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Lawsuit against prisoner transport company alleges horrific conditions

A routine prisoner transport from Maryland to South Carolina turned into a nine-day ordeal in which detainees experienced dangerous and disgusting conditions, according to a lawsuit pending in federal court.

A federal judge ruled last week that claims against the private prisoner transport companies and an officer who drove the van can proceed, handing a victory to the plaintiff, William Karn.

“Plaintiff attests that he endured a disturbing and dehumanizing experience in the custody of Defendants, which he supports with affidavits from fellow passengers on the van,” U.S. District Judge George Hazel wrote.

Hazel denied motions for summary judgment brought by Prisoner Transport Services and Brevard Extraditions, which was a subsidiary of PTS when the transport took place in late 2015. The judge also mostly denied a motion for summary judgment brought by one of the guards, who is being sued in his personal and official capacities.

Karn’s lawsuit alleges that he was subjected to horrific conditions while he was being transported to Horry County, South Carolina, for failure to pay child support there. Karn was arrested in Montgomery County, Maryland, on Dec. 9, 2015, according to court filings, and was transported by PTS because the Horry County Sheriff’s Office had a contract with the company.

The lawsuit claims that Karn was transported more than 2,000 miles over nine days, from Dec. 23 through Dec. 31, 2015, through Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina, as the guards driving the van made stops for other detainees.

Karn claimed that during the trip, he was: restrained in handcuffs that were too tight, causing injuries to his wrists and ongoing mobility problems; held in overcrowded conditions that were full of human waste, garbage and flies; forced to sit on a metal bench for the entirety of the trip and given no opportunity to sleep; denied opportunities to wash and to use a bathroom, which resulted in some prisoners being forced to defecate in bags; and sprayed with a chemical agent when other passengers got into a fight in the back of the van.

The lawsuit claims that Karn was not offered the chance to wash the spray off his face or given medical attention, and that he was forced to wear the same filthy clothing throughout the entire trip.

Karn also alleged that during one stop, he fell out of the van and directly onto his shoulder, injuring himself, because his legs had lost feeling during the trip. Guards who were present did not offer assistance, according to the complaint.

Discovery during the lawsuit has backed up some of Karn’s claims, according to Hazel’s memorandum opinion. A travel log “provides support for his allegations that the van drove through the night, that there were few bathroom breaks, and that the guards took long, circuitous routes to pick up passengers,” Hazel wrote.

GPS data also showed that the van often drove between 75 and 95 miles per hour, and reached speeds of 97 miles per hour. Karn claims that the guards driving the van sped and swerved dangerously, causing the detainees in the back to be thrown off the benches because there were no seatbelts.

“Nobody should be treated this way, especially given that Mr. Karn was a pretrial detainee,” said Jay Holland, the lawyer representing Karn in the lawsuit. “It should take eight hours to drive from Montgomery County to Horry County, South Carolina. Instead they took this circuitous route in horrific conditions over nine days.”

Phone messages left with the lawyers for PTS and Brevard were not returned Wednesday.