Copyright 2009 By Ron Laytner MIAMI - The unmarked jet lands at Miami International Airport, taxies to a remote corner of the airfield and waits. It is soon surrounded by vehicles with flashing blue and red lights and a large bus with barred windows pulls to its side. Dozens of men and women wearing bullet proof vests, several carrying riot guns and automatic rifles, approach the plane cautiously and wait for the door at its tail to open and internal stairs to descend. It takes some time for the first passengers to appear. They all have to be released, like ancient galley slaves, one-at-a-time from chains running through eye-bolts running from seat to seat. The most dangerous passengers have their hands unlocked from steel boxes.
Uniformed passengers begin to emerge, one step at a time, dazed, disoriented and disheveled. They come down the stairs almost in slow motion, their hands and feet shackled tightly. None of the arrivals nor the grim waiting armed guards - smile. The passengers are not happy. Their airliner has the world's worst in-flight service. They've landed in sunny Florida but they won't enjoy palm trees, beaches or bikini-clad women. These desperate men and women have arrived on a prison plane to begin long sentences in federal prisons in Florida. The airline is virtually unknown to the world and it's long been kept almost secret. But FBI agents and other federal police know it as Con Air - just like the blockbuster Hollywood movie that ran round the world. And just like movie starring Nicholas Cage, the passengers disembarking from the white Boeing 727 are all convicts.
But unlike the movie these men will not escape. As they come off the plane in small groups of two and three, they are carefully checked by tough US Marshals, to see if they are carrying anything that could be used in a break for freedom or travelling murder. They walk away from their plane in lock step. Some of these men are serial rapists who have been without women for years and they cast careful but yearning glances at a beautiful but dangerous female US Marshal dressed in black and wearing a bullet proof vest. The marshals circle the plane watching that no desperate group tries to attack by land or helicopter to free the prisoners. At least one US Marshal sniper watches from the roof of a building. 3
This arriving plane at Miami International is one aircraft in a fleet known as Con Air but officially called the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System or JPATS. The airline is a merger of aircraft from the US Marshals Service, the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. With 13 aircraft of varying sizes JPATS, which only carries prisoners, is larger than many airlines. For years the many thousands of prisoners being moved around America to US Federal penitentiaries were driven in prison buses, shackled and chained, sometimes for weeks at a time, across thousands of miles. It was decided finally, in the interests of safety, that dangerous prisoners were better off being carried by plane in flights lasting just hours instead of days. Why move them at all? Some of the convicts have killed others inside prisons and are being moved to higher security locations. Others belong to prison gangs made up of white supremacists, black power, gays or Latinos who are being separated to prevent murders and riots. Some of the most brilliant and dangerous are moved from time to time to prevent escape plans. Some of the prisoners are simply being brought to different court hearings in various cities. The prison planes are also used to deport illegal aliens (160,000 in 2005, more than half with criminal records) back to countries as diverse as Indonesia, Nicaragua, Haiti, Hungary, Mexico, Albania and China. After a trip on grim Con Air they realize just how tough America can be and may not try to slip back in. The prison airline flies regularly scheduled flights through some 40 US cities. Each month about 15,000 prisoners are transported. said, Robert Broadus, Miami's Marshal's Service supervisor. Extra security measures are taken for extreme 'high risk' convicts. Their hands are lockd inside a steel box so they can't move. The rest of the prisoners are hand-cuffed to their chairs during the flight. For years the US government has managed to keep news people away from the prison flights. Now, they have allowed some coverage of the flying convicts and only by telephoto lens but it's still not a pretty sight. One prisoner, his wrists swollen and red with pain, screams as a brawny US Marshal adjusts his handcuffs.
'Con Air' flights are miserable. Passengers are hand-cuffed to an airliner seat for hours, unable to scratch their faces when they want to, unable to rub their eyes or get up and stretch. If they want to visit a bathroom they must wait and wait and then are taken carefully in shackles to a toilet without a door. On this day in JPAT's schedule, about two dozen men and women in clean tan-colored federal prison uniforms and new blue soft canvas boat shoes, shuffle back and forth, chains clinking like a long ago chain gang. The men wear 'fit-all' pants rolled up and held together by a few stitches. Straight pins are too dangerous. Those who leave the plane are quickly replaced with prisoners unloaded from U.S. Marshals vans parked nearby. All are extensively searched, including inside the ears and behind the lobes, in their mouths, over and under the tongue, behind the collar, under the arms, up and down the legs. The only identifying logo on a JPATS aircraft is an American flag on its wing. Its progress across America is closely monitored by Air Traffic Controllers. Any hint of trouble such as an emergency landing brings in armed FBI SWAT teams: a private plane venturing too close can be challenged by US fighter planes and even shot down.
Two pilots fly the plane and a crew in blue jumpers tends to the passengers in flight. The Marshal's service will not reveal if the crew or attendants are armed or how many people are on board for in flight security. The plane is unloaded and loaded quickly. It has five more cities to visit on this day. As it takes off and the armed men around it relax when it flies out of their bullet range and responsibility, you can't help wondering what will happen in an emergency landing or crash. Just like the mess they've made of each of their lives, these bound passengers don't stand a chance. Like the mind punishing destination name on their prison bus - they're on their way to JUDGMENT. - The End â€“ Copyright 2009 by Ron Laytner Edit International.
Photo by Chris Barfield
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