If I were to ask "What is JPATS?" You'd likely have no idea. Why would you? Even if we went as far as to spell it out as the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System... still, no clue... But if I asked if you've ever heard of Con Air, who wouldn't know?

Con Air is the slang term and unofficial name for JPATS - the service the Federal Bureau of Prisons and US Immigration and Customs use for transporting prisoners and illegal aliens across the country and border. It's also headquartered and based in Oklahoma City.


How did Con Air end up being based out of Oklahoma? The history is quite a tale, but the reason is pretty obvious.

The transport of prisoners in a country as big as the United States had always been somewhat of a logistical nationwide nightmare. The Marshal Service used trains where they could, but the overall standard practice was two marshals per inmate driving a government car to and from wherever they needed to be.

If an inmate or prisoner from California had to be in New York for court, it meant a long four days traversing the country in a Ford LTD. As simple as it seems to load a person on a plane and send them off to where they need, the logistics and unpopular public opinion of flying inmates on commercial flights kept marshals babysitting prisoners in their cars.

Why don't we just run our own airline?

In 1985, the FAA had a spare plane lying around. Anybody that has spent enough time around the government knows the feds love to get rid of perfectly good older stuff just so they can buy new stuff. That whole "If we don't use all the money now they won't give us as much next year" sort of thing... The Marshal Service accepted the plan but still didn't have a clear plan or idea of how it would be used.

One US Marshal boldly stepped up and said "Why don't we just run our own airline?"


US Marshals took that FAA surplus plane, moved tons of inmates around the country, and because a plane is such a secure mode of transport, it only requires 12 marshals to escort 200 prisoners... but the logistical issues of flight planning soon arose as it grew in usage popularity.

In 1995, when the US Marshal Air Fleet merged with ICE, the government built a new headquarters in Oklahoma City. Being so close to the geographical center of the lower 48, it made perfect sense.

Twenty-something years later, Con Air has grown to a fleet of four aircraft that fly some 260,000 inmates and detainees each year. While the headquarters and main transfer center are still located at Will Rogers Airport in OKC, there is another hub in Vegas and two more in the Caribbean.

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

If you've seen Con Air, the movie centered around the process of moving inmates, there are security measures in place aimed at preventing prisoners from hijacking flights.

Flight schedules are kept as confidential as possible, even the inmates don't find out about their flights until it's time to head to the airport. Only those directly involved with security know the details of their individual flights.

Staying true to the movie, all inmates and detainees are required to wear handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and waist chains during their flight. Additionally, some are forced to wear mittens to keep them from attempting escape, others wear masks to prevent biting and spitting.

Oddly enough, the worse a risk you are, the smaller the plane becomes. America's most notorious inmates usually fly on smaller, private-type planes.

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