Case Files

Moving in Bad Company: The Clandestine and Convoluted World of the Justice Prisoner & Alien Transportation System (Part I)

by Lee Lofland


Nearly all airline passengers who travel with major airlines have likely found it part of their flight itinerary to stopover at their carrier’s hub airport, the center of an airline’s network of standard flight paths.

Most people are familiar with the well-known hub airports and the airlines who use them, such as American Airlines’ hub at Dallas Forth Worth, Delta’s home base at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Inter-national Airport, and Chicago-based United Airlines’ use of O’Hare as its primary hub.

There’s another airline, though, that’s not familiar to the general public, and it, too, uses a hub as its transfer point. This nondescript passenger service is unique in that its fleet of planes and jets are unmarked, and its exclusive security plan is far different than all others. It’s the Justice Prisoner & Alien Transportation System (JPATS), and its air fleet operation is located at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. JPATS also maintains a hub in Las Vegas, with over forty airlift sites across the US and its territories.

The Federal Transfer Center (FTC) at Will Rogers World Airport was built solely to support prisoner transport. JPATS is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, where it’s managed by the United States Marshals Service (USMS).

JPATS is the largest prisoner transport operation in the world and is predominantly used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). JPATS is also available to support military and state law enforcement agencies, if requested.

US marshals and officers from the Federal Bureau of Prisons are responsible for all federal inmate movement across the country. To do so, they utilize a network of vans, buses, cars, and planes, including large passenger aircraft, such as the Boeing 737-400 that’s capable of carrying between 188 and 200 prisoners, along with US marshals who oversee inmate boarding, in-flight security, and deplaning. Smaller aircraft are used to transport especially dangerous inmates who pose serious risks and need to be segregated from other prisoners. In all, JPATS is responsible for more than 260,000 prisoner travels per year, including deportations, extraditions, and transportation of undocumented immigrants.

The Federal Transfer Center is the facility where many federal inmates are housed until they’re assigned to a permanent prison. It’s their starting point. The FTC is also where federal prisoners are temporarily housed while in transit to other prisons and to courts around the country.

Federal prisoners are also transferred from one institution to another for reasons such as housing at federal medical facilities for cancer care and treatment or for management of other serious illnesses, when custody status changes (either up or down), moving the inmate closer to family, drug treatment, and to separate gang members.

The federal inmate’s journey into the prison system, of course, begins with committing a federal crime. Then, if found guilty by the court, they’re either allowed to self-surrender to a specified prison on a particular date and time, bypassing a JPATS journey, as were actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, or they’re immediately taken into custody by US marshals.

Those who are escorted out of courtrooms in handcuffs are typically transported to a federal holding facility or to a county jail whose sheriff contracted with the Marshal Service to temporarily house federal prisoners while awaiting transport to the FTC in Oklahoma City.

County sheriff’s offices and regional jails are paid between three hundred and five hundred dollars per week to hold each federal prisoner. Regional jails are facilities that house prisoners from two or more jurisdictions. Participating areas share construction costs and operational expenses. Some jail contracts call for additional daily funds, sometimes as much as thirty dollars or more to oversee prisoners who need round the clock surveillance, such as inmates who require hospital stays.

Newly incarcerated federal prisoners are often held at those county jails, along with local inmates from nearby communities, until they’re transported to a predesignated prison, or to the FTC in Oklahoma City. Some of the more high-profile federal prisoners once held in a Northern Virginia regional jail include Paul Manafort, NFL star Michael Vick, musician Chris Brown, and Irek Hamidullin, a member of the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-linked group who led an attack on Afghan police and US soldiers in Afghanistan.

The strict confidentiality is to prevent escapes and potential disruption of the transport, or sabotage from outsiders who may desire to harm or kill the inmate. Not even the inmates who are scheduled for transfer are told in advance of the move. Transfer schedules are revealed only to the officials directly involved. Plans are also kept secret from the public and from the prisoner’s family. The potential for serious danger during the transportation of prisoners is very real since federal prisons have housed some of the world’s most notorious criminals, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Mafia boss John Gotti, drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán, Ted Kaczynski (Unabomber), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Boston Marathon bomber), and Zacarias Moussaoui, the member of al-Qaeda who pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill citizens of the United States.

The infamous mobster Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano, the case-hardened underboss of the Genovese crime family under Vincent (The Chin) Gigante, was convicted of extortion and conspiracy as a result of a vast RICO plot. He, like many other federal inmates, was passenger of JPATS, and eventually wound up at the federal prison complex in Butner, North Carolina.

Mangano was ensnared by the FBI during a time when the Reverend Al Sharpton served as a confidential informant known to the FBI as CI-7, short for Confidential Informant No. 7. It was Sharpton’s mission to dig dirt on the Genovese crime family.

Venero Mangano’s trial lasted more than six months. Also tried along with Mangano were seven additional defendants of four organized crime families that included Benedetto Aloi and Peter Gotti, the older brother of John Gotti. Gotti was acquitted.

The jury convicted only three of the defendants, including Mangano and Aloi, and sentenced Mangano to 188 months in federal prison. Aloi was sentenced to 200 months. The judge presiding over the case justified the harsh sentences, upward departures that were more than the typical sentences for the crimes committed, because there was “at least a preponderance of the evidence that defendants Mangano and Aloi were members of a conspiracy to murder witnesses.”

Mangano was old school Mafioso, an important caporegime in the Genovese Crime Family, who was known for his shrewd and subtle proficiency, and for his unwavering loyalty to the Mafia’s “omerta” code of non-cooperation with law enforcement and other government officials. Like the Genovese crime boss Vincent Gigante, Mangano typically spoke with other crime family members in whispers while walking in secluded areas of parks where it would be impossible for FBI agents to listen to their conversations.

An elderly “Benny Eggs” Mangano, a decorated veteran of World War II, served much of his time at the Federal Medical Center in Butner. While at the prison, Mangano was seldom alone. When out on the recreation yard he was typically surrounded by other inmates with Mafia ties, men who waited on him and foot. Their private conversations took place during walks around the outdoor track that circled the yard, away from the ears of officers and other inmates, mirroring Mangano’s walks in Greenwich Village. Mangano was always positioned in the center of the group with members to his rear, front, and sides. It was business as usual for the mob underboss.

While in prison, Mangano survived two cardiac events and three emergency heart operations. Then in 2006, near the end of his period of incarceration, Mangano was transferred to a halfway house in New York. When he completed his sentence and returned to his Greenwich Village home, it’s believed that, while partially blind, he resumed his role as underboss and continued to do so until his death in 2017 at the age of 95.

A few days after Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano left federal prison, on May 13, 2006, JPATS transported al-Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui to the supermax United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, located near Florence, Colorado, a prison that’s considered the most secure of all federal penitentiaries. Due to the level of danger involved in moving Moussaoui, no one outside the officials involved in the transfer was told of the plan to move him.

When transfer day arrives at the county jail, or federal lockup, US marshals and sheriff’s deputies make their way around the unit waking the prisoners as early three a.m. They do so by loudly calling out the names of each of the inmates and, if necessary, to rouse a deep sleeper, officers sometimes bang their metal flashlights or handcuffs against steel bunk frames.

The sleepy inmates are ordered to “roll ’em up,” prison slang for placing ones belongs into the center of their mattress and then rolling up the entire package, making it easier to carry. They’re given a very short time to dress and to address morning bathroom needs, but they are not allowed to shower. The move is quick, and each prisoner is acutely aware that their journey into the federal prison system is now underway.

Once assembled as a group, the cluster of prisoners are then strip-searched and handcuffed with their restraints secured to a chain that loops tightly around the waist. A pair of larger restraints are applied to the prisoner’s ankles. The “leg irons” resemble oversized handcuffs with a slightly longer chain connecting the two cuffs attached to either ankle. The chain between the ankles is long enough to permit walking, but not quite long enough to allow a full stride (the average stride of an adult male is approximately thirty inches). The steel leg irons are notorious for digging into the tender flesh and bone at the ankle, especially when worn for long periods of time, such as a twelve-hour day of moving about the country while in tight quarters.

A team of marshals and deputies herd the inmates into an indoor enclosed area of the lockup where vans sit waiting to transport the horde. As their names are called each prisoner steps forward for a final pat-down search before climbing inside a vehicle. Marshals hand each inmate a paper sack containing breakfast—two cold hardboiled eggs, a slice of not-so-fresh bread, and a juice box. This is probably their last meal of the day, unless they reach the FTC in Oklahoma before dinnertime, which is highly unlikely due to the amount of distance to cover and the number of stops along the way.

Men and women are transported within the same vehicle, which is a van fitted with heavy metal screens covering the side and rear windows. Another steel mesh partition separates the rear compartment from front driver and passenger section. Once the van is loaded to capacity, the doors are closed and padlocked from the outside. Loud talking among the prisoners is not allowed. When the vans are on the way, the silence is broken by the sounds of paper rustling, eggshell-cracking, and lip smacking and chewing as prisoners eat their meager morning meal.

The men and women in the back of the van are a diverse group from all walks of life, ranging from killers covered in head to toe gang tattoos, to clean-cut white-collar criminals. Some are neat and clean in spite of not having a morning shower, while others haven’t bathed or brushed their teeth in days or weeks. The men are unshaved, and both male and female hair, those who have it, is uncombed or unbrushed. The odor of unwashed, sweaty flesh and rancid breath inside the van is nearly palpable. Some of the convicts haven’t seen daylight for weeks.

The road trip often lasts for hours at a time, but there are no bathroom breaks at convenience stores or rest areas. Too dangerous. Inmates will have to wait unless the marshals stop at a county jail along the way, and even then, it’s possible that the stop is only long enough to pick up another prisoner or to drop off one. Sometimes, though, the trips are long and involve several overnight stays at various county jails, sleeping on the floor in cells packed wall to wall with local prisoners, robbers, rapists, thieves, and serial shoplifters, who’re waiting to appear before a judge for the first time.

The journey to federal prison can be a hodgepodge of stopovers after long days of travel, little sleep, and little food, which, when received is often barely edible. Marshals do not share information with the inmates; therefore, they’re kept in the dark about the trips, including their final destinations. But one thing each prisoner knows beyond any shadow of a doubt is that their journey into the federal prison system is now underway.


Copyright © 2020. Lee Lofland

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