead to over-incarceration.
“It’s a tiny state; it’s known as a progressive state, but for 20 years they’ve been sending prisoners out of state,” she told me. “If they couldn’t send prisoners out of state, they’d be forced to make real reforms, but because private prisons offer this option, it really allows the states to delay doing anything.”
Kirby estimated that these transfers earn the private prison industry as much as $320 million annually. As an alternative, she wants to pass laws that ban exporting the incarcerated from their home states, forcing legislators to focus on sustainable, criminal justice reform that reduces the number of people sent to prison in the first place.
Under pressure from groups like Grassroots Leadership and V4CJR, Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito told WCAX.com that he wants to end the out-of-state program entirely within the next four years. In the meantime, they’ve reduced the number of out-of-state prisoners to 280 (down from close to 500 in 2013) and cut ties with Corrections Corporation of America.
Up in the Air
The state’s 280 out-of-state prisoners were recently moved to a facility in Baldwin, Michigan, owned by another private prison, GEO Group. Pallito claimed the GEO Group facility offers more vocational options and better security. For prisoners, this meant another transfer, although they are now closer to Vermont. This time, officials shipped the prisoners on GEO Group’s fleet of private airplanes from CCA’s prisons in Arizona and Kentucky to the single new facility.
Truthout spoke with Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of V4CJR, after she’d spent weeks trying to help prisoners with the upcoming transfer. She shared a first-hand account from Bob Rideout, an out-of-state prisoner. Rideout described an enraged CCA official who, apparently blaming the prisoners for the loss of their contract, “shoved his face in other people’s faces, veins popping, and calling them ‘maggots.’ “
The prisoners were transferred at the end of June. One prisoner told Wizowaty that his group left in the middle of the night, under heavy police escort and including a helicopter, likely a response to recent high-profile prison escapes.
Dominic Damato told us he rode along with two of the flights, and he spoke to us shortly after returning to Vermont. During aerial transport, prisoners are no longer shackled to their neighbors but are secured only to themselves and are each kept in standard airline seats.
For the prisoners, they’re now immersed in a new facility with new, more restrictive rules. Wizowaty described windowless two-person cells with a skylight in a central open area, and prisoners struggling to adjust to everything from new shoes to new cellmates.
Personal musical instruments are also no longer allowed, and at least one prisoner feared the loss of his instrument because he couldn’t afford to ship it back to Vermont.
Like the prisoners in GEO Group’s planes, the future of out-of-state transfers is up in the air, too. Vermont incarcerates a disproportionate number of its Black residents, at a rate that’s one of the worst in the nation. While prison officials can be blamed for some of the mistreatment that happens in prison and during transfers, Wizowaty, a former state legislator, placed most of the blame squarely on the lawmakers.
“The legislature every year creates new crimes and harsher penalties. The legislature bears the brunt of the responsibility – lawmakers everywhere, including Vermont,” she said.