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Montana: Editorial asks the right questions about TransCor.

Thanks and some questions

By The Helena
Sept. 09, 2004

Anyone living in Helena's Central neighborhood where two escaped murders were hiding late Thursday night has to be thankful that local law enforcement officers were so quick to react and so thorough in their search.

A situation with all the ingredients of a disaster was defused after an anxious night of roadblocks and intensive neighborhood searches on the ground and from the air. Either of the two convicts was capable of committing further hideous crimes, including murder, taking hostages or taking on police in a standoff.

The first of the two, Russell VanKirk, 37, was captured about 10:45 p.m. after a massive search and control effort in which essentially every lawman and lawwoman available police, sheriff, highway patrol was mobilized.

The mere mention of VanKirk's name brings a chill to our collective memory; he is serving 110 years for the 1995 brutal murder of Tamara Pengra at Helena's State Nursery just west of town.

The second, Leonard Brown, 25, was apprehended in the same South Central neighborhood about 1:15 a.m. Friday. Just before his capture law enforcement officials still held the area in a tight network with helicopters overhead, roadblocks with police cars at nearly every corner and teams sweeping the neighborhood on foot.

Brown was convicted of deliberate homicide in Deer Lodge County in 2000 and escape in 2001.

Two other convicts, one of them also a murderer, were apprehended quickly after the escape, which took place when the van stopped at Burger King near Montana and 11th Ave. at about 5:30 p.m.

Once mobilized, law enforcement officials responded immediately and deserve everyone's sincere thanks for an excellent job of keeping the escapees in a controlled area.

But those minutes and decisions made just before the escape cause us to ask several questions.

Most of them have to be directed to officials at the Montana Department of Corrections, which only recently changed its method of transferring prisoners.

Earlier this summer it awarded the job to TransCor of America, a division of Corrections Corporation of America. The firm also runs the state's only private prison in Shelby.

In the past, moving prisoners through the state was the responsibility of Montana's 56 counties; but the task had become increasingly time-consuming and costly, officials said at the time of the change earlier this summer. So they looked for a private contractor.

The six maximum security inmates (two prisoners never left the van) were being transported from Shelby to Deer Lodge, a routine transfer, according to Department of Corrections Director Bill Slaughter.

If the transfer was routine, we have to wonder if it also is a matter of routine for guards escorting prisoners to stop at a fast food restaurant in the middle of town for a quick burger?

It's a long trip from Shelby to Deer Lodge, but couldn't they pack a lunch? At least, couldn't they have used the drive-through?

We have to wonder if two guards are enough to handle six maximum security inmates? Especially when one of the guards leaves the van and goes into a restaurant?

We have to wonder if the van, which apparently was peeled open with the inmates' bare hands, was sufficiently armored to transport such deadly cargo?

We have to wonder if a transport van should even be allowed to stop in an area so familiar to a convict, in this case VanKirk?

And one especially disturbing question came from members of the Pengra family, who wondered why they weren't notified of the escape?

On Friday Slaughter said the contract with TransCor has been temporarily suspended while authorities investigate the escapes. That seems like a reasonable approach.

Montanans have a right to see the results of that investigation quickly and we should also see immediate rule changes regarding prisoner transportation.

Just recently Slaughter wrote in an IR Your Turn that the department faces complicated challenges concerning the reentry of Montana's offenders into our society and the growing numbers of meth-related crimes.

"Responsible public policy must include the provision for a safe environment as government's most important duty to any community," Slaughter wrote at that time.

We couldn't agree more

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