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Reducing the risks associated with prisoner transport

The right mix of technology, training, situational awareness and effective oversight can minimize both physical and liability risks


In this Jan. 24, 2013 file photo, a corrections uses a mirror to check the bottom of a transport bus leaving to take prisoners to other locations in the state at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, in Lexington, Okla.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File

By James Careless

Prisoner transport is a duty that many corrections officers dread, and with good reason.

When inmates are taken from their heavily secured cells and put into vehicles heading to other locations (courthouses, hospitals and other prisons), they know that this is their best chance to escape. Many are willing to try, even if it means assaulting or even killing correctional officers and innocent bystanders.

Other inmates may try to “escape” by attempting suicide during transport. Inmates with no bad intent may still cause chaos by falling unexpectedly ill during the ride, with some even dying before officers sitting in a separate cab upfront know there’s a problem.

With all these factors in play, it is impossible to eliminate all the risks associated with prisoner transport. But it is possible to substantially reduce these risks, through the right mix of technology, training and situational awareness.

Use the right tech

To minimize the risks of prisoner transport, each vehicle should be equipped with multiple protected cameras, microphones and speakers inside the containment area. These should be connected to a multi-view monitor, microphone and speaker within the cab so that officers can always watch and communicate with the prisoner(s).

These audio/video feeds should be recorded in the vehicle using a digital video recorder, and, if possible, shared using mobile/satellite transmission technology to dispatch. This will allow managers to “look into” the vehicle as needed; especially if the officers send out a call for protective or medical assistance.

All transport vehicles should always be equipped with GPS tracking and that data be shared wirelessly with dispatch. (An automated external defibrillator and first aid kit should also be onboard.)

Officers should be equipped with cellphones, because radios can run into connection issues. The radios must be tuned to heavily monitored channels, rather than a jail channel that few people pay attention to.

Do not scrimp on equipping vehicles with proper containment and restraint systems, especially if one vehicle is to be used to transport inmates of differing security levels. Maximum security prisoners should be kept in secure one-person enclosures with no access to the rest of the containment area.

Make sure officers are properly trained

Prison transport duty is potentially dangerous work. Therefore, only experienced officers should do it, and why they should be trained fully in all aspects of prisoner handling before doing it themselves.

Training starts with knowing how to use all aspects of the vehicle’s technology, plus how to move prisoners safely in and out of the vehicle.

This should be taught using other officers acting as uncooperative prisoners, so that trainees get a real-life experience of how difficult this task can be. These mock prisoners should do their best to be unhelpful and deceptive during all aspects of the prisoner transport training process, to make trainees fully aware of what they may face on actual assignments.

Since prison transports should always use two officers to ensure safety, newly graduated trainees should be sent out with seasoned transport veterans.

Know what is always happening

Situational awareness is vital to safe prisoner transport.

This awareness starts before a ride takes place, by keeping an ear out to hear which long-term inmates are boasting that, “I’ll be out of here soon!” It also includes knowing every detail of the route and stops along the way; including taking bathroom breaks at police stations and other truly secure locations.

Officers should also have multiple routes available, and only decide which one to take at the last minute to avoid possible deadly ambushes – because a quick check of Google reveals that they do happen. Experts also advise using unmarked vehicles and plainclothes officers to move prisoners; again, to reduce the risk of being ambushed.

Situational awareness also includes assessing each prisoner’s attitude prior to being transported: Are they hostile? Are they scoping out every detail, looking for a chance to make a break whenever they can? Are they just acting “weird,” as if something is up?

Once the transport process begins, the two officers need to be aware of what is always happening; from the second a prisoner enters their custody to the second they hand them off.

This means keeping a close eye and ear on prisoners entering, inside and exiting the vehicle. This also includes knowing the layout of the destination(s) to cut escape attempts short and watching for hostile players who may try to aid the prisoner. (Again, bathrooms are very popular escape points; especially when officers allow the prisoner to go inside unattended.)

Management must play its part

Reducing the physical and legal risks of prisoner transport is very much a management responsibility, because it is management who must provide the funds for the right technology and proper officer training. Management must also ensure that prison transport vehicles are properly maintained, monitored and supported; and that prison transport schedules are handled on a “need to know” basis.

A risky business

By its very nature, prisoner transport is a risky business. Prisoners are being put into less secure settings where they can see freedom close at hand ‒ if only they can find a way to get to it.

In this case, “getting to freedom” means barrelling through prison transport security systems and personnel, which is why correctional facilities in particular, and law enforcement in general, need to take prison transport very seriously.

About the author

James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering law enforcement topics.