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.

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. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

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.

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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.

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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.

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. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

. . .

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.

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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.

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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.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“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.

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. Andre Kehn/Sun Journal

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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?'”

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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.

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“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.

[email protected]


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