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Forced Busing--but Not to Schoolhouse : Sheriff’s Transit System Gives Its Riders, 1.5 Million Each Year, Lots of Attention

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Each year, about 1.5 million people take the bus and leave the driving to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

They’re inmates being transported to court or jail in one of the department’s 59 black-and-white buses, the view somewhat obstructed by bars and screens that cover the windows.

“We hear pretty much the same lines over and over,” said Deputy Frank McKay, 39, a 10-year veteran. “There’s usually someone who’ll yell, ‘Lemme out at the light,’ or, ‘Stop at the next liquor store, and I’ll buy for the bus.’ ”

Although such requests are turned down, the trips on what the department calls the largest prison transportation system in the country are generally uneventful. Occasionally, a myopic senior citizen will mistake the black-and-white for the kind of bus that accepts paying customers and shout a bitter complaint when it passes him by.

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“I guess we give the RTD a bad name some days,” joked McKay the other morning.

Segregated Riders

He was standing in the jail bus depot at the bleak, gray County Jail, located just east of Union Station. Grim-faced inmates in holding cells were being chained and segregated according to their court destinations and potential for trouble.

Most wear blue uniforms and clamber aboard the buses in fours, each wearing a single handcuff attached to a common yellow chain.

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“If you play with them (handcuffs) for hours, they’re not that hard to jimmy,” McKay said. “Sometimes, a gal with a tiny wrist will hand us hers as she’s getting off the bus and say, to our embarrassment, ‘Oh, it was too tight, so I took it off.’ ”

Some Are Caged

Potentially violent individuals (“keep-aways”) get waist and leg chains and sit in one of the bus’ two “cages” (separate compartments with locked doors). Homosexuals, who are issued yellow uniforms, women and informants also are kept apart.

“If the Mexican Mafia has a contract out on a guy we’re transporting, we’ll put him in a cage, too,” McKay said.

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Spitters are required to wear masks.

“The deputies are worried about the danger of AIDS now,” explained Capt. Jerry West, head of the sheriff’s Transportation Bureau.

This day, McKay would be riding as a guard alongside partner Terry Samuel, 35, the driver. On a jail bus, it’s always a good idea for a driver to have an assistant.

While McKay and Samuel have never had a successful escape in seven years of busing (they drive on alternate days), unscheduled exits do occur now and then.

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In 1982, eight prisoners kicked out a window--bars and all--near Magic Mountain and scampered to freedom. Six were recaptured and two were killed while on the lam. Afterward, the window bars of the bus fleet were strengthened.

The next year, a skinny inmate booted out a window and bent--and somehow squeezed through--the 4 1/2-inch-wide bars. Apprehended, he was promoted to a seat in the bus cage the next day. The department says that was the last escape from a jail bus.

Unlike other transit lines, the sheriff’s fleet never worries about declining ridership. In the last three years alone, the department has had to add 13 buses, nearly a 30% increase.

“We get prisoners from as far away as Manhattan Beach, Pomona, Antelope Valley, and Wrightwood,” said Lt. Steve Selby. “It’s sort of a funnel effect. And this is where everyone lands.”

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A half century ago, two Buick sedans were all the department needed for prisoner transports, although inmates sometimes rode on each others’ laps.

Buses came into use in 1956 and some of the current black-and-whites are 20 years old and have 500,000 miles under their fan belts. But contrary to legend, none started out in life as a school bus.

On a typical day, the transports are on the road as early as 3 a.m., picking up prisoners at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic and bringing them back to be sorted out for court appearances.

Some notorious passengers, such as Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez, ride alone in vans. However, McKay and Samuel have driven such big names as convicted multiple murderers Kenneth Bianchi, Angelo Buono and Lawrence Bittaker. “Bittaker, you couldn’t see anything alive in his eyes or expression,” McKay recalled.

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The other morning, as the two deputies loaded a group headed for points northeast (Glendale, Pasadena, Monrovia and Temple City), they agreed that one key to an orderly trip is maintaining a proper rapport with the riders.

“You can be friendly and joke around a bit, but not too much,” McKay said. “You have to remember that they’re feeling you out.”

Some Start Fights

Just after 7:30 a.m., Samuel pulled out of the jail bus depot on to Bauchet Street with a load of four women and 44 men--none wearing masks--and set off for the first stop: Glendale Municipal Court.

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“Sometimes rival gang members may start to yell at each other or fight but usually they’ll quiet down if you yell back and pound on the glass (window of the door separating the deputies from the passengers),” said McKay, who, as guard, stood in the front door well.

On this run, the bus, a 1975 model with 204,000 miles of service, seemed to make more noise than the riders.

“We’ve had a few (mechanical) breakdowns, but there weren’t any real problems (with the inmates). We’re pretty proud of our driving record,” said McKay, who noted that the sheriff’s bus drivers have gone more than half a million miles without an accident.

The interior of the bus was covered with graffiti, including some names scratched in the driver’s compartment. How could such a feat be pulled off? “Trusties do it when they’re cleaning the empty buses,” Samuel said.

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A few blocks from the Glendale court, the bus passed an elderly woman.

“Can you believe that!” Samuel exclaimed. “She gave us the finger--and then waved to the prisoners! She must be 70!”

Cautious Procedure

In the court parking lot, Samuel handed his revolver over to McKay, who stepped outside. Then Samuel unlocked the door behind the driver’s compartment to let out 20 or so passengers, including the women.

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“The driver would never go back there (to the inmate area) wearing a pistol,” McKay said as he observed the departing inmates. “It would be too easy for them to disarm him. You can check my T-shirt. It doesn’t have a big red ‘S’ on it.”

As the young women left, a young man aboard quipped: “Where are your blow dryers?” They laughed.

The bus picked up more passengers and continued on to the Glendale Police Department. As the deputies pulled off the street, a passer-by reached into his pocket as though he had a concealed weapon. A joke, apparently.

“You see that?” Samuel asked.

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McKay nodded and said: “If we’d gotten a tip that someone was waiting for us (to hold up the bus) and there was a stakeout, he could have been in big trouble.”

Routes Are Varied

Five years ago, just such a stakeout foiled five people with automatic rifles who had plotted to raid a sheriff’s bus in Encino and free a comrade. To reduce the chances of such an incident, the buses’ routes vary.

At the Pasadena police station, after more prisoners had disembarked, a man with his hands in his pockets walked up to McKay and asked for directions.

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The deputy tensed slightly. “He was sincere,” McKay said afterward, “but you have to be careful when a guy approaches with his hands out of view.”

McKay paused. “This job may not have as much stress as some other (deputies’) jobs,” he added, “but it does have stress.”

On the other hand, he added, “The good points are that you’re outdoors, not behind a desk. If you do your job, the brass leave you alone. And you get weekends and holidays off.”

The bus made another prisoner exchange at Santa Anita Municipal Court in Monrovia, then paid a call on the sheriff’s Temple City station to pick up nine men arrested the night before. They would be brought back to the County Jail to be processed and await another bus trip to court.

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Friend Along the Way

McKay eyed one 50ish prisoner with red-rimmed eyes and joked: “Too much cerveza, eh?” The man laughed and nodded.

Back on the road, heading toward the San Bernardino Freeway and the jail bus depot, McKay spotted a little girl who waved to the deputies.

“See that? That’s what makes you really feel good,” he said.

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“Yeah,” Samuel said, “especially since her mother didn’t slap her hand afterward. I’ve seen parents do that. It’s not like the Fire Department; everyone loves a fireman.”

“Firemen never give tickets,” McKay pointed out.

“This is true,” Samuel said.


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