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Man shackled for days in prisoner transport van files suit

Associated Press logoAssociated Press 4/24/2018 By MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press

Harris County Jail, Houston, Texas © 2018 Microsoft Harris County Jail, Houston, Texas McLEAN, Va. — Edward Kovari's 18-day ordeal began Sept. 12, 2016, when some guys in a van showed up to take him from a jail in Virginia to Texas, where he was wanted on charges that he had stolen a car.

As it turned out, the car was not stolen and all the charges against Kovari were later dismissed. But the trip from Winchester, Virginia, to Houston took the better part of a month. The private company that contracted with the jail to transport Kovari kept him shackled in the back of that van during the weekslong ride as it wound through the country picking up inmates in an effort at cost efficiency.

On Tuesday, Kovari, 39, sued the private company that transferred him, Nashville-based Prisoner Transportation Services, in federal court in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The company bills itself as the nation's largest prisoner extradition company. It did not respond Tuesday to messages seeking comment.

The lawsuit, filed by civil rights lawyers Jia Cobb, Glenn Schlactus and Orly May, alleges Prisoner Transportation Services prioritizes "transporting as many detainees, with as few stops for rest or care, as possible over their obligation to safely transport those in their custody."

In Kovari's case, that meant 18 days, most of which he spent in shackles. On only two or three nights did the van actually stop at a jail where prisoners were allowed to get out and spend the night in a bed.

Kovari was not permitted to take his medication and asked to be taken to the hospital on a daily basis, according to the lawsuit. But the drivers responded that that any stop at the hospital would require all the other inmates to wait in the van for as long as Kovari was hospitalized. As a result, according to the suit, the other inmates threatened Kovari if he insisted on a hospital stop.

When Kovari finally made it to the Harris County Jail, his systolic blood pressure — the so-called top number — exceeded 200 and he was admitted to the jail infirmary, where his condition did not stabilize for two days.

Inside the van, no provisions were made for restroom stops, and inmates urinated into bottles which spilled and sloshed on the floor of the van. In one case, a prisoner defecated on the van floor, and in another instance, a prisoner vomited. The lawsuit alleges that nothing was done to clean the mess. "He spent the duration of the transport sitting in human waste and filth," the lawyers wrote.

The van was poorly ventilated with no functioning air conditioning, according to the lawsuit. At one point, according to the suit, the van pulled over on the highway after a flat tire and inmates were left in the back of the van. When police responded to the breakdown, one officer threatened the guards with arrest if they did not let the inmates out for fresh air and an opportunity to relieve themselves.

The van was so crowded — at time with up to 15 passengers — that inmates including Kovari took turns lying on the floor with other inmate's feet on top for the opportunity to sleep.

Kovari's lawyers declined to make him available for an interview.

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a publication focusing on prisoner rights and geared toward inmates, said stories like Kovari's are not uncommon. He said the private prisoner transport industry has been plagued with problems for more than a dozen years, with little effort toward reform. The only federal law governing the issue is designed to protect the public from inmate escapes as opposed to securing inmate safety.

"Dropping people off in a timely manner is not the priority," he said.

The inmates who are most often subjected to these transports are, like Kovari, pretrial detainees who are presumed innocent, Friedmann said.

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