Inmate J.L. Bird had never heard of the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS), let alone be a part of their mobile inventory. And, after experiencing it first-hand, well, he didn’t care if he never heard of it again … not ever.

He’d been traveling with JPATS for three days and already he was sick of it. Awakened each day before the sun even thought about rising. The sound of chains rattling and clank and handcuff ratchets clicking and snapping. Jailers barking the same old tiresome orders over and over again. “Let’s go! Get your sorry asses up and moving! No, no showers today. No, there are no toothbrushes. No deodorant. No washcloths. You’ll get your breakfasts in the van. Yes, cold boiled eggs and fake Kool Aid … Let’s GO!”

He was also pretty darn sick of the U.S. Marshals who watched his every move, including during bathroom breaks. He was weary of flying a zig-zagged pattern across the U.S., landing to either drop off or pick up inmates at what seemed like every remote airfield in the country.

Then came the never-ending end of the day van rides to county jails, the holdover facilities located in hick towns that were surely too small and too backward to be considered for the filming of Deliverance. In fact, Bird was quite sure that most of their holdover locations were in towns with names recognized only by loyal viewers of Hee Haw—places like Bumpass and Doodlum, Va., and Talking Rock, Ga., the little honey hole in Pickens County nestled between Ellijay and Jasper. Yeah, those fine metropolises.

Bird did learn that in exchange for housing federal prisoners, the U.S. government pays county sheriffs $50 plus or minus, per day, per federal inmate held. That’s a pretty sweet deal for merely furnishing a blanket on the floor, a couple of cold pre-packaged boiled eggs—the kind of eggs linked to multi-state infections of Listeria monocytogenes—, and maybe a dry sandwich made from cheap stale bread and greenish-tan mystery-meat-bologna.

Sometimes, like the jail in Northern Va. where he spent the night, he and other federal prisoners were treated to a single serving of slightly warm canned kidney beans and a slice of bread for juice-sopping. They enjoyed their “tasty” meal inside a two man cell where 8 prisoners sat shoulder to shoulder, some on the floor and some on two solid concrete sleeping platforms, each designed to hold one person. Yes, that’s two concrete sleeping decks for 8 prisoners. There was only one toilet, which meant that two prisoners found themselves eating and sleeping on the concrete floor next to the spot where other men urinated and, well, you know. One word … splashes.

Bird also learned that deputy sheriff’s didn’t give a rat’s patootie about federal prisoners, and that they pretty-much ignored him and the others. In fact, many of the star-wearing deputies mistreated the federal prisoners. Those who weren’t bullies simply ignored the prisoners by shutting the heavy metal doors to their cells and forgetting about them until the next day when the Marshals returned to retrieve their human cargo.

Bird and his crew were the last to be fed, receiving leftovers, and they were the last to see soap and water. The aforementioned lone toilet sat only two or three feet away from where cellmates septs and ate.  Unless Marshals retrieved them the next morning, they often went several days without bathing, deodorant, or brushing their teeth. Imagine an all day  “sweet-smelling” ride in the back of hot vans and airplanes that recycle cabin air.

But, after several unpleasant layovers in county jails, day trips in passenger vans while enclosed in a cage in the rear compartment, and finally a plane ride while fully shackled and no means to control air vents or to use the restroom and yet another cold boiled egg meal, the JPATS jet finally touched down at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. A real airport with real people scurrying about, tending to whatever duties are assigned to airport workers.

Bird was ecstatic. He was overjoyed at the thought of seeing honest-to-goodness people other than the unclean pack he’d been traveling with for the past several days, along with at least two-hundred more of the same. The plane was a full-on funk fest of foul odors.

The JPATS jet taxied to the far west corner of the airport, though, bypassing the regular terminals, and pulled alongside a private jetway leading to a brick building that stood alone on the airport property. This was the Federal Transport Center.

FTC Oklahoma. The jetway is pictured at the top of the image.

The FTC Oklahoma City is the hub for JPATS air transport. It’s the facility where many federal inmates are housed until they’re assigned to a permanent prison. It’s also where prisoners are housed while in transit to other prisons, and courts around the country, etc. Prisoners are often transferred from one prison to another for reasons such as to be housed at federal medical facilities, when custody status changes (either up or down), etc.

Bird finally learned he was on his way to a hearing at the federal court in Richmond, Va.

“Absolutely no talking!” shouted the marshal who’d stepped the inside the plane from the jetway. He rubbed his stubby fingers across his buzz-cut. “Not a sound unless one of us asks you a question. You’ll stand perfectly still until a marshal or other officer gives you a command. Do not, and I repeat, do not let your ankle chains touch or mar the floors in the hallway. Okay, let’s go. Single file. In the jetway, now! And watch those ankle chains!”

Unfortunately for Bird, he’d see not a single civilian as he’d hoped, since the jetway led directly into the prison facility. However, he was pleasantly surprised at how clean and fresh it was inside. The floors were highly polished and there wasn’t a single blemish on the stark white walls. Overheard fluorescent fixtures lit the long hallway like a night game in Fenway Park. It was a pleasant change from the grunge and grime he’d experienced during the trip to Oklahoma.

Bird and his fellow travelers made their way along the wall (following a red line painted on the floor) until they reached three BOP (Bureau of Prisons) officers stationed on a raised wooden platform where they were busy removing handcuffs, waist chains, and leg irons. Bird was elated when it was his turn to climb the three steps to have the hardware removed, especially from his ankles. Wearing the steel cuffs daily for a week had rubbed the thin skin there until it was raw and extremely sore down to the bone.

To him it was all overkill, especially since his arrest and conviction was for possessing a small amount of cocaine—$100 worth. A first offense. No violence. No weapons. And no resisting arrest. He’d even confessed and claimed ownership of the drug and admitted his guilt. He was certain, as was his attorney, that he’d receive no more than probation and fines. However, the federal judge saw fit to sentence Bird to just over three years in federal prison…for a first offense of possessing an amount of cocaine that would barely fill a tablespoon.

After the chain removal prisoners were herded into”the bullpen,” a large holding cell where 100 plus men stood waiting to be processed. A large, thick plate glass window stretched from one end of the room to the other. The inmates could clearly see people walking past, but the room must’ve been soundproof because they couldn’t hear any outside noises. No footsteps. No talking. Nothing but the incessant chattering of 100 or more convicts blabbing about mostly nonsense or one lie after another. And, as usual, there was only one toilet, and it was out of order.

One by one the inmates were taken out for a chat with a psychologist, a quick consult with a counselor for classification, and then to a large room where several BOP officers stood to hand out well-used but clean prison clothes. They were ordered to strip for a visual exam for contraband. It was embarrassing enough to do the “squat and cough and bend over and spread your cheeks” in front of male officers, but a few female officers were also on hand for the procedure.

Then, after a few hours of processing, the inmates were sent to their assigned housing units within the transportation center. Bird met his unit officer who assigned him to a cell. Again, Bird was pleased. His cell was a spotlessly clean room complete with a soft mattress, soft pillow, a large window, and a real door. No bars!

Bird was also ecstatic when he heard he could shower whenever he liked and as many times as he liked. The facility even provided the inmates with soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and more. And, within minutes of his arrival, kitchen workers delivered a hot meal to the unit for those who’d been traveling all day. The food was absolutely delicious. Real bone-in chicken. The fare was quite unlike the unidentifiable ground goopy glop he’d been used to eating back at the prison. Not to mention the maggot-gagging cuisine served at some of the county jails he’d visited along the trip.

The unit was quiet. The inmates seemed pleasant (he’d discovered that he’d been assigned to a low security unit). And the guard was a guy who addressed the inmates either by their last names or by calling them “sir.” As in, “Thank you, Sir.” “Sir, when you get a minute would you please stop by my desk.” The prisoners did the same in return. There was no shortage of respect in either direction.

It had been late in the day when the JPATS jet touched down in Oklahoma, so it wasn’t long before the sun set. Bird noticed that as soon as it was dark outside, all of the cells/rooms on his side of the unit also went dark. Not a single light on in either of them. The cells across the day-room, opposite his, were all brightly lit. He also noticed that most of the inmates had suddenly disappeared into the darkened cells. Strange because it was not yet time for lockdown. Curious, he asked one of the few remaining prisoners, a slack-jawed, flamboyantly gay guy who’d somehow managed to paint his fingernails fire engine red, about the strange occurrence.

“It’s showtime,” he said. “Not my cup of tea, though … if you know what I mean.” He winked at Bird, but Bird didn’t have a clue what he meant, and his confused expression prompted the prison sweetie to say, “Go have a look. You’ll see.”

So Bird opened the door to his cell and found a gaggle of prisoners gathered at the narrow window, looking across to an adjacent wing. Bird quickly saw the attraction. The next unit over, with windows perfectly aligned with those in Bird’s unit, was the unit that housed female prisoners. Bird also noticed that while the lights were off on his side of the unit, the rooms across the way were brightly lit.

Bird’s fellow inmates pushed and shoved and practically fought for the best view possible, because standing, sitting, dancing, jiggling, wiggling, and/or gyrating (among other things) in each window, was a totally nude female prisoner who was hard at work entertaining the male population of the transfer center. And she left not a single thing to the imagination. Not. A. Single. Thing.

It was indeed showtime in Oklahoma, a long-standing tradition, and each cell had its own private, live peep show that lasted until lights out at 10 p.m.

Bird slept better that night than he had in a long, long time. And he went to sleep feeling a little dirty, even though he’d showered three times in as many hours.

*Inmate J.L. Bird is an imaginary prisoner, however, his journey is one of thousands that take place each and every work day of every week. JPATS is indeed a very busy operation. Oh, the Oklahoma City peep shows are also very real …