Edward Kovari’s 18-day journey caged in the back of a private prisoner transport van began at a gas station in Winchester, Va., where the waiter had recently moved from Houston.
As Kovari left the station's convenience store, a Virginia police officer checking out-of-state license plates informed him that his 2005 Pontiac sedan had been reported stolen in Houston.
The report turned out to be false, and the resulting charges were ultimately dismissed — but not before Kovari, now 39, was arrested, arraigned on a fugitive warrant and extradited to Houston in September 2016 in what his attorneys describe in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday as a tortuous ordeal.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. district court in western Virginia against three companies — Brevard Extraditions, which conducts business as U.S. Prisoner Transport; Prisoner Transportation Services of America; and its parent company, Prisoner Transportation Services — illustrates the risks posed by the increasing privatization of prisoner extradition, Kovari's lawyers said.
The financial incentive to pick up as many detainees as possible — with few stops for rest, water, food and bathroom breaks — led to unsanitary and unsafe conditions of confinement, in violation of the 14th Amendment, the lawsuit alleges. It also accuses the companies and their corrections officers of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress for denying Kovari needed medical attention.
“The realization that this could happen to potentially anyone is frightening,” said Jia Cobb, one of Kovari’s attorneys. “No one should be treated like this, no matter what they are accused of, even if they are convicted of a crime. It’s against the law.”
Prisoner Transportation Services, the nation's largest for-profit extradition company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Joel Brasfield, the company's president, had denied prior allegations of wrongdoing.
The pattern of abuse and neglect during prisoner transport by for-profit companies has been previously documented by the Marshall Project, but Kovari’s experience has not been reported.
Robert Downs, then chief operating officer of Prisoner Transportation Services, had told the Marshall Project in response to its investigation that guards were instructed to contact local officials when a serious medical emergency arises. “Unless it’s life or death, we can’t open the cage on the vehicle,” Downs said. “We don’t know if they’re setting us up for something.”
Shackled in chains so tight that they left marks on his body, Kovari was crammed in the back of a van with other detainees and deprived of adequate food and water, according to the lawsuit.
Kovari also was denied his daily prescription medication for hypertension and medical care as his blood pressure spiked during the circuitous journey in three vans through seven states over 18 days. It normally takes 20 hours to drive the 1,350 miles between Winchester and Houston.
At some points, as many as 15 people were crammed into the cargo van — exceeding capacity so that Kovari had to lie on the floor with other detainees's feet resting on his stomach, the lawsuit said.
Without regular bathroom stops, Kovari spent the duration of the journey sitting in human waste and filth, both his own and that of other detainees locked in the dark, sweltering cage, according to the lawsuit.
Instead of bathroom breaks, drivers demanded detainees relieve themselves in empty bottles or on themselves, according to the lawsuit. At least one person defecated on the floor of the van and another detainee vomited, but the driver did not stop to clean up the mess, the lawsuit alleged.
Water was rationed, and detainees were occasionally fed fast food. Kovari’s attorney said his client suffered from heartburn and an upset stomach throughout the journey.
Without access to his medication, Kovari began to feel sick after three days on the road. He developed a headache, started to see spots, felt clammy, disoriented and nauseated, the lawsuit said. He pounded on the steel wall to try to get the attention of the corrections officers for medical attention, but repeated requests to be taken to a hospital were ignored, the lawsuit said.
Instead, the officers told him to “shut up or we’re going to taze you,” the lawsuit alleged.
To maximize profits, the companies schedule drivers to pick up as many detainees as requested, without regard for where they ultimately will be dropped off, the lawsuit said. It is common for detainees such as Kovari to be locked in the back of the “mobile jails” for weeks at a time, the lawsuit said.
Occasionally, local jails will house the detainees for a night. Otherwise, detainees, tightly shackled, are locked in steel cages and sit shoulder to shoulder along two metal benches without seat belts or other safety restraints.
Kovari’s head would hit the steel wall in front and behind him whenever the van abruptly swerved. The lawsuit alleged that Kovari was unable to move, walk or stand for up to 12 hours at a time. His legs often went numb, and he was in constant excruciating pain, the lawsuit said. He went days without sleeping.
At one point along the way, the van had a flat tire. Despite the extreme heat, detainees were kept inside the van during the three-hour wait for assistance.
The lawsuit alleges trips like Kovari's can be life-threatening for people with medical conditions because basic medical needs are not met. Prisoner Transportation Services employees are not trained on how to treat detainees with medical conditions, “routinely refuse to provide necessary prescription medications to the individuals who need them, and have even instructed their drivers to ignore individuals’ requests for medical assistance, so as not to put their transports behind schedule,” the lawsuit said.
By the time Kovari arrived in Houston, wet with sweat and vomit, he was unable to walk. His blood pressure, which was measured at the time of his intake at the Harris County Sheriff's Office, was higher than 200, well above normal, his attorney said.
Kovari’s experience was the result of the companies’ customs, policies and practices, the lawsuit alleges. States and municipalities have increasingly outsourced prisoner transport to private companies that say they can provide the service for less money.
At least five people have died on Prisoner Transportation Services vans from alleged medical neglect, according to the Marshall Project, which investigated the industry in a 2016 report published in the New York Times. Two dozen others have been killed or seriously injured in more than 50 crashes involving private extradition vehicles since 2000, the report said.
The Justice Department was already investigating Prisoner Transportation Services for other abuse allegations before Kovari's arrest, according to the Marshall Project. Nevertheless, Kovari's attorney said, the company still subjected him to “overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe conditions of confinement.”