On a good day, the ride is considered attitude adjustment, on a bad one, it leads to injury or even death. Baltimore City prosecutor Janice Bledsoe suggested as much in her closing argument in the trial of William Porter, the first of six Baltimore City police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, when she called Gray's prisoner transport vehicle "a casket on wheels" to a jury that ultimately deadlocked on all counts, causing a mistrial.
Though prosecutors didn't raise the idea of Gray's fatal injury occurring during a "rough ride" in the back of a police van in Officer Porter's trial, they've hinted it will be an issue in the trial of Officer Caesar Goodson — the van's driver — set to begin Monday.
What prosecutors don't say is that there are hundreds of thousands of people sitting in jail who continue to take wild rides to court proceedings in the same type of vehicle in which Freddie Gray's spine was severed. I should know; I was once one of them. But because our nation's justice system is too sprawling and disjointed to collect the numbers, no one — not even the National Center for State Courts — knows how many people go on such rides every weekday.
At least 25 of my almost 100 rides as an inmate at York Correctional Institution convinced me that I was about to die. At least 10 times, when we hit winter-induced potholes, my head hit the truck's low ceiling like the flight attendant who died in the Denzel Washington movie "Flight." The three occasions on which I was allowed to appear by video made me downright giddy to avoid the ride because it meant I wouldn't sustain the mottled purple reminders of the ride on my skin. While being transferred in these vehicles, the slams and bangs on metal partitions while being chain-tethered to as many as six other people (none of them seat-belted) were so bad that I actually dreaded leaving prison. On the day I finished my sentence, I chose to stay later and leave in my family's car rather than split early in a state vehicle.
Prisoner transport poses a danger to more than just the inmate, however. The public is at risk whenever an inmate escapes, and that is most likely to happen when he's moved from point A to point B; transport is the weakest link in the chain of human custody. The State of New York reported an average of 309 escapes from prisoner transport annually from 2002 through 2007. And local schools went into lockdown in Montana in November when a man charged with attempted murder escaped from detention while he was being moved.
Why do we put the public — and the inmates — at risk when there are safer alternatives? Video conference infrastructure exists between courthouses and jails in most states, specifically to avoid the risks and cost of prisoner transport. Why hasn't all prisoner transport been scrapped for the cheaper, safer alternative of video appearance? I've yet to hear a good explanation, but I have some ideas of my own.
Prosecutors' overwhelming ease and success in securing convictions — very few defendants insist on a trial, with the vast majority pleading guilty to the charges against them — depends on weakened adversaries. We transport defendants to court through torturous rides to make them supple for the system.
The connection between the roughness of these rides and the guilty pleas that put an end to them isn't recorded statistically, but it's a part of inmate conversation. During my rides, I heard at least 60 women decide to agree to less than advantageous plea bargain arrangements just to avoid being transported to court again. It's that bad, and it's happening everywhere.
But no one listens to the conversations among the incarcerated, just like no one listened to Gray's request for help.