PHILADELPHIA - A private prison transportation company lost an attempted-murder suspect somewhere between Florida and Pennsylvania, leading to a search for the cuffed and shackled inmate and drawing complaints that such companies are poorly regulated.
The discovery Thursday was at least the second escape in six months involving an inmate being moved by Prisoner Transportation Services of America LLC. Still, industry critics said the major issue is not escapes, but mistreatment of inmates and poor traveling conditions.
Authorities searched for the suspect who escaped late Wednesday or early Thursday while en route from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sylvester Mitchell, 33, was being extradited to face attempted murder charges in Philadelphia, where he once lived. He was gone when the van arrived at 3 a.m. Thursday at a police station.
Authorities said it was unclear how or where Mitchell escaped. Other inmates and guards said they don't remember seeing him after the van's previous stop in Annapolis, Md.
Prisoner Transportation Services, based in Nashville, Tenn., says it is the largest U.S. firm of its type, moving more than 100,000 inmates nationwide each year. The company states on its Web site that its agents are highly trained and "most have military and/or criminal justice backgrounds."
A spokesman for Prisoner Transportation Services, who declined to identify himself before hanging up, said Thursday that the company had no comment.
A shackled inmate escaped in September at Philadelphia International Airport while in the custody of a Prisoner Transportation Services guard and was captured a week later in Elkton, Md.
Taariq Ali, 43, formerly of Wilmington, Del., was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and a weapons charge. He was transferred in 1995 to California and was being returned to Delaware when he escaped Sept. 12.
The Delaware Department of Corrections said at the time that Prisoner Transportation Services did not notify state officials until two days later. The state uses private contractors because it is not authorized to move prisoners across state lines.
Corrections spokesman John Painter said Thursday that the department is "no longer involved with Prisoner Transportation Services" but declined to say whether it was using a new contractor or had transferred any prisoners since the September escape.
Though prisoner mistreatment appears to be more commonplace than escapes in transit, the lack of oversight and regulation of the industry makes it difficult to determine how widespread problems are, said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington.
Because they are privately owned, prison transportation companies are not required to release data on escapes, accidents and numbers of inmates they transfer. It's also unclear exactly how many such companies exist, because many are "thinly staffed, fly-by-night operations" that quickly close up shop when they're sued, Winter said.
"One thing that's clear is that the goal with all these companies is to pick up as many bodies along the way as they can to squeeze out the most profits," she said. "We've had many reports of prisoners being taken on weeks-long odysseys and not getting food, water or medical attention."
A phone message left for a spokesman of the Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations, an industry group, was not immediately returned.