Advocate says mistreatment ‘shocks the conscience’

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A recent Sun Journal investigation that explored the alleged mistreatment of prisoners during an extradition transport by a private company has prompted a nonprofit group aimed at defending the constitutional rights of people in Maine to launch its own probe.

In a March 26 report, the Sun Journal profiled two Mainers who were returned to this state for pending court matters. The man and woman recounted their five-day trip in graphic detail, alleging neglect and “inhumane” conditions in the back of a private company’s van.

“The treatment that these individuals received shocks the conscience,” Zachary Heiden, legal director at the nonpartisan American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, told the Sun Journal.

“It’s abusive,” Heiden said. “It’s humiliating and, I believe, it’s illegal.” 

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The private companies that transport prisoners and the public agencies and institutions that contract with them “need to be held accountable,” Heiden said.

Unlike the facilities from which the prisoners are picked up and to which they are delivered, the training of the drivers who work for U.S. Prisoner Transport appear to have undergone minimal “in-house” training, according to the company’s website.

Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office’s transport officers are sworn law enforcement officers who’ve undergone weeks of training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy as corrections workers as well as patrol deputies, Sheriff Eric Samson said.

The Sun Journal’s repeated efforts to seek documents and comment from the U.S. Prisoner Transport of Melbourne, Florida, and its parent company, Prisoner Transportation Services of Tennessee, went largely unanswered.

“If there is any training or supervision of these companies, it’s plainly inadequate if conduct like this is allowed to occur,” Heiden said.

Similarly, while the jails and prisons from which prisoners are picked up and dropped off by this company are regulated by state laws, the only agency regulating the private transport vehicle appears to be a federal highway safety agency.

By contrast, Maine’s county jails are subject to state licensing and undergo periodic inspections, Samson said.

A 2000 federal law that speaks to treatment of prisoners is actually aimed at protecting the public from prisoners who might escape during transport. But even that law has only been enforced once in its 16 years since enactment, according to a report published last year.

Heiden said his group’s investigation will focus on what actions it might seek to remedy the problem that could include filing of  a civil complaint similar to one brought by its national affiliate, the American Civil Liberties Union, in a 2002 Colorado lawsuit against Extraditions International.

His group also may apply public pressure against U.S. Prisoner Transport in an effort to change their protocols, he said, and it could lobby state legislators and the congressional delegation to change state and federal laws addressing the ethical treatment of prisoners during transport.

“These companies are acting as an extension of our criminal justice system and they ought to be held to the same high standards,” Heiden said.

cwilliams@sunjournal.com

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