While at a convenience store in Winchester, Virginia in September 2016, Edward Kovari was arrested by a local police officer who had been checking out-of-state license plates and found an outstanding warrant from Texas accusing Kovari of having stolen the car he was driving.
A waiter in his upper-30’s, Kovari had recently moved from Houston to Washington, D.C.’s western suburbs in Virginia. Held in a Virginia jail, Kovari was soon ordered extradited to Harris County, Texas, to face the car theft charge against him.
So on September 12, a private van operated by Prisoner Transportation Services arrived at Winchester jail, to make the trip to Houston, a distance of about 1,350 miles as the crow flies. The ordeal Kovari says he faced during that trip — which consumed an astonishing 18 days, during most of which he was in leg and arm shackles — led him to bring a federal lawsuit against three related van service companies and its drivers and guards.
Filed in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the lawsuit alleges the trip exposed him to “extreme and inhumane conditions” violating “all standards of decency.” Kovari’s specific charges include negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of his constitutional rights.
Prisoner transport firms typically use cages in the back of poorly ventilated wagon vans, with transportees kept confined in chains. Kovari’s lawsuit claims the passenger cage was overcrowded with as many as 15 occupants, who were forced to take turns lying on the floor, beneath the feet of other riders. To load as many riders as possible, thus maximizing profitability, the vans often take longer, indirect routes or double back to areas they’ve already passed through; that adds to crowding and trip time.
The lawsuit also maintains vans make few regular stops, even for passengers’ bathroom breaks. Instead, Kovari’s lawsuit alleges, guards told riders to urinate into empty bottles, and failed to clean up human waste or vomit, leaving their riders to sit in filth, perhaps for weeks at a time. Only on rare occasions when transportees were put up overnight in a jail did they have a chance to shower, brush their teeth, or sleep in a bunk.
What’s more, Kovari suffers from hypertension, but was not given his medications or any other medical care at any time during the trip, despite his repeated requests. According to the lawsuit, Kovari’s urgent request for medical attention were ignored by the guards and drivers, who threatened to tase him if he persisted, and also told other riders that taking Kovari for medical attention would delay everybody’s ride, leading other riders to threaten Kovari.
When he finally arrived at the Houston jail on September 30, intake records show Kovari had a greatly elevated heartbeat (a systolic reading above 200) and required several days’ hospitalization. This neglect of dangerous, potentially lethal health problems – a 2016 Marshall Project report found five prison van passengers had died en route from untreated medical problems — amounted to violation of his 14th Amendment rights, Kovari’s lawsuit charged.
There was at least one bit of good news for Kovari, however: the Texas auto-theft charge was found to be bogus, and dismissed.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.