Monday, February 27, 2017

Washington’s ‘Con Air’: How the state transports dangerous prisoners in its chartered planes

The most notable guest aboard a Washington-owned airplane is usually the governor. On the morning of Jan. 3, 2013, it was a man suspected of strangling his ex-girlfriend.

Tony Callihan — feet shackled and hands cuffed — was returning to Washington from rural Northern California.

He would eventually face murder charges for killing 48-year-old Michelle Koenen in Spokane, but the state Department of Corrections was retrieving Callihan for another reason: He had violated the the terms of his community supervision from a previous assault conviction by fleeing to California after the homicide.

Ordinarily, when probation violators need to be transported across state lines, they’re simply put on commercial flights.

One of the Washington State Patrol’s King Air twin engine aircraft is parked in the agency’s Olympia hangar during its maintenance service. Occasionally the plane is used for prisoner transport.

But in some cases like Callihan’s, prisoners deemed high risk by corrections officials are flown in one of the state’s two King Air planes operated by the State Patrol and used routinely by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Callihan said his criminal history includes attempted escapes and a series of assaults, including on law enforcement.

But the ride still came as a surprise. Callihan said he didn’t find out he was flying back to Washington in a state plane until police led him out of a van at the airport near Clearlake, California. He expected to be extradited by bus.

“Here’s this elaborate plane just to come and get me, and they said ‘well, we do this all the time,’ ” Callihan said, recalling the flight during an interview at a Washington prison where he’s now serving 20 years for Koenen’s murder.

Records show that between January 2013 and September 2016, the state used the patrol’s planes nine times to transport 14 inmates. Some of the trips were to move problematic prisoners to out-of-state facilities. But seven of those flights were to pick up probation violators who had left the state.

The farthest chartered flight the state took was to Florida, in 2014, to bring two probation violators back to the state. At $34,000, it also was the most expensive.

Most of the inmates flown on State Patrol planes aren’t locked up for good once returned to Washington. The probation violators were returned to prison for less than a month before being released under supervision for six to 56 months.

Maintenance supervisor Sam Loska peeks inside the Beechcraft King Air B200 turboprop aircraft at the Washington State Patrol aviation facility at the Olympia Airport on Feb. 15. If a prisoner is deemed too dangerous for a commercial flight, he or she might be transported on the Beechcraft.

Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said the King Air trips, while expensive, are just a fraction of prisoner transports. The state completes about 225 transports on commercial flights a year, he said. The majority of those also are probation violators.

And while the state occasionally arranges for a prisoner to simply stay in another state under community supervision rather than pay the inmate’s ticket home, Barclay said that usually happens when an offender has a support system outside of Washington, not simply because the offender fled the state.

Without such an arrangement, state law requires corrections officials to bring the inmates back to Washington, Barclay said.

Even though the subsequent prison time is short, he said, having the opportunity to get inmates connected with services such as mental health can prevent them from reoffending once released.

“Really, public safety is worth more than saying we don’t want to spend however much it is,” Barclay said.

David Flynn, a corrections official who oversees the flight program, said the department knows “it’s more expensive for us,” to use the King Air. But he said it’s also a crucial safety tool.

Many of the inmates on the State Patrol flights have acute mental health issues, making commercial air travel a risk to the prisoner and the plane’s passengers, Flynn said.

Traveling by car for long distances with dangerous inmates would be a “logistical nightmare” for maintaining safety, he added. Plus, it also would cost a lot when factoring in staff hours, per diem and lodging, he said.

In a King Air’s controlled environment, officers have never had to use force against an inmate, Flynn said. And there have been no significant incidents or escapes either, he said.

Not every state uses private planes to transport its prisoners, however.

Oregon’s Department of Corrections moves high-risk inmates by vehicle and commercial flights, said the agency’s spokeswoman Betty Bernt, in an email. The U.S. Marshal’s Service also does some extraditions, she said. That service does fly prisoners on its own planes.

Republican state Sen. Mike Padden, who chairs the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee, said in an email that pricey flights for prisoners might need further scrutiny. He noted that the cost of flying serial murderer Gary Ridgway to and from a Colorado prison in 2015 raised eyebrows.

The Ridgway flights — one alone cost more than $10,000 — were by private charter. The state sometimes uses private chartered planes when the state’s planes aren’t available. Private charters can also be faster, and therefore cheaper for longer flights, Barclay said.

But that hasn’t always been the case. When Washington’s program for transporting inmates by air began in the late 1970s or early 1980s, private charter flights were expensive and had spotty safety records, according to Jim Thatcher, a 40-year corrections official who oversaw air travel before he retired in 2010.

So Thatcher said he asked the governor to allow the agency to use the state’s King Air. The corrections department also used a King Air owned by the Department of Natural Resources, although that plane was later sold during the Great Recession to save money.

The flights went off without a hitch, Thatcher said, although there was a bit of a learning curve for the pilots.

“They were used to shuttling dignitaries around,” he said with a laugh. “You know, we get kind of some scruffy guys that I got in belly chains and handcuffs.

“I’d be jumping on the plane with them and (the pilots) didn’t know whether to offer us a complimentary beverage service or chain the guys to the seat.”

Thatcher said his most memorable flight was in the 1980s. He was on a trip to Tennessee with “three extremely high risk offenders,” who were being moved for causing problems inside Washington’s prisons.

Tennessee had agreed to take the inmates. The hope was by separating them from their old prison relationships and networks, it would reduce gang violence at the state penitentiary.

Flying over Nebraska, the one of the twin-propeller plane’s engines flamed out, causing the plane to “instantly” drop several hundred feet, Thatcher said.

“We all got pretty big-eyed,” he said.

The pilots managed to land on one engine at the airport in tiny Scottsbluff. But not before one of the inmates made a half-hearted request for leniency when he saw the engine flame out.

“I remember the offender said ‘take these handcuffs off me,’ ” Thatcher said. “I said ‘when we land. When we land, we’ll talk about it.’ ”

The local sheriff saved the day, holding the prisoners in his jail until the plane was repaired several days later.

Flynn remembers no similar close calls. He said the King Air transports are sober affairs during which at least two highly trained corrections lieutenants are onboard monitor the inmates.

Prisoners in coveralls are quickly ushered onto the planes, usually in handcuffs connected to waist restraints. And sometimes their feet are shackled, Flynn said.

Great care is taken to prevent a real-life version of the 1997 film “Con Air,” in which prisoners being transported revolt and take over the plane.

“Our goal is that there is no movie script around the work that we do,” he said.

Callihan said his flight on a state-owned twin-propeller plane wasn’t completely boring. There were no free peanuts, and he couldn’t get up to use the bathroom, but he did make small talk with one of the lieutenants onboard to pass the time, he said.

“We talked about being on different sides of the spectrum of society and weird things like that,” Callihan said.


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