Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series that will take a close look at America’s prisoner transport industry.
His hands and feet shackled, Frank Saputo was sweating like a pig. The sun beat down on him and the other inmates as they sat captive in the back of a Dodge Durango, its windows rolled up.
“Sweat literally was pouring out of our faces,” Saputo, 29, said Thursday, a week removed from the worst week of his life. “It was like 90 degrees. It was torture. We were starving. Chained up.”
It only had been 48 hours into his long, strange journey from San Diego to Aspen that spanned eight days and covered six states. Saputo was being extradited to Aspen where he faces felony charges for allegedly passing counterfeit $100s with two of his friends in August. He claims he is innocent.
Saputo also claims that the private prisoner transport company, California-based Court Services Inc. (CSI), repeatedly violated his rights along the way. He says he was deprived of food, sleep and shelter. When Saputo and the others asked to use the restroom, he said they didn’t get that, either.
“The driver would always say it’s the next rest area and then he’d breeze right by it. It was nothing but lies,” he said. “When it came to getting food, he said he wasn’t responsible for providing it to us. By day two or three, I became numb. I stopped feeling. Everyone just became quiet.”
The silence erupted into screams when Saputo alleges the driver veered off the road in the desert somewhere outside of Phoenix.
“He told us he hadn’t been home in a month. He was tired. His eyes would be rolling in the back of his head. We’d scream for him to wake up. I stayed awake for days, out of fear for my life,” Saputo said.
Sheriff to pick up protest tab
The prisoner transport service never delivered Saputo to Aspen.
The closest Court Services Inc. could get was the other side of Independence Pass, where the driver slid the Ford Taurus they were in off the road and into newly fallen snow. One of the CSI officers injured himself and received medical treatment; a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy had to drive over the pass to fetch Saputo to bring him here.
When he arrived, Saputo found that his mother and sister had taken up his cause, picketing in front of the Pitkin County Courthouse, demanding to know why it had taken so long to deliver Saputo to Colorado. They blamed the Pitkin County Jail for hiring CSI.
Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis invited the ladies into his office and talked them down. He assigned an investigator to look into the extradition. The probe isn’t over, but the sheriff learned enough to decide he isn’t paying CSI the $800 delivery fee it charged.
“You don’t pay for something if it doesn’t work,” Braudis said.
He has vowed to never contract with CSI again.
Undersheriff Joe DiSalvo said he and Braudis are going to reimburse Saputo’s mother and sister for their trip out here. In other words, the sheriff's office is bankrolling the protest of its own jail.
“We’re going to pay for their expenses out here,” said DiSalvo, estimating the cost at around $1,300. “They should be compensated for bringing something that’s really important to us — a human rights issue — to our attention. If they hadn’t picketed, we probably would’ve kept using that service.”
‘It’s not like they went off a cliff’
Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 330 pounds, Saputo is a big guy. So you can imagine his and the other prisoners’ discomfort in squeezing in like sardines.
“At one point in the Durango they overloaded it with six in the back, which forced one person to lay across my lap,” he said. “We were told it would only be a short stop to the other jail — it took us eight and a half hours before we got that guy off our lap.”
They later ditched the Durango for the Ford Taurus that never made it over Independence Pass. Saputo said CSI packed five occupants into that sedan.
Erik Kindley, owner and operator of CSI, denied that his company did anything wrong in Saputo’s transport.
“I am aware that there was an inmate that alleges some allegations of mistreatment. We are still investigating the allegation but we are finding information that substantially corroborates that he was provided for and cared for in a humanitarian way,” Kindley said.
“I believe the inmate in question is grossly exaggerating,” he continued. “Mr. Saputo made some allegations that I think are largely based on his desire to complain loudly enough that maybe his charges will be dropped or persuaded. I’m not a judge, I’m not the jury, but I know our people are not mistreating people and they are not withholding food or sleep.”
Kindley said he had not heard the sheriff isn’t planning to pay him.
“I don’t really have a response at this point. What can you do? A certain level of transportation was provided. [Toward the end of] the transport, an accident happened. It’s not like they went off a cliff.”
Problems plague industry
Asked on three separate occasions during a lengthy interview Wednesday, Kindley said CSI has never before been accused of depriving prisoners of food, sleep or shelter.
But court records show Kindley was sued last year in Texas for some of the very same complaints Saputo has made. The status of the lawsuit is unclear. It was filed by an inmate in jail that has since been released. Kindley said he didn’t recognize the plaintiff’s name or know about the lawsuit.
His former director of operations, Heather Sheridan, and an ex-employee, Donnie Wilson, contacted the Aspen Daily News, separately, to claim CSI has a long history of transgressions that includes prisoner abuse and officers walking out on the job, frustrated, and often unpaid.
“I believe that gentleman’s story that he got deprived of using the restroom and they didn’t let him eat,” said Wilson, detailing how when he was a CSI officer, Kindley allegedly didn’t provide him with enough money to feed passengers, properly house them in jails, and pay for hotels so drivers could get proper rest.
“Eric’s dangerous,” added Sheridan. “We used to have murderers on board with 13, 14 inmates in a van. I had an agent turn 21 years old on the road with me [federal law requires prisoner transport officers be at least 21 years of age]. Another one was 18. And I had another agent driving with a revoked license.”
Kindley denies the allegations.
But the complaints aren’t limited to CSI. Research shows accident reports across the nation are chock full of prisoner transports gone bad, some ending in escape and death.
Regulations for the industry exist but it is unclear who, if anyone, is monitoring them. Experts say there are actually more laws protecting the transport of animals across state lines than prisoners.
Ironic considering Saputo had been sweating like a pig. Had he actually been one, he might have felt he'd been treated better.
For more on this story and the prisoner transport industry, check out Monday’s edition.