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Leon County Sheriff’s Office ‘reevaluating its relationship’ with private transfer company after airport escape

Published: Sep. 17, 2020 at 10:19 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A day after tense moments at Tallahassee International Airport during a brief inmate escape, a Leon County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson confirmed the agency is reviewing any future use of a private company that bills itself as the largest private inmate transfer service in the country.

According to Deputy Shade McMillan, accused murderer Yuri Harris was being extradited from Missouri Wednesday when he escaped his guards around 2 p.m.

WCTV spoke with a woman who said she was in the terminal as the events unfolded. Two people were at the rental car counter around 2 p.m. when they looked around and started to shout. They ran out the door.

Minutes later, officials came through the area asking employees to get away from their counters. A search was underway.

According to LCSO, a K-9 unit eventually found Harris on airport grounds. He was taken to the Leon County Detention Facility.

Court documents indicate LCSO used a subsidiary of Prison Transportation Services, or PTS of America. According to its website, PTS transports about 30,000 inmates a year for 1,200 agencies. The majority of those transports appear to be through ground transportation.

Under an “alternative transportation” tab on its website, PTS indicates “In cases where it’s safer, more efficient, or more cost-effective to transport prisoners by air, Prisoner Transportation Services partners with commercial airlines to securely move the individuals.”

LCSO confirmed Harris was on a commercial flight, but the agency couldn’t comment on the policies in place to protect passengers and others during the transport process.

WCTV has reached out to PTS multiple times since Wednesday and has yet to receive a comment.

Paul Wright is the founder of Human Rights Defense, a Florida-based prisoner advocacy group. He has studied PTS and other private transfer services.

“This isn’t an isolated incident,” he said, commenting on the Tallahassee escape.

He said while escapes often capture more headlines, more serious allegations have followed PTS.

In 2019, after several members of congress asked for a breakdown of company policy, PTS President Joel Brasfield wrote the company was aware of five inmate deaths while in custody from 2003-2019.

He also wrote “safety and compliance are of utmost importance with us. We are committed to doing things right and being an industry leader.”

It’s unclear how often PTS conducts a transfer through a commercial airline. Wright said it seemed highly unusual for a private company to do so. Private guards are usually unarmed, he said. Typically, armed law enforcement officers would accompany inmates on flights instead.

It’s unclear if the PTS workers were armed, or how Harris was restrained during the journey.

Wright said the private transfer industry is only lightly regulated. “It’s like a wild west type scenario, where no one is supervising these companies or making them meet any kind of standards.”

A federal law from 2000 issues a series of broad guidelines for these companies to follow, although it only includes vague language about air travel. Companies must follow regular FAA guidelines.

Deputy McMillan said LCSO has used this company for years to transport “tens” of inmates. But now an internal review is underway, evaluating ahead of any future transfers.

Copyright 2020 WCTV. All rights reserved.

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