There are no movies to watch, magazines to read or pillows to make a nap more comfortable. Window shades stay up, seats don't recline and tray tables are stowed even when lunch is served.
The passengers, who are not told where they are going or when they are expected to get there, must receive permission to use the lavatory. And if they give a flight attendant any trouble, they may end up with their manacled hands taped around tennis balls and pantyhose stretched over their heads.
"But it's really not too bad," said Michael Reid, 29, a penitentiary inmate who is facing charges of assaulting a federal officer. "There's some play in the chains, and the handcuffs aren't too tight."
Welcome to the Air Operations Division of the U.S. Marshals Service, which is known in the trade as Con Air and flies more than 56,000 prisoners around the country every year for court appearances, medical examinations and prison transfers.
The Los Angeles area, with its collection of nearby federal detention facilities, is one of the principal stops, but you will not find any of Con Air's planes nosing up to a jet way at Los Angeles International Airport.
Instead, for security reasons, they use one of the outlying airfields, and officials would rather not say which ones. Schedules change frequently and are not announced, even to the passengers.
Con Air's planes–a couple of Boeing 727s, along with several smaller jets–are painted with anonymous markings that give little clue as to who is inside.
The 727 that touched down here about 8:30 one morning last month taxied briskly to a remote spot on the Tarmac, where two buses, a couple of vans and a black sedan were waiting.
As the airliner rolled to a stop, a dozen trim federal Bureau of Prisons guards formed a protective cordon around it–faces impassive, eyes watchful behind reflective sun glasses, shotguns held at the ready. In addition, 11 unarmed guards from the Marshals Service, clad in crisp, blue military fatigues and well-shined jump boots, moved into position beside the plane.
The unloading of prisoners bound for detention centers in downtown Los Angeles, Terminal Island, Lompoc and Boron and the boarding of others headed outside Southern California took a tedious 1 1/2 hours.
There were the body searches to look for hidden contraband. There were the shackles–handcuffs attached to waist chains, leg irons on each ankle–that forced the inmates to shuffle slowly along.
Orders were issued quietly and obeyed without dispute.
"They know who we are. We know who they are," said Frank Kolacz, 53, a burly marshal who would be one of the guards on the flight. "They realize we've got a job to do. "
Finally the plane, which seats six across in about 25 rows from front to back, was loaded and ready to go. On board were 85 prisoners, the 11 Marshals Service guards, two medical technicians, two clerks and a couple of journalists, in addition to the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.
The women prisoners sat in front, separated from the men by three rows used by the guards. The prisoners remained shackled at hand and foot at all times, and those thought to be a security risk had a rigid plastic "black box" clamped between the handcuffs to further restrict mobility.
At 9:40 a.m., the voice of the pilot, Bill Rice, crackled over the intercom. His message was terse and devoid of information about flying time, cruising altitudes and how to put on an oxygen mask.
"Buckle your seat belts," Rice said. "Keep your heads and feet out of the aisles."
The big jet took off and headed east.
A few of the prisoners chatted quietly, but for the most part they sat in silence, staring off into space. There was nothing for them to read, not even an emergency procedures card or a bag printed with instructions on what to do if you get airsick.
"But they keep their minds active, thinking about how to escape," Kolacz said. "If you've got a life sentence, why not?
Kolacz was quick to add that any attempt to escape while on a Con Air flight would be fruitless.
"There's never been a successful escape attempt on Con Air," he said.
A bullet hole through the fuselage might lead to explosive decompression that could break up the plane, so the guards, most of whom are retired police officers, rely on experience, muscle and, if necessary, stun guns that are out of sight.
"That's all we'd ever need," Kolacz said. "If they cause trouble, we put cargo straps over them or tape their hands around tennis balls. If they bite or spit, we put pantyhose over their heads."
"You might get a loudmouth, but most of these people are real peaceful and quiet," said Albert Johnson, 64, a guard who spent 20 years with the Oklahoma City Police Department and 18 years with the Sheriff's Department in Oklahoma County, before joining the Marshals Service.
Fifteen minutes after takeoff, each prisoner was handed a small cardboard lunch box containing a meal that could give commercial airline food a good name. In each box were two brown-bread sandwiches. One contained a single slice of turkey baloney, the other a single slice of processed cheese. No mustard. No mayonnaise. No lettuce.
The box also held an apple, a granola bar and a small plastic bottle of fruit punch.
"The lunch could be better," said Reid, a pale, soft-spoken Canadian who was able to feed himself despite the black box locked between his handcuffs because of his alleged assault on a federal officer.
"He's right about the lunch," said Kenneth Collins, 29, a massive man seated nearby who explained that he is serving a life term without the possibility of parole for his part in a drug conspiracy.
Reid was on his way to a court appearance in Washington state. Collins, who wore flexible handcuffs, said he was headed for a prison in Terre Haute, Ind., "because it's closer to my home."
"I'd rather not be traveling," Reid said. "When you're in prison, you've got your niche. You're more comfortable. Moving disrupts all that, but this sure beats going by bus."
Kolacz said that until Con Air was established with the transfer of two jetliners from the Federal Aviation Administration in 1984, prisoners traveled the country in prison vehicles and, occasionally, on commercial flights. Some airlines had refused to let prisoners travel manacled, so each convict had to be accompanied by a guard, and sometimes two.
"This is much more cost-effective than the commercial flights, and much faster than the sedans and vans," Kolacz said.
With the eastbound 727 leveled off at cruising altitude, the guards patrolled the length of the jetliner, reminding prisoners to keep the aisles clear, tray tables up and window shades open.
"We want the space clear, so we can move quickly, and plenty of light, so we can see everything," Kolacz explained. "We never fly at night."
As they strolled the aisles, the guards would stop occasionally for a brief, amiable exchange with a prisoner.
"Some are such frequent fliers who know us by name," Kolacz said. "But unlike American (Airlines), we don't give Advantage Miles."
About 40 minutes after takeoff, the jet began to descend. It was only as the plane settled onto the runway that the prisoners, gazing out the windows, realized they had landed in Phoenix.
Once again, the jetliner taxied to a remote spot at the airfield and, once again, the plane was surrounded by shotgun-toting prison guards. With the temperature well over 100 degrees, it was fortunate that the unloading and reloading process was quicker this time. About half an hour after it had landed, the 727 took off again, continuing its eastward trek.
Two of the new passengers were Tina Barton, 23, and Tami Jones, 30, who had been serving federal sentences in Arizona and were being transferred to other penitentiaries for disciplinary reasons.
"I'm doing a year for importation of a contr
olled substance," said Barton, from Lakewood.
"A controlled substance?" someone asked.
"Marijuana, 117 pounds of it!" she said with a giggle. "It was in an R.V. Coming over from Mexicali (into the United States). I've got seven months 'til I get out."
Barton said she was transferred because she got into a fight. "They're moving me for my safety, I think. I think I'm going somewhere up in Washington.
Jones, who said she is serving the third year of a six-year sentence for conspiracy to manufacture amphetamines in Texas, preferred not to discuss what led to her transfer.
"I'm going to Washington," she said. "I've made a lot of these flights by now–maybe eight of them."
About two hours later, the jetliner touched down on a runway in Oklahoma City and taxied up to the hangar that serves as the home base for Con Air.
"Unbuckle your seat belts, but remain seated," Rice said over the intercom.
"Shucks," said a wag at the back of the plane. "I figured we could just get up and wander off any time we wanted to."
Kolacz said that most of the women would spend the night at the Oklahoma County Jail and the men at the federal penitentiary at El Reno, before heading on to their final destinations the next day.
As the prisoners stepped gingerly off the jetliner, two of the guards lent a helping hand.
"What we do is, we treat them like humans," said Johnson, the veteran lawman. "They've lost their freedom, (but) you can't kick a dog when he's down."
CITYSCAPES / ERIC MALNIC
Idea for a Story on Prisoner Airline Really Took Off
June 14, 1997
By ERIC MALNIC,
Four years ago, some government officials told me about a federally run airline that was used to transport prisoners back and forth across the United States. They called it "Con Air."
Thinking it might make a story, I pitched the idea to an editor. A month later, I was winging my way to Oklahoma City with a planeload of convicts. My story–a factual account of the grim but uneventful flight–ran within a few weeks.
When my phone rang several days later, it was one of those calls that reporters get every so often from someone claiming to be in the film business, telling me what a "terrific" story it was and suggesting we get together to work up a proposal for a movie. Everyone in the newsroom knows that these ventures never come to anything. And after more than 35 years at The Times, I doubted I would break the string.
So I was polite. Barely.
Nonetheless, out of curiosity, I checked with Bob Welkos, one of the paper's movie industry experts.
"What did the guy say his name was?" Welkos asked.
"Donald De Leon–something like that," I said.
"Was it Donald De Line?"
"Yeah, that's it."
"He's the president of Touchstone Pictures."
Heart in throat, I raced to my desk and called De Line back, hoping that I hadn't sounded too snotty the first time. De Line is one of those guys who gets right down to business, and within a few weeks, I had a contract as a "technical consultant" and a check in the low four-figure range.
I worked up a "treatment," outlining what I thought was a great idea for a movie script. Touchstone didn't want it.
I asked how I could get in touch with their writer. "He'll call you," they said, but he never did.
I waited patiently for a chance to consult with someone. I waited in vain.
So I finally realized that my role as a technical consultant was to stay out of the way, simply providing the folks at Touchstone with someone they could point to if anyone asked where the story idea came from. I was their insurance against anyone else trying to muscle in.
But I had that check, and that was so gratifying that I scarcely listened when they told me that if they ever did make a "Con Air" movie, a second check would be in the mail. Things like that don't happen to old reporters.
Last summer, long after I had spent the first check and pretty much forgotten about the whole thing, a colleague called me.
"Check out the trade magazines," he said. "They're making 'Con Air'–Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, John Cusack . . . " Frantically, I searched through all my records. I couldn't find the Touchstone paperwork anywhere. I called De Line's office, along with the offices of every other Touchstone functionary I had dealt with. They were all out, and none of them called me back. I wrote several carefully composed letters. None of them were answered.
But I have a friend, Diane Corwin, who is a lawyer.
"I'll make a call," she said. The next day, Touchstone called me back.
"The second check's in the mail," they said. And it was.
By April, the "Con Air" billboards had started going up. There were magazine ads, and previews in the movie theaters.
"You gonna get invited to the premiere?" friends asked.
"Probably not," I said.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got another phone call from Touchstone.
"We'd like you to come to the premiere in Las Vegas," the woman from De Line's office said. "We'll fly you there in a charter jet."
As I dusted off my tuxedo–a secondhand affair that I bought years ago from a rental shop–visions of a champagne flight in one of those sexy little private executive jets danced in my head.
The tux went back into mothballs when the invitations arrived: "Casual dress," the cover letter said. And when my wife, Martha, and I got to the Imperial Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport at about 4 p.m., we realized our flight wasn't going to be all that private. Our plane was a DC-10 jumbo jet, crammed with about 250 other close friends of Donald De Line.
Hustled off the plane in Las Vegas by burly, uniformed "guards," we piled onto black-and-white "Bureau o
f Prisons" buses for a trip downtown escorted by police cars, Humvees and military helicopters–all with red lights flashing.
After a stroll down a serpentine walkway lined with eager movie fans and desperate television reporters trying to get interviews with Cage [Malkovich and Cusack were out of town], we were bundled into a large temporary theater–furnished with airline seats–that had been erected for the premiere behind the Hard Rock hotel and casino. Popcorn, licorice, M&Ms and soft drinks were provided.
Then it was movie time.
To say that Touchstone's version of "Con Air" differed somewhat from mine–and from the reality of the federal prisoner transportation system–would be an understatement. The movie was a lot funnier, a lot noisier, a lot more colorful and a lot more violent.
When the credits began scrolling at the end of the film, most of the guests headed for the exits. Martha and I waited for my moment of glory, but it never came. Two other "technical consultants" made the list, but I ended up on the cutting room floor.
At 11:30 p.m., it was time to head for home. Back on the buses and then back on the plane, we arrived at LAX at about 2 a.m.–tired, happy and sure that we had seen the last of Touchstone's largess.
On the bus back to the parking lot, we each received a special gift–a plush bunny in a cardboard box.
If you want to know the significance of that, you'll have to ask Nicolas Cage. Or see the movie.