Prisoner transports, officer safety & liability issues

Regardless of the purpose, transporting a prisoner can be a potentially dangerous assignment for police or correction officers and adherence to proper safety protocols are obviously critical. While a majority of prisoner transports are accomplished without incident prisoners have escaped killing or injuring an officer, injured themselves or been killed, and harmed or killed innocent citizens. A study of the New York Police Department found that 40% of prisoner escapes happened during a prisoner transport (NY Times, 2002). Further, an analysis of data regarding reported incidents emerging from transporting prisoners from 2002 to 2007 revealed the following (, 2008):

  • On average there were 309 escapes reported annually;
  • Of these escapes, 68% were from a caged vehicle and 84% of the incidents, the prisoner escaped from the back seat of the caged vehicle;
  • About 12% of the prisoners were injured and 3% were killed; and
  • About 12% of the officers were injured and less than 1% of the officers were killed as a result of the incident.

A prison bus approaches a road block leading to the Metro West Detention Center in Miami Monday, April 28,2008 as a wild fire nears the prison and heavy smoke hangs overhead. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)

These figures are sobering and should provide pause to remind officers and supervisors that transporting a prisoner can pose a risk of harm to the officer and the prisoner. Hence, following safety guidelines, policy, and training are critical for performing this assignment without incident.

While training in safe methods for performing a transport is important and regular training in transportation procedures in maximizing officer safety should be ongoing, it is also important for offices and supervisors to be cognizant of the liability issues which emerge from transporting prisoners.

Liability concerns on the topic are rarely discussed  despite the potential of a lawsuit being filed regarding some aspect of transporting a prisoner, for instance, a civil lawsuit could be filed by a prisoner claiming an injury sustained during the transport.

An estate of a deceased prisoner may file a lawsuit against the department for the wrongful death of a prisoner during transport, or a lawsuit may be filed by a citizen who was harmed or killed due to a prisoner escape during the transport. Some federal courts have held that the transporting department is liable a prisoner's behavior during an escape from a transport or incurring an injury sustained during the transport.

Like an elephant in the room, liability issues are seldom discussed despite their potential to escalate into a lawsuit. Today, I'll walk you through aspects of prisoner transport that are vulnerable to liability -- so that your department can be in the best defensible position.

Potential liability & prisoner transport

Police and corrections officers perform prisoner transport thousands of times daily across the nation for a variety of purposes. As previously mentioned, a majority of these transports occur without incident, but due to the unpredictable nature of the transport, anything may occur and officers and supervisors should be prepared to reduce the risks when performing the duty. The old adage that desperate people will do desperate things applies to a case that I worked on two years ago and provides an instructive example.

The following account was taken from the transcripts of an interview that the arrestee provided to a psychiatrist prior to his trial:

An arrested murderer was being transported to the county jail by two deputies. The prisoner was handcuffed with both hands secured in the front position; he was placed in the back seat of the patrol car. There was a plastic partition separating the front and back seats. During transport, the prisoner reported, he worked up the nerve to try and kill himself by causing the patrol car to crash — a drastic measure taken to avoid being sentenced to life in prison.

(AP Photo/Thomas Babb)

He knew the officers wouldn't be injured because they were belted, and air bags would deploy.

Claiming that he was cold, the prisoner asked the deputy to open the sliding partition so more heat could get to the back. One of the deputies obliged. As the patrol car proceeded around a curve, the prisoner shoved himself through the opening of the partition, grabbed the steering wheel and turned it forcefully, hoping to land the vehicle in a ditch.

He later said he wanted to be projected through the windshield, hoping it would kill him.

But this is not what happened.

The deputy who was driving got the car under control and brought it safely to a stop on the shoulder of the roadway. A fight ensued between the two deputies and the prisoner, and he was finally subdued with pepper spray. Backup officers responded and the prisoner was transported to the jail, where he's serving that the life sentence he went to such extraordinary measures to avoid.  He also failed to prevail on a civil claim that the officers used excessive force in stopping his suicide.

This case provides an example of the mindset of many criminals and should remind officers to follow standard handcuffing procedures, adequately monitor the prisoner, and be prepared for the unexpected. Simple requests can turn ugly quickly.

Mini-risk management

Performing a mini-risk management assessment of the components involved in performing a prisoner transport can yield a number of general topics and can assist in identifying the risks associated with performing the task.

Consider the following major items involved in virtually every prisoner transport: selection and preparation of the vehicle; possible vehicle accidents; securing and placement of the prisoner in the vehicle; acquiring prisoner information; transporting special needs prisoners; gender of the prisoner; restraint equipment used; searching the prisoner; the number of prisoners to transport; nature of the transportation; distance and route of the transportation; medical purposes of the transportation; using commercial aircraft; officer weapons involved; number of officers required for the transport; and communications required during the transport.

While not exhaustive, these components can emerge as potential topics in which civil liability may result. Along with other components they should at a minimum be used to design policy guidelines, to provide training, and to review case decisions to learn how the courts examine prisoner allegations.

What case law tells us

A review of the relevant civil case law regarding prisoner transport reveals a number of judicial decisions regarding the above cited areas. Among these areas of potential civil liability, the use or misuse of restraints, the failure to utilize seatbelts, and transporting prisoners for medical purposes emerge as among the more common topics in which litigation is filed. Due to the page limitations for this article only a few cases will be discussed.

A prisoner may file a civil lawsuit under Section 1983 for alleged violations of their constitutional rights and the legal argument applied in the lawsuit is determined by the status of the prisoner. For example, an arrested person injured during a transport after an arrest by a law enforcement officer may claim a Fourth Amendment right violation for the misuse of restraints, excessive use of force, and a failure to provide medical care under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Prisoners detained in a jail and injured during a transport from the jail to court or a medical care facility (or other destinations) generally allege a Fourteenth Amendment violation, while some federal courts have allowed jail prisoners to file a claim under the Eighth Amendment.  

Convicted prisoners, however, may file a lawsuit regarding a transport issue consistent with the Eighth Amendment, due to their convicted status. Typically the prisoner will also claim that administrators failed to train, failed to supervise the transporting officer (s), and failed to direct officers through policies and/or the department implemented constitutional deficient policies.

What about seatbelts?

Many transportation policies direct officers to use the vehicle seatbelt when transporting a prisoner. A common complaint raised in a prisoner transport lawsuit emerges when a prisoner is injured and an officer failed to secure him with a seatbelt. In Brown v. Missouri Dept. of Corrections (8th Cir. 2004) a state prisoner was allegedly injured from an accident while en route to a correctional facility.

He claimed that the officers were liable for denying post-accident care and for providing inadequate medical care. He also claimed that the officers refused to seatbelt him into the vehicle and argued that his injuries were sustained due to a failure to be seat belted. The appellate court overturned the lower court's decision, holding that the prisoner stated a valid Section 1983 claim. The court ruled that the prisoner’s claims aligned with the deliberate indifference standard commenting that he had a right to safety and to medical care.

Compare however, the court's decision in Carrasquillo v. City of New York (S.D.N.Y. 2004).

A city prisoner brought a Section 1983 action against the City after he was injured in a bus accident while being transported to court. The prisoner claimed that he sustained injury as the officers failed to provide him a seat belt in the transport bus while he was secured in handcuffs. The prisoner claimed that he could hardly support himself and that he was denied adequate treatment.

The court dismissed the prisoner's complaint holding that the city did not violate the prisoner’s constitutional rights by failing to provide him with a seatbelt while transporting him in handcuffs.  Further, in Spencer v. Knapheide Truck Equipment Company (8th Cir. 1999) a pretrial detainee who had suffered injuries rendering him quadriplegic after he was placed with handcuffs behind his back in police transport vehicle, and was thrown forward into the bulkhead of the passenger compartment, brought a Section 1983 action against city officials.

The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the officers, stating that neither the purchase of vehicles without safety restraints, nor the manner of transporting arrestees in the vehicles, showed deliberate indifference to the rights of the pretrial detainee.

Modified restraints

Generally restraint equipment used by officers in a prisoner transport include: handcuffs; cuffs with waist chains and the blackbox; leg restraints; leg straps; flex-cuffs; and in some cases leg braces. The courts recognize the need, the practice and the policy of using varying types of restraints when controlling and transporting prisoners to ensure the safety of the officer and the prisoner.

For example, in Thielman v. Leean (7th Cir. 2002) a state prisoner brought a Section 1983 action seeking injunctive relief, alleging that the department's policy on transporting prisoners in full restraints violated his due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The prisoner was classified as a sexually violent offender and complained that the policy discriminated against him, as mentally ill prisoners were not transported in full restraints when being transported from the facility.

The prisoner had a medical problem requiring him to be transported outside of the facility for treatment three times a month. The appeals court affirmed the lower courts decision by holding that a policy stipulating that prisoners will be secured in full and double-locked restraints, waist-belt chain restraints with attached handcuffs, security Blackbox, and leg restraints, did not violate the prisoner's rights to equal protection. 

But when an officer misuses restraints, liability will more likely be incurred.

In Mladek v. Day (M.D. GA, 2003) an arrestee brought a Section 1983 action against county officials alleging they violated his Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they used excessive force during and after his arrest, during transport to the jail and denied him medical care. The court determined that arrestee stated a valid claim finding that a deputy violently handcuffed the arrestee with no justification and such caused physical injury to the arrestee in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.


This brief review provides a reminder that officers must stay diligent to their safety when performing the frequent task of transporting a prisoner. The statistics discussed at the beginning are reminders that a major problem associated with the transportation of prisoners is the potential for escape and that officer and prisoners may sustain an injury. The case example also provides a teaching point that officers need to be prepared for the unexpected during a prisoner transport and provides insight into the criminal mindset. The incident could be used as case study at a briefing or in a training setting to discuss the hazards that may be experienced in transporting prisoners.

Further, the case decisions presented also provide illustrations that prisoners have filed legal actions stemming from transportation incidents and that seatbelts and the use of restraints are common areas where lawsuits are focused. This should direct officers in ensuring that transportation guidelines are followed and that all restraint equipment is appropriately applied.

Like other job assignments, conducting a periodic risk assessment of the varying dimensions of performing prisoner transports in recommended. Breaking all of the tasks down to their lowest form is suggested so that all components of the task are identified to allow for a complete assessment. Once the components are identified, a thorough and detailed policy can be developed or revised that incorporates each component. Performing such an assessment and providing a detailed policy can assist in ensuring officers are properly directed in the performance of the assignment by department administrators.

Training of all officers should follow after the policy is developed. All components of the policy should be addressed in training. Officers should strive to enhance their own safety by adhering to policy guidelines and their training. Finally proper implementation of the policy and training should be addressed in the field by supervisors to ensure officers are following the training adequately. Following these few recommendations can place the department in a more defensible position should a prisoner file a lawsuit resulting from a prisoner transport.

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