If it’s true that the early bird gets the worm, then these “Blue Birds” perched outside the Byrd Unit in the December darkness never go hungry.
|Transportation officer Joe Abramovich talks to a unit dispatcher while driving the “Mid Bus” route out of Huntsville.
Photos by David Nunnelee
It’s not even 4 a.m. on the next to last day of the year when the first TDCJ offender transportation bus pulls up to the back gate of Byrd, the primary prison intake facility in Huntsville, to load up passengers bound for different destinations. Before the day is done, agency transport vehicles running out of six regional hubs will have carried about 2,200 offenders to various places across the state, including prison units, state jails, county jails, courthouses, and medical facilities.
Chatter from the chain buses lined up behind Byrd reaches a crescendo between the hours of four and five o’clock in the morning as they load up one by one and head out in diverse directions. What’s called the “Mid Bus” pulls out at 7 a.m. headed to prison units in the Huntsville area. By the end of this day, it will have traveled about 105 miles, picking up and dropping off 36 offenders at eight different facilities. That’s a light load for the bus that on other days might haul as many as 100 offenders.
Twenty-year veteran officer Joe Abramovich is at the wheel of the mid-route bus, a 36,000-pound diesel-powered mammoth. His partner, Officer Brad Worley, rides in the shot-gun seat at the rear. While the bus is a 1991 model with more than 400,000 miles on the odometer, it runs good and makes this day’s roundabout trip without complaint.
Each year, Offender Transportation moves approximately 550,000 prisoners from one point to another, traveling about 4.5 million miles on average in the process. Its fleet of vehicles includes 67 vans and 109 flat-nosed buses, the Blue Birds, which except for their white exterior paint, fortified windows and doors, and split-cage interior construction to segregate different classifications of prisoners, look much like school buses. The vans, also white, haul no more than 10 offenders at a time while the buses can carry up to 46. Two officers are always aboard vans and buses containing general population prisoners. One drives and the other sits in back, both separated from the offenders by sturdy steel mesh screens covered by Lexan. A third officer is assigned to buses when administrative segregation or death row inmates are aboard. A third officer also accompanies buses to county jails to help with the processing of offenders.
All officers aboard a van or bus are armed with pistols. On a bus with three officers aboard, those riding in the back and in the swing seat also are armed with 12-gauge shotguns. Officers communicate with their bases by way of radio and cell phone and with each other by intercom.
Huntsville serves as the headquarters and Central Region hub for Offender Transportation, which employs 326 people across the state, 319 in uniform. Other regional hubs are located in Amarillo, Abilene, Palestine, Rosharon and Beeville. While the Abilene hub covers the largest land area of the state, the department’s Central Region hauls the greatest number of offenders to the greatest number of units.
|Transportation officer Brad Worley rides shotgun at the rear of a chain bus.
The Huntsville headquarters hub is staffed around the clock five days a week. The week begins there at 10 p.m. on Sunday and doesn’t end until the last bus rolls in on Friday evening, which is usually sometime between 10:30 p.m. and 12 midnight.
To avoid overnight trips, Offender Transportation relays vehicles. A bus headed east from Abilene, for example, might meet up in Gatesville with a bus headed west from Huntsville. There the two crews will simply exchange buses and head back to their home base.
“That bus that left Abilene this morning will be in Huntsville today but it won’t have the same officers on it,” said Offender Transportation Assistant Director Mike Mangham.
About half of TDCJ’s chain buses are air-conditioned, as are all of the vans. General population offenders are seated together and handcuffed in pairs. Administrative segregation prisoners and death row offenders are transported in full restraints, including belly chains and leg irons. Two urinals and two water dispensers are accessible to offenders.
Transportation officers trade off driving and riding shotgun. To be hired, they must hold a commercial driver’s license and successfully navigate a road test given by TDCJ. Officers must also complete a defensive driving course every three years.
Mangham said teaching officers to drive defensively cuts down on accidents.
“Most of our accidents are the fender-bender type, things that might happen at the back gate,” Mangham said.
Breakdowns are also infrequent due to the department’s emphasis on preventative maintenance. Vehicles are visually inspected before and after each trip and cleaned inside and out. Each vehicle also gets a thorough hands-on inspection every quarter.
“Everything is looked at down to the nuts and bolts,” said Major Tom Hunt. “We don’t need problems on the road and we try to avoid them by taking proactive steps.”
When breakdowns do occur on public roads, Offender Transportation often depends on county law enforcement officials to serve as first-responders. Hunt said maintaining a good working relationship with county officials is crucial for the department in protecting public safety.
“We realize that a lot of time the people who are going to help us first are those counties,” Hunt said. “We have yet to call a sheriff’s department and not receive help.”
Abramovich retired in October 2003 after 20 years with TDCJ, 13 years in Offender Transportation, but returned after driving a tour bus for a few months.
“I just like the fact that you’re not confined to one set environment,” he said about his life on the road. “Everything changes from day to day. In the building, you basically deal with the same inmates every day. In Transportation, you’re dealing with different inmates every day. That’s what makes it so unique because you never know what you’re going to come across from day to day.”
In the interest of public safety, prison chain buses stick to major thoroughfares and don’t stop on the road even if the inmates inside are acting up.
“You can’t stop until you get to a secured area,” Abramovich said. “It can get hairy sometimes.”
Worley worked building security at various units for 17 years before joining Transportation a year ago. Like his partner, he said he enjoys the camaraderie within the department and unique challenges that come with the job.
“We’ve got a good group of people that we work with, and we’ve got a lot of responsibility because the inmates aren’t inside a unit,” Worley said. “Sometimes officers have to make hard decisions to maintain security until some help gets to you.”
“Once you leave this place (Byrd Unit) with those inmates, it’s just you and your partner,” Abramovich added. “It’s a challenge, but I like a challenge.”
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