TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The escape of eight inmates from an unattended van in Oklahoma highlights problems with private prison transport companies that don't face the same scrutiny as state corrections systems, officials said Wednesday.
If the transport van belonged to the state's prison system, the offenders would never have been left unattended, Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie told The Associated Press. "It's DOC policy: You don't leave them out of your sight," Massie said in an interview Wednesday.
State corrections policy also maintains that during any transport, "all offenders will be considered high risk" and the transporting officer "will not stop the vehicle for any unnecessary purpose." "I'm just glad they weren't our prisoners," Massie said.
The inmates escaped Tuesday after guards employed by Prisoner Transportation Services of Nashville, Tenn., had stopped in Weatherford to deliver one or two sick inmates to a hospital. Guards left the inmates alone in the van, with the keys inside and the motor running so the inmates could enjoy the air-conditioning, the Weatherford Daily News reported Wednesday. Two prisoners kicked out a partition and moved into the front of the van.
According to the newspaper, one of the guards stepped outside the hospital and noticed the van was gone, then asked people in the emergency room whether anyone had moved it. After he explained there were inmates still inside, the hospital workers called police, the newspaper reported.
Schools were locked down temporarily as police searched the city for two inmates in street clothes — one in a camouflage shirt and the other wearing a T-shirt depicting a teddy bear. The inmates were from jails in the western and northern United States and were being transported among agencies in the same regions of the country. They faced charges ranging from nonpayment of child support to sex offenses, local police said.
Weatherford is about an hour west of Oklahoma City on Interstate 40. All eight prisoners were back in police custody by late Tuesday and are being held in the Weatherford city jail until the Nashville company sends a replacement van to pick them up, Assistant Police Louis Flowers said Wednesday.
"I'm not going to comment on the policies of a private company," Flowers said Wednesday. "Our policy in our department wouldn't leave a prisoner in a van by himself or a transport van like that." Thor Catalogne, an owner of the transport company, declined comment Wednesday on his company's policies.
Police said the van traveled about a mile before stopping. Two inmates ran away while the other six stayed nearby. Officers recovered a 12-gauge shotgun that had been inside the vehicle. No injuries were reported.
Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford was locked down for about two hours while police searched for the two inmates who ran away. The pair, Lester Burns and Michael Coleman, were taken into custody in Weatherford. Coleman, who was wearing the teddy bear shirt, was being held for assault and Burns for failure to pay child support, police said.
Critics of private prison transportation companies have complained that they are poorly regulated. "This is an example of what happens when we privatize functions that belonged to the government," said Richard Allen Smith, a spokesman for In The Public Interest, a Washington-based research and policy nonprofit that studies the effects privatization has on communities. "We lose two things: transparency and accountability.
"We've seen this in many sectors, specifically with the prison system, when we contract and outsource public services," he said in an interview Wednesday.