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Federal prisoners are transported via public bus lines

By Budget Travel
October 3, 2012

In the past three years, about 5,000 minimum-security inmates have traveled between prisons on Greyhound and other bus lines.

Only inmates who are near their release date and who are judged to be "a minimum security risk" are sent on commercial buses.

Some bus owners are upset. Bus operators do not accept on their coaches "unguarded prisoners still serving time for their crimes," a spokesperson for their association tells Budget Travel. Greyhound and hundreds of other bus operators did not know about this practice until this spring, the spokesperson adds. The story was broken by investigative reporters with the Dallas/Ft. Worth TV station WFAA.

But it will be difficult for bus drivers do anything about the practice. The inmates are on furlough, and during a furlough an inmate can wear ordinary personal or work-release clothing. In other words, no one would recognize these passengers as prisoners by their dress.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has not changed its practice of buying bus tickets for inmates, despite a letter of complaint from the bus owners' group. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons says that using their staff or any other type of escort would be an unnecessary cost to the taxpayer. The Bureau spends more than $1.5 million a year on bus tickets for inmates from all 114 of its institutions.

It turns out that there are two types of inmates traveling by bus.

The first group is not controversial. These are inmates leaving prison for good, heading to halfway houses (listed here), where they're able to find jobs, attend medical appointments, and sign up for schooling. These inmates have served their allotted jail time. They travel without escorts. The federal government bought bus tickets for about 84,600 of these inmates in the past three years. And America's major bus lines don't mind these passengers. If an inmate has "paid his or her debt to society" and is "deemed rehabilitative," they're welcome to ride, says a spokesperson for the bus owners's association.

A second, smaller group of inmates is controversial, however. Nearly 5,400 inmates in this group have been transferred in recent years from minimum-security prison camps to other minimum-security prison camps. These are minimum risk offenders, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) told Budget Travel. The inmates are non-violent, just as Martha Stewart was when she was jailed. Naturally, the prisons for these minimum-security prisoners don't need perimeter fences or armed guards.

Out of this latter group of prisoners, a few do escape from the buses as they travel between prison camps. For example, between 2003 and 2005, 77 inmates escaped en-route and 19 of them were not immediately taken back into custody, reports the AP. But a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons says these numbers need to be put into perspective. Less than 0.2 percent of inmates fail to report to their intended location. In other words, it's a rare occurrence. When inmates abscond, they run the risk of being re-captured and returned to a higher security institution than they had previously been in.

Note: Maximum-security prisoners are never transported by commercial bus. Those prisoners are always escorted by armed officers from prison to prison, says a Bureau spokeswoman.

Greyhound has asked federal authorities to stop using its buses. Its officials remain concerned and "support[s] the industry's efforts to put a stop to it," a company spokeswoman tells Budget Travel. Greyhound has worked informally with the Bureau of Prisons in the past by escorting completely released prisoners from institutions, but has never had a corporate contract, a Greyhound spokeswoman told Budget Travel. (As noted above, Greyhound isn't only company used to transport prisoners. Other bus companies and taxi services around the U.S. are used, too.)

What do you think about the federal policy of sending inmates via major bus lines along with other passengers?

—David Cumming

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The story was broken this spring by a Dallas/Ft. Worth TV station, WFAA, whose reporters followed one inmate traveling on a bus for 30 hours and 55 minutes.

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