The Federal Bureau of Prisons houses approximately 188,000 inmates in over 200 federal prisons, prison camps and private contract prisons. Tens of thousands more are housed in federal custody in jails and detention centers not directly operated by the federal prison system. Federal prisoners are continually transported from one federal prison, detention center, or country jail to another as sentences are handed down, inmates’ security points change, population management issues are dealt with, and programming and medical needs are met.
The constant conveying of such a staggering number of people requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to have the capacity to transfer hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates on a regular basis. The Bureau meets this need by way of a network of buses and airplanes. Every inmate in federal custody is subject to transfer, and many will be transferred during their time in prison.
Preparation for Transport in the Federal Bureau of Prisons
Institutional prison transfer protocols are fairly standardized. Newly convicted inmates who are entering federal prison for the first time generally cannot bring any property with them with the exception of glasses and authorized medical devices. Inmates transferring amongst federal prisons, on the other hand, are called to Receiving & Discharge (R&D) a few days before their transfer and issued green property bags, which they then place their property in and return to R&D. Prison staff handle inspection, inventory, and shipping of this property to the prisoner’s new location.
On the day of transfer, federal inmates are called to R&D, where they are thoroughly strip searched, dressed in either a one-piece jump suit or a white T-shirt and elastic-waist pants, fitted with slip-on blue “bus shoes,” and restrained with handcuffs, a waist chain and ankle shackles. With the exception of prescription eye glasses and necessary medical or dental prosthetics, federal prisoners are not allowed any other property on their person during transport.
Transferring Federal Inmates by Bus
The typical federal prison bus is a tandem-axel, diesel-engine, Greyhound- or Trailsways-type motor coach which has been converted for the safe and secure transport of prisoners at all custody levels. The conversions include a steel, gated screen at the front of the bus to separate the bus driver and an armed prison guard from the prisoners. The lockable gate allows access to the passenger area where two rows of non-adjustable double seats provide nominally comfortable, fixed seating for approximately 40 federal prisoners and detainees. Windows are generally barred or screened on the interior side, but allow mostly for unimpeded views through standard dark-tinted glass. At the rear of the bus is a semi-private toilet which is opposite a cage for a second armed prison guard. Guards on the bus are armed with both lethal and nonlethal weaponry.
On the bus, a wheelchair user and other special needs prisoners are usually placed at the front. Otherwise, seating is most often randomly (and quickly) assigned by the prisoners as they board. This tends to result in a predominantly racially segregated seating arrangement. Male and female prisoners are usually separated. Window seats are preferred, and most federal inmates attempt to not sit too close to the restroom area, if at all possible.
Bus rides may last anywhere from two to 12 hours or more, depending on the destination and the number of stops made along the way to pick-up or drop-off prisoners. Longer trips may last more than one day, in which case federal prisoners being transported are held overnight (or longer) in detention centers or other holdover facilities (often in the segregated housing units of federal prisons).
If prisoners are going to be on the bus for several hours, it is not uncommon for the prison guards on board to ask a lower-custody level inmate to act as a bus orderly. If the prisoner agrees, their restraints are sometimes fully or partially removed so that they can move around the bus more easily. They may be required to retrieve water for fellow inmates from a cooler at the back of the bus if there is no bottled water on board, or to pass out packaged meals at mealtimes, after which they collect the trash.
If no prisoner is asked to be a bus orderly, or if none accept the position, the prison guard at the front of the bus will pass the packaged meals through a slot in the gated screen at mealtimes and the prisoners in turn pass them back from seat to seat until everyone has a meal. If bottled water is not available, prisoners must get up and make their way to the water cooler at the back of the bus when they need a drink. Before leaving their seat for any reason, it is advised that prisoners inform the prison guards of their intent to avoid alarm.
Most trips aboard a federal prison bus are uneventful, but if trouble should arise, inmates should remain seated or move calmly away, if necessary and possible. During such an event, everyone on board is at risk of being sprayed with CS gas, other chemical agents, or even of being fired upon with live or nonlethal ammunition if the situation gets out of hand.
Upon arrival at their final destination, prisoners are escorted off the bus to the facility’s R&D area to await processing into their designated federal prison.
Transferring Federal Prisoners by Airplane
The Federal Bureau of Prisons utilizes a fleet of aircraft to transport federal prisoners around the country. Most are slightly modified, small- to medium-sized jetliners of assorted configurations capable of carrying between 50 and 100 inmate passengers. Modifications to the aircraft tend to be simple, and include the removal or rearrangement of some seats to accommodate a combination of Federal Bureau of Prisons staff, federal air marshals, and contract employees capable of ensuring the safe and secure transport of federal prisoners of all custody levels. Though some of the planes may have the appearance of being well-used, all are well-maintained and have a good safety record.
Federal prisoners being transported by plane normally arrive at the airport by bus or van. Upon arrival, inmates are sometimes subjected to lengthy waits on the tarmac regardless of weather conditions. Eventually, they are individually inspected by prison airlift staff before boarding. This preflight inspection includes an examination of the prisoner’s restraint and any accessories, such as prescription eye glasses or any necessary prosthetics they may be wearing, and verification of identification.
Prisoners disembarking from Federal Transfer Center Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, are boarded directly onto the plane through a retractable jetway attached to the Federal Transfer Center building. At other locations, federal inmates tend to climb a mobile stairway to enter the plane.
On the plane, a wheelchair user and special needs inmates are typically placed at the front. Any female prisoners on board will also be placed at the front of the plane with airlift staff between them and the male prisoners. Otherwise, seating is directed by the prison staff on board the plane, with the end result generally being a predominantly racially segregated seating arrangement, even though this is certainly not a policy-based decision.
Flights tend to last several hours, depending on the destination. Federal prisoners have their seatbelts secured for the duration of the flight. Bottled water is typically made available and packaged meals are usually handed out by prison airlift staff during mealtimes. An in-flight bathroom break is usually called, otherwise prisoners can be escorted to the bathroom by prison airline staff upon request.
Unruly or combative prisoners are dealt with swiftly and severely, though there is usually not a significant risk of injury to those not involved, as the staff on board the plane travel amongst the prisoners and are therefore able to target the problem prisoner or prisoners more effectively. This is often not the case on buses, where prison guards tend to just spray CS gas into the prisoner compartment when issues arise. Control of the airplane is always the top priority.
Upon arrival at its destination, the plane is usually taxied to a remote part of the airport where prisoners are off-loaded and boarded onto buses once again for transport to a federal prison or detention center.
If the plane’s destination is FTC Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, it will either taxi up to the FTC building located near the airport and offloads prisoners directly into the building through a retractable jetway, or some prisoners may be off-loaded onto the tarmac and boarded onto buses or vans for transport to a separate detention facility or federal prison.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.