As of Dec. 2014, state and federal correctional authorities in the U.S. housed more than 1.5 million inmates. Between arrest and housing, housing and court, every prisoner has to be moved. With that many inmates, the chance that the transport officer will miss something—a nervous movement, a loose restraint, a paper clip— increases exponentially.
Transporting prisoners should never be an ordinary event. Searching and securing someone improperly can have life- and career-altering consequences. The news media will scrutinize every aspect of any security lapse, causing embarrassment and putting great pressure on your agency.
Even with attentive officers and sound policies and procedures in place, vulnerabilities will always exist and will be exploited by the predatory thinking of someone in custody.
In academy classes, we all learned how to search the prisoner’s clothing, trying to find that cuff key or weapon. Missing that item not only would fail you in class but—as all of our instructors drilled into our heads—could end up killing you or, worse, your partner. In the academy, however, we had time and the safety of a controlled, classroom environment. It is vastly different in the jails, courthouses, and hospitals, where we may have a split moment to react to real-life situations.
All prisoners in transport, no matter their crimes, are a risk of escape and should be treated as such. Your operational planning and preparedness, threat assessment on the prisoner(s), and situational awareness are not just important to a safe transport, they are keys to your survival.
The benefits of videoconferencing
Of course, the safest practice is to avoid transport in the first place. Many jurisdictions offer an excellent way to eliminate risk to deputies and the public via videoconferencing for courtroom appearances. “Transportation of offenders to and from detention settings to courtrooms includes certain risks for staff, court officials, and other inmates. By minimizing the exposure to other populations, potential safety issues can remain contained within the detention setting, allowing greater control and security of jail staff over inmates,” says ICF International’s 2015 study, “Research on Videoconferencing Post-Arraignment Release Hearings.”
While this video technology comes with a cost that some counties may not be able to afford, it is worth investigating, as cost savings can be accrued over time by removing work hours, transportation, and vehicle costs.
Don’t trust someone else’s search
When an inmate must be moved from one place to another, deputy survival mindset and situational awareness are cornerstone components to safe transporting. When possible, request support and have another officer watch over or check your search, especially when restraining multiple prisoners. Numerous high-risk movement restraints, other than run-of-the-mill handcuffs and leg irons, can be used to enhance your security posture. Check your agency policy and legal department for what is allowable in your jurisdiction.
If an inmate is transferred to your custody, it is always prudent to verify another entity’s search. Contract transport officers’ policies on search and restraints, and perhaps fitness and health standards, may differ and should be duly noted by your agency and transport team. Perform your own search.
Red flags should always go up when transporting an inmate to a hospital or doctor’s office. Unless a deputy properly secures the location in advance, these appointments favor the prisoner. At a minimum, two deputies should be used, with one always maintaining visual contact of the prisoner. The deputy’s mindset is critical here and should always be that this is an escape attempt waiting to happen. Inmates have been known to fake injuries and to notify friends of the appointment. Compounding this risky environment are doctors and staff who want restraints removed or loosened to give proper medical treatment. Never allow the inmate or doctor to dictate security measures. Bring additional restraints to secure the inmate some other way in case you have to remove a restraint.
High-profile transports require detailed planning
High-risk and high-profile transports, much like those of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, offer unique challenges in transport due to intense media coverage. Public crowdsourcing of data and video of the transport was immediately posted to internet sites in real time, and media helicopters also covered the transport from pick-up to drop-off points. This type of coverage creates a clear and present danger to officer and prisoner safety, as well as the general public. To counter this real-time threat, the transport team needs intelligence. Operational plans, route analysis, threat analysis, decoy transport, counter-surveillance, and surveillance detection all may play a part in your team’s safe and secure transport.
It’s human nature to fight being caged, and given an opportunity, an inmate’s primal response to fight or flee will take over. Prepare and be vigilant, and you will enhance your safety.
John F. Muffler is a retired chief inspector for the U.S. Marshals Service. He now is director of direct client services for Gavin de Becker and Associates, a global threat assessment, protection and security company.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Sheriff & Deputy magazine and is reprinted with the permission of the National Sheriffs’ Association.