Inmate death in private transport van in Miami-Dade raises questions

Denise Isaacs before her incarceration.
Denise Isaacs before her incarceration. Family photo

At age 54, Denise Isaacs suffered from a slew of ailments, including bipolar disorder, anxiety and chronic abdominal pain.

Yet Isaacs, who was wanted in Southwest Florida on a probation violation for shoplifting, was crammed into a stuffy transport van with 10 other shackled inmates for a nearly 1,000-mile trip from Kentucky to Punta Gorda.

“I knew she wouldn’t be be able to make a trip like that because of her weakness and pain,” said her daughter, Kallie Isaacs, of Lexington, Kentucky.

But her family never believed that the rigors of the journey might kill her. Isaacs earlier this month was found slumped over dead inside the van — operated by Tennessee-based Prisoner Transportation Services of America through a contract with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office — during a stop at a West Miami-Dade Taco Bell restaurant.

Her case offers a window into the little-publicized world of private inmate-transport companies. And it has now spurred a law enforcement investigation into whether the transport officers provided her with proper care and attention during the grueling two-day road trip.

According to sources with knowledge of the investigation, Isaacs is believed to have acted strangely throughout the trip — apparently suffering hallucinations — while drinking little water and refusing a meal during a stop in Orlando.

And when the two transport officers finally saw that she was unresponsive in the Taco Bell parking lot, they first called their superiors in Tennessee. Only after unsuccessfully trying to revive her did the officers dial 911, sources said.

The cause of death remains unknown. An autopsy of Isaacs has so far proved inconclusive while the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office awaits the results of more tests.

Company representatives did not return repeated calls from the Miami Herald seeking comment.

The company bills itself as the “nation’s largest prisoner extradition company and one of the largest international transporters of detainees.” According to the company, it transports more than 10,000 detainees each year for law enforcement across the country.

“We can move your prisoner at less cost than if you did it yourself,” the company’s website boasts.

A spokeswoman for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, which contracts Prisoner Transportation Services for extraditing inmates, said she could not comment about the company until her counterparts at the Miami-Dade Police Department finish their investigation. The Charlotte Sheriff’s Office runs the jail in Punta Gorda.

Prisoner Transportation Services has not escaped scrutiny in recent years.

Last year, two company agents left their transport van unattended in Oklahoma, and the inmates broke through a partition and drove away. The eight prisoners were recaptured.

In 2009, the company lost two inmates in high-profile escapes during a six-month span.

One man accused of attempted murder vanished from a transport van somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia. In the other case, Delaware’s prison system cut ties with the company after a shackled inmate en route to the state escaped at an airport.

The Miami incident raises questions about whether the company had proper procedures and training — vital concerns often overlooked by governments looking to save money by outsourcing public safety functions, said Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a nonprofit group that studies privatization.

“They let someone die on their watch, and this should not have happened,” Cohen said.

As for Isaacs, she had lived in Punta Gorda with her father for several years. In August 2012, she was arrested on a grand theft charge after police said she stole $1,200 worth of merchandise from a Walmart store in Port Charlotte.

She pleaded no contest and was given 18 months of probation plus a “withhold of adjudication,” which means no conviction appeared on her record.

According to her daughter, Isaacs had recently returned to her native Kentucky, still under corrections supervision.

“She was my best friend. We lived together. She would just make me laugh all day. She had the biggest heart ever,” Kallie Isaacs said. “We had plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She wasn’t done living yet.”

Then in August, the Florida Department of Corrections found that Isaacs had violated her probation. The reason: She had failed to complete 200 hours of community service and owed $607.98 in court fines.

Authorities in Kentucky arrested Isaacs and booked her into the Fayette County Detention Center in Lexington.

After her jailing, Isaacs suffered hallucinations, complaining that she had not been given her psychiatric medications, her daughter said.

Nonetheless, a Prisoner Transportation Services Chevrolet passenger van picked her up in Kentucky on Sept. 14, then headed south, collecting other inmates at detention centers in several states.

On the evening of Sept. 16, the van stopped at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in West Miami-Dade to pick up another inmate. In all, eight male and three female inmates were in the van, separated from the driver and accompanying company agent by a partition.

Just before 10 p.m., company transport officers Kirk Westbrooks, 41, and Kenneth Adams, 41, stopped at the Taco Bell at 3750 NW 79th Ave. in Doral. That was when they found Isaacs unconscious.

Her daughter said that a company representative, in a phone call afterward, insisted that Isaacs had been medically cleared for the trip.

“They shouldn’t have let her make the trip in that condition, knowing she was not eating, knowing she was hallucinating,” Kallie Isaacs said, tearfully. “They should have left her here [in Kentucky] and given her medical attention.”

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