First it was Border Patrol agents mounted on horseback. Now it’s prison buses.
The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has quietly dispatched “bus crews” from around the country to Del Rio, Texas, to help transport thousands of Haitian migrants who are camped underneath a bridge along the border, VICE News has learned, after speaking with multiple BOP employees who allege the agency has intentionally tried to avoid leaving a paper trail.
A BOP spokesperson confirmed that the agency “sent approximately 100 staff to provide transportation assistance.” The agency declined to offer further details in response to questions about the scope and purpose of the operation, how the move would affect already short-staffed prisons, and whether the officers are appropriately trained for such a mission.
The BOP staffers who spoke out said their colleagues were ordered to report for duty at the border on short notice and warned that the assignments could last anywhere from two weeks to two months. The staffers involved work on “bus crews,” which typically entails shipping people who’ve been charged with or convicted of federal crimes between jails and prisons.
Andy Kline, the staff union president at the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, said eight officers from two bus crews at his institution were among those sent to Del Rio. Kline said BOP buses are equipped with metal cages to lock in prisoners, and questioned whether the Haitians would be subjected to the same security measures.
“We don’t do humanitarian stuff,” Kline said. “Is Homeland Security telling them you can’t secure them in the cages? I’m certain they can’t put ’em in handcuffs. That’s how we normally transport inmates, in handcuffs and leg irons, and the cage doors are locked to make sure the bus is secure.”
Kline was one of four union officials from prisons across the U.S. who said the BOP did not issue any paperwork to notify the bus crew officers about their new assignments. Buses with “BOP” on the roof have been visible in aerial TV news footage from Del Rio in recent days.
“Even the staff, the officers on that bus in Texas, they didn’t get an email,” Kline said. “I guess it’s kind of easier to fix it as it goes along if there’s nothing in writing.”
The sudden surge of Haitian migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border has created a humanitarian crisis that the Biden administration has so far failed to mitigate. Footage and images of horse-mounted Border Patrol agents using their reins as whips to beat back Haitians crossing the border sparked outrage earlier this week and led to condemnation from the White House.
Most of the Haitians are marked for swift expulsion back to their home country under a Trump-era policy known as Title 42, which sealed off the border on public health grounds at the start of the pandemic. But pregnant women and families with young children are reportedly being allowed to stay and have their asylum claims processed. It’s unclear exactly how the BOP buses are being used at the border and whether they are intended for transporting people to be deported or to be moved to other places in the U.S. where they could wait to have their claims heard.
The Department of Homeland Security has reportedly been bussing Haitians from Del Rio to other cities along the Texas border for processing. Earlier in the week, a group of migrants overwhelmed DHS staff on a bus from Del Rio to Brownsville and tried to flee the area, but all were eventually apprehended, according to National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, who spoke about the incident at a press conference with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
One unnamed law enforcement official told the Washington Examiner that buses have been “hijacked” by Haitian migrants “multiple times” this week. Those incidents, the paper reported, occurred on boarded-up school buses and commercial coach buses. All of the escapees were reportedly recaptured.
DHS did not respond to requests for comment about how the BOP prison buses are being used in border operations.
John Kostelnik, the western regional vice president for the BOP staff union, the Council of Prison Locals, said a bus crew from the U.S. Penitentiary in Victorville, California, was among those dispatched to Texas. Kostelnik worried that the deployments would exacerbate staffing shortages at federal prisons, and he questioned why DHS—which has a budget of nearly $50 billion—is not using its own resources to handle the problem.
“I don’t know if there's a shortage of staff with the Marshals or CBP or what the deal is,” Kostelnik said. “This is absolutely ridiculous that we keep doing this, sending people to do something we’re not trained to do.”
Kostelnik said bus crew staffers from Victorville were also not notified in writing about their assignments, calling the BOP’s handling of the situation “one of the most secret squirrel things they’ve done in a while.”
It’s rare for BOP staff to be called into action outside of prisons, but not unprecedented. During the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, the Trump administration deployed anti-riot squads from federal prisons to the streets of Washington, D.C., for crowd control.
The bus crews, BOP employees said, receive special training on how to drive the vehicles in emergencies and respond to ambushes and other crisis scenarios. The officers are typically armed, and some worried what would happen if the BOP crews responded to an escape attempt like the one earlier in the week by opening fire.
“At the end of day, I’m worried about the safety of my coworkers,” said Aaron McGlothlin, staff union president at the medium-security federal prison in Mendota, California. “What kind of situation are they getting into? What happens if that happens with a BOP bus and somebody has to use force to control the situation?”
McGlothlin said he feared blowback similar to what the mounted Border Patrol officers faced after they were filmed and photographed whipping Haitians.
“I don't want that to be one of our staff members,” McGlothlin said. “It puts everyone in a bad light.”
All of the BOP staffers who spoke with VICE News warned about the ripple effect of pulling at least 100 officers away from short-staffed prisons. The impact, McGlothlin said, is that other staffers will be called to work mandatory overtime, which can mean shifts of 16 hours or more for days on end.
“We have walking zombies for staff because they're doing mandatory overtime and living inside the prison,” McGlothlin said. “Our morale is so low. We’re stretched too damn thin. We don’t make a lot of money. Everybody is on their last nerve right now.”
Advocates for Haitian migrants are upset that the Biden administration continues to pour manpower into turning desperate people away from the border rather than figuring out a way to let the people who have valid asylum claims stay.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, who has led the litigation seeking to strike down Title 42, questioned the presence of BOP officers at the border when he learned about it from VICE News.
“It’s appalling that the Biden administration is surging resources, including BOP agents, to the border to expel desperate Haitians,” Gelernt said, “rather than surging resources to process them under asylum laws.”
Gelernt added that while the plight of the Haitians has received the most attention in recent weeks, the crisis at the border has been going on for months. The Title 42 policy that’s being used to kick out Haitians, Gelernt said, also applies to families from Central America and elsewhere.
“The situation with the Haitians under the Del Rio bridge is horrific,” Gelernt said, “but it’s only a small part of the larger problem of the Biden administration keeping the Trump-era Title 42 policy to expel families without any due process whatsoever.”