After hearing from prisoners who said they were raped and abused while they were being transported cross-country from one jail to another, a legislative committee ordered an evaluation Monday of all the state's contracts with a private extradition company.
In deciding to request the evaluation, the Joint Prisons Committee overrode several of its members who had called for the immediate cancellation of the state's contract with Tennessee-based Extradition Corp. of America.
"Based on what we've heard today, I think the department (of Corrections) ought to cancel this contract right now," Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson) said. "We shouldn't play this game with people's lives and liberty."
As a cost-saving measure, the state began contracting with private firms in 1987 to transport prisoners who were either being extradited to California or from California. In May, 1988, Extradition Corp. of America won an exclusive contract with California to transport prisoners interstate.
Department of Corrections officials estimate that the contract with the company saves the state more than $1 million a year in transportation costs.
But Los Angeles County officials and a lawyer for several prisoners said the savings are misleading because the company often cuts corners in order to earn a profit.
Carol Watson, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents seven prisoners who plan to sue the state, said sometimes as many as 14 or 15 prisoners were packed into the back of van where they were forced to ride for days and weeks without adequate food, rest or bathing.
She said one man, an amputee, is no longer able to wear a prosthetic device because of injuries he suffered during one journey.
"It's an ongoing problem. It's barbaric and it needs to be stopped," she said. "The state of California is finally liable for all these injuries."
Marilyn Cantrell, who claims that she was raped while being transported from California to Missouri in 1986, said she was the only woman on a van with eight other male prisoners. The company was also under contract with Missouri.
Rest stops were so infrequent, she said, that the male prisoners were finally given paper cups to urinate in during the trip. "But what was a female to do?" she asked. "That's why I have kidney problems to this day."
Near the end of the trip, she said the male prisoners were deposited at a local jail in Kansas while she was driven on to Missouri. Less than 20 minutes after the other prisoners were dropped off, she said, her guards stopped the van and raped her on the side of the road.
Barbara Moore, extradition chief for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said several prisoners who were interviewed by her office told of having to spend sometimes as long as a month on the road without a single change of clothing.
"The bottom line is that the contractor has to make a profit. The more prisoners the contractor can take the more money he can make," she said. Robert Rath, general manager for the company, acknowledged that in the first year of its contract with the state his firm sometimes took weeks to deliver prisoners to their destination.
In recent months, however, he said the company had streamlined its operations and now takes an average of only four days to transport prisoners.
"Anything that you can run into on an airplane you can run into in our business," he said. "You have weather and you have mechanical problems."
Rath refused to comment on Cantrell's charges, saying they are the subject of a lawsuit.