Caged in van No. 1304

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Lewiston woman’s 5-day trip from Florida to Maine in a prisoner transport van was an ‘inhumane . . . hell.’

Meghan Quinn spent five days locked in a cage in the back of a van, her hands cuffed to her belly, her ankles shackled together.

The van’s two drivers carried handguns and Tasers. They spoke little English. They wouldn’t stop when Quinn begged to use a bathroom.

When her period started, Quinn was forced to sit in her blood-soaked pants for hours before one of the drivers finally tossed her a pad. She was told to pee in a plastic bag and, at one point, had to use the wrapper from her $2 burger as a toilet in full view of strange men, who, like Quinn, were bound and locked in the back of the van, but not caged.

The stench from her bodily fluids and solids that soiled and matted her clothes made her gag. She vomited repeatedly until her stomach was empty. And she was forced to sit in that, too.

The van drove on.

The 34-year-old Lewiston mom’s nightmare started on a Sunday in late November 2016  in Kissimmee, Florida, and ended the following Friday in Auburn, where she arrived the day after Thanksgiving. She would be praying for a “fiery crash” before the end of the trip.

She had been brought back to Maine by a private company called U.S. Prisoner Transport to face probation violations from a five-year-old forgery charge.

Quinn’s one-way trip cost Androscoggin County nearly $1,500. She is now serving an eight-month sentence at Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn.

A private Tennessee-based company that contracts with prosecutors’ offices in two dozen states owns the van that transported her.

Since her return to Auburn, Quinn has complained neither about her court-imposed sentence nor her time in jail.

But her eyes well with tears as she recalls the five days she spent locked in a cage smaller than some dog crates in U.S. Prisoner Transport van No. 1304. In an interview with the Sun Journal last month, she said she shared her story because she doesn’t want anyone else to have to experience what she went through.

David Bowden, 45, who is serving a sentence on a burglary charge at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, gave an independent narrative of events of his trip in the back of the same van, which picked him up in Daytona, Florida, and brought him to Bangor.

In a January interview with the Sun Journal, Bowden’s 90-minute description of the conditions, treatment and indignities suffered by Quinn on that trip closely matched her account.

. . .

Quinn was one of the first in the van, which wound its way up the East Coast from Florida to Maine on the five-day trek, dropping off and picking up inmates at jails and prisons, sometimes doubling back and making detours as the itinerary changed along the way. The van, owned by a subsidiary of a national company, was supposed to stop every three to four hours for the prisoners to use the facilities. Instead, both Quinn and Bowden said, the time they were locked in the back of the van between stops lasted about twice that long.

Besides the denial of basic personal hygiene resulting in humiliation and embarrassment, Quinn suffered several physical injuries during the trip.

At one point, she knocked on the wall of the van in an effort to get the driver to stop when one of the male prisoners showed signs of having a seizure. She shouted to the drivers and beat on the metal grate to get their attention. Instead of stopping, the driver “got mad” and slammed on his brakes so hard that Quinn’s face smashed into the metal grid at the van’s front, bloodying her nose, turning the front of her white T-shirt crimson.

Then he sped up.

The body of the man having the seizure was jettisoned forward from the back of the van, landing in the lap of a prisoner 8 feet away and striking his head on a metal panel, Quinn said.

When the van suddenly braked and swerved in highway traffic, Quinn’s unseat-belted body tumbled, jamming her upside down under a metal partition door that drove her shackles into her ankles so deeply they left scars.

One of the drivers later forced her to wear his black uniform T-shirt to cover up the blood stains on her shirt when she got out of the van.

Worse were the freezing temperatures in her unheated space from sunset to sunrise, she said. She could see her breath in the dim glow of lights from the cab as the van drove through the night.

“If I breathed on the metal, it was like a fog,” she said.

Unlike the male prisoners, who sat on padded metal benches under heating vents at the back of the van, all of the surfaces in Quinn’s small, unheated space were metal. There was no bench, no padding. The space was too narrow for her hips, so she couldn’t lie sideways on the floor to try to stretch her legs as the male prisoners sometimes did.

She sat on the uneven floor with her knees pushed up to her chest until her muscles cramped, then she would straighten her legs, one at a time, and lift them so that her feet pointed to the ceiling, her thighs pressed to her chest, assuming a diver’s pike position.

“Sometimes I literally put my legs straight up like this,” she said, demonstrating, “just to be moved in a different position, so that I wasn’t sitting in that same way, my body hurt so bad.”

But it was the cold, Quinn said, that had her fantasizing about a welcome end to the trip. “A few times I really wished the van would have flipped over and caught on fire and ended it,” she said. “The cold was too much.”

The male prisoners offered their extra layers of clothing to her, but it wasn’t enough.

“I was freezing,” she said, “I . . . literally never, ever felt cold like that in my life. I couldn’t get warm. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do nothing to make it stop. It was like pain. The cold was literally painful.” Eventually, she said, she managed to flip a switch in her mind on the persistent pain, turning it to numbness.

. . .

The conditions Quinn endured were “inhumane,” Bowden said, especially after she got her period.

Halfway through the trip, Quinn refused to step back into her cage after she was told she would have to continue to wear her blood-soaked pants.

“I watched her go through it. I watched her bawl, I watched her scream,” Bowden said. “When she stood up, you could see the whole back of her was just soaked in it.”

“(The) drivers told her, ‘If you don’t calm down, we’re Tasering you.’ She was going to refuse and we talked her out of it. ‘Get back in the van and it’ll be over before you know it,’” the other prisoners told her, Bowden said.

“But it wasn’t really over before we knew it,” he said. “It took forever to get here (to Maine).”

One of the drivers eventually bought her some leggings at a department store to replace her bloodied pants, telling her he used his own money because his bosses wouldn’t authorize the expense. Quinn said she never saw those pants again.

Bowden, who said he had been ”through so many of the biggest and baddest federal prisons there is,” called his van experience “terrible.”

A day after Quinn was dropped off at the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn, Bowden had, himself, refused to re-enter the van and had to be coaxed back in by a sheriff in Machias.

The drivers had passed by Bowden’s destination at the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor without stopping to drop him off.

“I snapped,” toward the end of his trip, he said, recalling his fatigue and frustration. “I’d had enough.”

The prisoners had been told when they entered the van that bathroom breaks would come every three to four hours.

But “that never happened,” Quinn said. It had been seven hours since she originally boarded the van in Florida when she was begging the drivers to let her use a bathroom at the gas station where they had stopped to change a flat tire. The drivers used the bathroom at the station; she was given a plastic bag and a couple of napkins.

Instead of the promised stops every three to four hours to use a bathroom, the drivers would pull into county jails roughly every nine or 10 hours for a bathroom break, usually coinciding with the drop-off and pick-up of prisoners, Quinn said.

“I had to pull my pants down and pee in front of these guys,” she said. “This guy was hootin’ and hollerin’ something (making sexual references to her private parts.) This (other prisoner) threatened to punch this guy and told him to turn around. I peed in the bag.”

After that first time having to pee in front of them, Quinn said none of the male prisoners taunted her.

“I knew they were probably looking,” she said, but they kept quiet. “I think they felt bad for me cuz almost every time it would make me cry.”

Quinn limited herself only to sips of water. She gave up eating in an effort to limit the number of bathroom tasks she would have to perform publicly in the van.

It was on the third day that she resorted to using her burger wrapper as a toilet. “I made sure I didn’t have to go to the bathroom after that,” she said. “I stopped eating. And then after that, I vomited, quite a few times from the smell and just being embarrassed and my nerves,” she said, her voice cracking.

The drivers eventually stopped the van, removed the wrapper containing her waste and swept up the vomit with a brush, leaving streaks of the remains and its lingering odor.

Quinn wasn’t allowed to shower during the five-day trip to wash off the accumulated body fluids that had crusted on her skin.

She had asked the drivers to give her meals to the other prisoners, but they refused. They said that would violate their company’s policy.

During the five-day trip, Quinn was allowed out of the van about 10 times, she said, which included two overnight stays, one in North Carolina and one in Massachusetts. The other overnights were spent in the van as it continued on its way, she and Bowden said.

 . . .

Three days into the trip, the van stopped at a federal prison in New York to take on a prisoner who had complained that he hadn’t been medically cleared to travel.

Shortly after the van got underway, the man began to complain of heart problems. The guards had given him some medication, but the man’s condition worsened.

“He started sweating really bad,” Quinn said. “I could see these big drops of sweat coming off his head.”

The van had picked him up at dawn and it was sunset before the van stopped at a hospital, she said.

“He started telling me he had pains in his arm,” Bowden said, pointing to his left arm, “and he had pains in his chest, going up and down his chest.”

Everyone in the back of the van, including Quinn, was yelling to get the driver’s attention. They resorted to banging on the walls and, later, rocked the vehicle side to side by throwing themselves against the walls.

Eventually the van stopped. The drivers asked what they should do. Bowden told them to call an ambulance. But they didn’t call 911. Instead, they got back in the cab of the van and drove around seeking a hospital, which took another 20 minutes, Bowden said.

At a hospital in Connecticut, one of the drivers accompanied the ailing prisoner into the emergency room while the other driver waited outside at the van, smoking a cigarette and talking on his cellphone.

The prisoners sat in the parked van for hours at the hospital, awaiting word of the prisoner’s condition. One of the drivers said the prisoner had a heart attack and had undergone emergency surgery during which doctors implanted a stent in his artery. He would have to spend the night at the hospital under observation, they were told.

The remaining prisoners were driven hours away to a county jail in Massachusetts, Bowden said, where they spent the night in a holding cell after arriving near midnight.

The next day, when the van picked them up, the prisoner who’d had the heart attack was back in the van, handcuffed and shackled, like before. The drivers had begun feeding the man $2 cheeseburgers again. His doctor’s instructions to get regular exercise were ignored by the drivers, Bowden said. The man’s earlier cardiac symptoms returned.

Bowden said he let the man, who weighed about 360 pounds and was in his late 60s, rest stretched out on the cushioned bench while Bowden held the man in place by bracing himself against the floor.

In Machias, the man’s symptoms reached the point where he talked about refusing to get back in the van, Bowden said. He last saw the man sitting in the back of the van when Bowden was dropped off at the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor. They had exchanged personal information, including the name of the man’s son, who was an attorney in Tennessee, in case he didn’t survive the trip. But the drivers confiscated the slip of paper from Bowden, he said. He never heard from the man again.

“For me, it’s not so bad,” Bowden said of the experience. “But for the female and the old guy, yeah, it was probably hell for them.”

But even Bowden had nearly reached his breaking point near the end, he said.

“I pretty much screamed at (the drivers,) ‘Hey, man, you know what?'”

But they weren’t listening, he said. “They didn’t want to listen to anything you got to say. They tell you right straight before you get in the van, ‘We’re driving through. So, don’t ask for nothing we can’t give you. We ain’t gonna give it to you.’”

The Sun Journal filed a freedom of information request with the transport company, whose lawyer promised to respond. That was two months ago. Despite repeated attempts for comment and information since then, the company has refused to respond. (See related story.)

Quinn was sentenced at the end of November on a 2011 forgery charge stemming from having written checks on her mother’s account without permission. She had violated her probation from that case by using alcohol and failing to report to her probation officer, among other violations. She is expected to be released from Androscoggin County Jail on March 28. She has retained a lawyer to represent her in a possible civil complaint stemming from her prisoner transport.

She said she memorized the number on the back of the van the last time she got out. She got the names of several of the men in the back of the van who had witnessed her experience.

The first thing Quinn did after she was escorted into Androscoggin County Jail was to write a six-page letter to a judge, detailing the trip. Her judge at sentencing apparently never saw her letter; Quinn wrote a duplicate and sent it to the Sun Journal.

At the Androscoggin County Jail, she undergoes trauma therapy. She said her fingers will, at random, turn white, accompanied by an acute burning sensation.

“Never, no matter how bad things have ever got in my life, have I considered suicide or wished death upon myself. But many times throughout this ride I prayed to God to take my life and put me out of the misery,” she wrote in her letter. “I felt sexually, physically and mentally violated and humiliated.”

“I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me,” she later told the Sun Journal. “Maybe I’m older now . . . and a more emotional person. I don’t know, but it was just something I couldn’t deal with. And most of the reason I wanted to sue them is all I could think is how many other people they do this to.”

Quinn, her eyes welling up again, said she was thinking about her 15-year-old daughter.

“I couldn’t imagine somebody putting her through that,” she said.

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Transportation vans are shown in this image from the U.S. Prisoner Transport’s Facebook page.

Allegations spur district attorney to halt private prisoner transports 

By Christopher Williams, Staff Writer

AUBURN — Androscoggin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson said Friday his office would immediately stop using the Tennessee-based private transportation company U.S. Prisoner Transport unless new allegations of mistreatment of prisoners are disproved.

Robinson referred to a six-page letter written by an Androscoggin County Jail inmate who detailed the account of her five-day trip from Florida to Maine last November caged in the back of a private prisoner transport van during which she was denied bathroom breaks and subjected to other inhumane treatment. (See main story.)

“What is described in this letter is unacceptable,” Robinson said shortly after reading a copy made available to him by the Sun Journal.

“Someone who is being transported back to the state of Maine to be dealt with in the criminal justice system should be transported in humane conditions,” he said. “What is described in the way she was treated is not something we would ever knowingly allow to happen.”

Robinson said: “What we will need to do is suspend our use of U.S. Prisoner Transport until we can determine that this didn’t happen.”

His office has reached out to the company to learn what their standards of care are and what they believe happened during the trip, he said. If his office gets no response from the company, he will no longer do business with the company, he said.

The person in his office who schedules extraditions told Robinson she hadn’t heard any concerns about the company’s past performance.

“Certainly noone’s brought it to my attention because that’s certainly something I would have paid attention to,” Robinson said.

His office has used that company for about a decade, he said, starting long before he was sworn in as district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties in January 2015.

The private prisoner transport company had been recommended by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office in Portland, Robinson said. Since then, his office has had an “established relationship” with that company.

“I think we’ll have to reach out and see if we can find alternatives until we determine this didn’t happen,” he said. Any other private transport companies considered for future contracts would have to be carefully vetted, he said.

“We have to check and make sure there are no issues if we’re using a different company,” he said.

Regarding the inmate who wrote the letter, 34-year-old Meghan Quinn of Lewiston, Robinson said: “To the extent that these horrific conditions existed, it’s inconsistent with the steps the state was taking to try to treat this person fairly, with respect, and keep her out of incarceration,” by trying to work with her through the plea and probation process over a number of years.

TRANSPORT COMPANY: 16 DEATHS SINCE 2000

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said his deputies, who transport inmates from jails and prisons within Maine and from other New England states, would never demand a prisoner go to the bathroom in the van or cruiser.

“That, in my mind, is unacceptable,” Samson said when interviewed for a story about private prisoner transports to Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn.

“I’ve never, nor do I believe anybody that currently works for us has ever, done something like that,” Samson said. “We would have heard” if something like that had happened, he said, noting his department has easily accessible complaint and grievance procedures for prisoners.

Before he was elected sheriff, Samson served as supervisor of prisoner transports for a decade.

He said he was always able to find a security facility along the route. If he were transporting minimum security prisoners, like Quinn, he might stop at a public restroom, if necessary. When transporting a female, he always would seek to have a woman officer accompany her on the extradition, Samson said.

Quinn and another inmate driven in the back of the same U.S. Prisoner Transport van on a five-day trip from Florida to Maine the end of last November spoke at length to the Sun Journal about their experiences. The trip included infrequent bathroom stops that forced those being extradited to urinate and defecate either in bags or empty water bottles. Otherwise, they were told, they must go in their pants.

The man and woman said the van usually drove straight through the night; the woman was confined to an unheated cage too small to lie down in or even sit in without having her knees pressed to her chest.

The company’s two drivers, who were not sworn law enforcement officers, carried guns and Tasers, and likely had undergone only three days of company training to handle prisoners, according to a 2016 probe of that company by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit group of journalists who write about the U.S. criminal justice system.

The two inmates interviewed by the Sun Journal said that when Quinn got her period, she was forced to sit in her blood for hours. She also was forced to go to the bathroom in a fast-food wrapper, in front of others in the van. She vomited repeatedly and sat with that too until the van stopped hours later, she said.

Quinn said in a letter penned to a judge when she arrived at the Auburn jail: “I felt sexually, physically and mentally violated and humiliated.”

One of the prisoners transported in the back of the van suffered a heart attack, underwent emergency surgery and was placed back in the van, the inmates said.

Androscoggin County Sheriff’s deputies aren’t allowed to dispense any medications, not even an aspirin, yet, the drivers of the private van, with apparently only CPR training, handed out medications to the van’s prisoners, who swapped their pills with one another, both prisoners reported.

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch reported to the House Judiciary Committee in July that her office would “review apparent lapses in federal oversight of prisoner transport companies” in response to The Marshall Project’s probe of PTS or Prisoner Transportation Services of Tennessee, according to published reports. The nonprofit had investigated PTS, the parent company U.S. Prisoner Transport.

That Justice Department report was in progress as of Dec. 8, the reporters for The Marshall Project wrote.

Although a federal law called Jeanna’s Act, enacted in 2000, set out standards for treatment of prisoners, it focused largely on public safety. That law has only been enforced once since its enactment, according to a December story by The Marshall Project. That story says that “at least 60 prisoner escapes, 50 crashes, 14 alleged instances of sexual assault, and 16 deaths (occurred) on these vans during that time.”

According to the U.S. Prisoner Transport’s website, all of its drivers are trained “in prisoner rights and privacy laws.” Yet the conditions described by Quinn and the other prisoner in the back of van No. 1304 would suggest those drivers either hadn’t been trained properly or ignored that training.

TRANSPORT COMPANY FAILED TO RESPOND 

On Jan. 4, the Sun Journal submitted a request to U.S. Prisoner Transport for access to public documents in connection with the transport of Quinn in November 2016. The request was made under Florida’s Public Records Law and Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, both of which require that the records of private contractors be available to the public if the contractor is performing a service, including the movement of inmates, that would otherwise be performed by a government agency.

The request was sent to the U.S. Prisoner Transport company in Melbourne, Florida, the location of the office that contracted with Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office for Quinn’s transportation from Osceola County Corrections in Kissimmee, Florida, to the Androscoggin County Jail. The Sun Journal was seeking access to all communication between that company and the District Attorney’s Office here, along with passenger and personnel manifests of the vehicle that transported Quinn, and records of expenses and documentation of any incidents or events during the five-day trip from Florida to Maine.

Public access laws in both Florida and Maine require acknowledgement of public access requests. When the Sun Journal did not get a response from the company the following week, the newspaper contacted U.S. Prisoner Transport’s Florida office by phone. That office denied receiving the request, and referred all calls to the company’s headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.

Contacted at its Nashville office on Jan. 13, Joel Brasfield, president and general counsel of parent company Prisoner Transportation Services, said he was unaware of the Sun Journal’s request for records and asked the newspaper to re-send its request.

On Jan. 17, after receiving no reply to its repeated request, the newspaper contacted Brasfield again. In an email, he wrote: “It’s with the attorney. I expect a response soon.” Brasfield never responded to subsequent requests for comment or information.

To date, the Sun Journal has never received a formal response to its records request, despite reminders and additional requests sent in February and again most recently on March 14, in clear violation of those states’ public access laws.

COUNTY OFTEN USED TRANSPORT COMPANY

The Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office contracted with U.S. Prisoner Transport to extradite a total of 55 prisoners, including seven women, over an eight-year period ending last year, according to records obtained by the Sun Journal. That office spent roughly $8,000 per year in each of the past two years for the transports of an average of seven prisoners.

Some of the inmates transported back to Maine had been charged with nonviolent felonies, others with more serious crimes. Some, like Quinn, were wanted on bench warrants for probation violations.

The extradition clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Extradition Act gives private prisoner transport services the same authority to move prisoners as public agencies, according to the Human Rights Defense Center.

The U.S. Marshal Service and a private company called TransCor were used to extradite Androscoggin County prisoners on overnight trips back to Maine until the mid-2000s, when the DA’s office turned to the Sheriff’s Department due to delays and costs, Samson said.

Martin Fournier, who took over as transport supervisor from Samson, said he personally would fly with prisoners back to Maine on commercial airlines until the day he retired from that position on May 30, 2015. Extra training was required through the Federal Air Marshal Service for those transports, he said.

Since then, Samson said, personnel from his department only take on the transportation of extradited prisoners if the trip can be completed in less than a day and can be carried out by cruiser or van.

“It was a number of different reasons,” Samson said of the decision to stop overnight transports by sheriff’s staff. It was largely driven by financial and staffing concerns, he said.

The Androscoggin Sheriff’s Department only uses vans for shorter trips because vans burn more fuel and are less comfortable and more difficult to maneuver in traffic, Samson said. A cruiser can accommodate three prisoners in the back seat, where they can be seat belted, unlike the U.S. Prisoner Transport van, which, according to Quinn and the other prisoner, slamming prisoners against each other or walls when the driver braked hard or swerved in traffic.

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— Sun Journal Executive Editor Judith Meyer contributed to this report.

Megan Quinn of Lewiston, now in the Androscoggin County Jail, wipes away a tear as she talks about her five-day trip caged in the back of a private transportation company van in November from Florida to Maine.

Androscoggin County Jail inmate Meghan Quinn demonstrates the position she used in order to stretch out in the small caged area where she was placed in the back of a van during a five-day trip from Florida to Maine.

Megan Quinn, who is now at the Androscoggin County Jail, tells the story of her five-day trip caged in the back of a private transportation company van in November from Florida to Maine. She points to a drawing she made of the small space she inhabited in the van during the trip, handcuffed, shackled and only infrequently allowed to use bathroom facilities.

This picture was drawn by Androscoggin County Jail inmate Meghan Quinn showing the layout of the private prisoner transport van that carried her, David Bowden and other prisoners from Florida to Maine on a five-day trip in November.

David Bowden describes his five-day trip from Florida to Maine in the back of a van owned by U.S. Prisoner Transport. He is now an inmate at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Maine Correctional Center inmate David Bowden sketched the layout of the back of the private prisoner transport van that carried him, Meghan Quinn and other prisoners from Florida to Maine on a five-day trip.

David Bowden talks about the arrangement of prisoners in the van and about what went on inside the van during a five-day trip from Florida to Maine last year. The van is owned by U.S. Prisoner Transport, a national company. He is an inmate at Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Since 2000, “at least 60 prisoner escapes, 50 crashes, 14 alleged instances of sexual assault and 16 deaths (occurred) on these (U.S. Prisoner Transport) vans during that time.”

— The nonprofit Marshall Project

The Sun Journal has never received a response to its records request made to U.S. Prisoner Transport, despite reminders and additional requests sent in February and again most recently on March 14, in violation of Maine and Florida public access laws.

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