It's rare that MCI sales people get to interact with the paying passengers who ultimately ride the vehicles they sell. It's more unusual when they are non-paying passengers — those who owe debts to society and ride aboard MCI's Inmate Security Transportation Vehicles, or ISTVs.
Tom Wagner, MCI director of specialty markets, has gotten closer than most to the detainees who ride with MCI via various correctional institutions. Most recently, he did a ride-along with a sheriff's agency in California. He says it was definitely an "interesting" experience.
Says Wagner, "I wasn't really expecting it. I showed up, and they asked if I wanted to go for a ride. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' They were picking up inmates, mostly drug offenders, from one jail and transferring them to another. I just had to stand there and look tough. I ended up sitting in one of the officer seats on the vehicle. The inmates weren't hardened criminals, and the trip was thankfully non-eventful, but I have nothing but respect for the officers and all the planning that goes into an inmate movement."
Wagner says that inmate movements typically take a lot of advance work. Prison personnel must decide which inmates must be segregated from others, based on factors including gender, age, classification and gang affiliation. Inmates are usually brought aboard the ISTVs in shackles, with belly chains, handcuffs and sometimes leg irons as well. ISTVs can be configured in a variety of ways, and many include individual cells. Those, quips Wagner, are for inmates who "don't play well with others."
After much experience with the ISTV market, Wagner is well versed in the ways of penitentiaries. "I've been in and out of more prisons than I ever thought I'd have to. It's very sobering when you enter, knowing you're out of control of your destiny — you're inside the system, if only professionally. You have to be very cognizant about the articles you carry with you — you can't have pens, cell phones or even wear a tie. Anything can be a weapon, and you come across some very bad dudes. You can see why we build the ISTVs the way we do."
Dan Besserer, director of fleet support for MCI's public sector market, recently went on a U.S. Marshals ride-along — though he was fortunate enough to go in his own car. "The warden wanted me to come along to make sure an issue had been taken care of," says Besserer. The trip went from Oklahoma City, to New Mexico, and then to Tucson, with about 80 inmates. In all, it was a caravan of two coaches, two vans and a trailer.
In a bit of coincidence, Besserer showed up in a pair of black pants and a teal golf shirt — which happened to be nearly identical, in color and style, to the prison officials' official uniforms. He was signed onto the work detail as a mechanic and offered the task of handing out water bottles to the shackled inmates as they boarded.
“The prisoners were like you see on 'Locked Up' and other shows on television — guys with tattoos on their heads," says Besserer. "I tried not to make eye contact. But it was quiet and peaceful, and it all went without incident."
Besserer says the unmarked coach itself was so plain on the outside, it's unlikely that any motorists on the highway even knew they were alongside an ISTV. "It sort of looked like a band bus," says Besserer. The most surreal moment perhaps was when the whole caravan pulled into a Burger King so staff could take a break and get a bite to eat (inmates were fed prison food and kept on the buses). "It was nighttime, and the two coaches pulled around the back so no one in the restaurant would know who we were."
Like Wagner, Besserer came away from his trip with a renewed appreciation for the work that goes into moving prisoners and detainees. "I got to meet some really good correctional officers," says Besserer.
Still, he says, he was glad when it was over. Says Besserer, "It was an eye-opening experience, and I was happy to not ride in the ISTV coach. When you're dealing with inmates, you are not there to bring joy."
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