San Diego Union Tribune

September 19, 2005

Prison agency still mum on unescorted transfers

By Joe Cantlupe
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – Federal prisoners continue to ride buses unescorted and the Bureau of Prisons hasn't been forthcoming with an explanation nearly five months after the practice was uncovered.

Greyhound, the bus company that transports the prisoners and wants the program stopped, isn't getting any answers.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., has tried to find out how many prisoners have escaped during these bus trips, but has been unsuccessful in getting information from the Justice Department, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons.

Prison officials say they are in the process of responding to the requests, made shortly after The San Diego Union-Tribune revealed the existence of the program in May.

"DOJ (Department of Justice) has told us repeatedly that there's a formal response working its way through red tape channels, but still nothing," Biden spokesman Chip Unruh said.

Greyhound said it only learned of the program's existence from the Union-Tribune article. Although the prisoners travel only by Greyhound, the company said neither it nor its drivers are alerted when prison officials buy tickets for prisoners.

In two letters to authorities, Greyhound said the prison transfer program is dangerous to the public and that it wants the program stopped.

"We believe this is an important issue that needs to be addressed," said Kim Plaskett, a spokeswoman for Greyhound. "We certainly are not giving up on this issue. We don't know what our next course of action is."

Under the program, initiated by the Bureau of Prisons in 1996, low-risk prisoners are given bus tickets and transferred from one facility to another without guards.

Officials have not said how many prisoners are involved in the program and won't say if others have escaped since the newspaper report. The article disclosed that several federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences had escaped.

Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, described the escapes from unescorted transfers as "very rare."

She said the bureau targets "appropriate inmates" to transfer from a federal correctional facility to a federal prison camp or a halfway house.

"We have completed tens of thousands of these type of transfers for many years, and less than 1 percent have escaped during the unescorted transfer," Billingsley said. "Additionally, the vast majority of these escapes have been recaptured or returned to custody."

In a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Biden referred to the escape of Dwayne Fitzen, a drug dealer who had been in the transfer program, but fled and is now considered "armed and dangerous" by the U.S. Marshals. Biden said in a statement he could not "comprehend the rationale for this program."

Fitzen, a cocaine dealer, was serving a 24-year sentence after his conviction in 1992 of drug charges in Idaho. While serving his term, he was allowed into the voluntary surrender program.

On Sept. 14, 2004, Fitzen was supposed to check himself into California's Lompoc Federal Correctional Institution after his transfer from the Waseca Federal Correctional Institution in Minnesota. Instead, Fitzen – known as the Shadow and Coyote – got off the bus in Las Vegas and escaped, officials said.

The U.S. Marshals said Fitzen is still a fugitive. It is the job of the marshals to find escaped prisoners.

At least four inmates in the last two years have been en route to Lompoc via Greyhound and escaped – and they remain at large, according to the U.S. Marshals office in Los Angeles.

Alvin Lee Lewis, 49, four years into a seven-year sentence for fraud, bailed from a bus from Memphis to Lompoc in April 2003. He previously had a year added to his sentence in 2000 after an escape attempt.

Roberto Cortez, 26, was five years into an 11-year sentence for methamphetamine distribution when he boarded a bus Dec. 15 bound for Lompoc from Yazoo, Miss., and never reported to prison.

Since 1996, when the bus transfer program began, eight San Diego-bound prisoners have escaped and are still considered fugitives, officials said.

Sylvester Jones, assistant director for the U.S Marshals' witness security and prison operations program, acknowledged that probably "more than a couple dozen" inmates escape each year.

Some inmates "decide to take their chances (and escape) – it's a problem," Jones said.

Still, he supports the bus transfers.

"I think the program is and has been a program that is acceptable," Jones said. "It is my position that this is a program that has a larger success versus a failure rate."

Meanwhile, Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, said he will seek a congressional probe into the program that he considers a "problem."

Gallegly, whose district includes Lompoc, said he was unaware of the program until the newspaper story appeared.

"Fitzen walked away, and then the marshals announced he was considered to be armed and dangerous," Gallegly said. "How in the world did (prison officials) allow it to happen from the get go? It's a problem. The program liability appears to outweigh the cost savings."

Gallegly said he will suggest that congressional committees examine the issue. "I don't like to micro-manage federal agencies. But federal safety is at risk here and we have not only the right but the responsibility to provide some oversight."

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