Before most of us get up, before the sun comes up, a bus rattles to life at Albemarle Correctional Institution. It's 5:10 a.m. and the beginning of what will be a long day. Twice-a-week inmates are transferred out of the prison. WBTV news has found it's happening without any obvious concern for time, cost or security.
"Eight years, four months and 24 days," said Elton Riffle.
Riffle spent those eight plus years behind bars. He robbed to support a crack cocaine habit. He says he's been clean since 2005 and since mid-October he's been home with his wife and kids, but he almost missed his release date. He almost had to stay one more day. Why?
"Due to the transfer bus there," said Riffle. "The roundabout way they go."
You don't have to take his word for it. We captured it on video. The bus, travels to the Division of Prisons Transfer Station in High Point, to make the prisoner exchanges. The facility, commonly known as Sandy Ridge, is due north from Albermale. It should be, at most, a 70-mile 90-minute trip. But when the bus finally leaves the facility, two hours after the 2-man crew clocked in at work, the bus doesn't head north. It goes south.
"That (isn't) anywhere near going to Sandy Ridge," said Ronnie Strickland.
Strickland worked for the Department of Corrections for 30 years. For ten of them he was a captain at Albemarle Correctional. We asked him to watch the video we shot. It shows the crew taking lefts and rights through the city of Albemarle. They then go west on Highway 73. The pace was steady and the bus would occasionally pull over to let traffic by.
Forty-minutes into the trip the bus approaches Concord which is quite a distance out of the way, but before they even get there, we saw them take another detour. They went north up Irish Potato Road, then straight back south on Old Salisbury - Concord Road. It was simply a 14 mile out-of-the-way loop.
"I don't get that," said Strickland. "I mean I don't understand (where they are going.)"
The crew is now an hour into the trip. The bus is still 70-miles from the transfer station. No closer to their destination, but as they turned onto Interstate 85 north they were at least now headed in the right direction. They just wouldn't stay on the freeway for very long. 15-minutes later they pulled off on Peeler Road which is just before Salisbury.
The exit is home to a truck stop and the bus pulls up alongside a Bojangles restaurant. The lead officer gets off. He heads inside for food, leaving just one officer aboard to watch the inmates.
"He should not be leaving that bus like that with those prisoners on it," said Strickland.
The leads officer returns and bus starts moving, but not to the highway. It moves to the back of the truck stop where the bus is parked between two semi trucks.
"They shouldn't be there period," said Strickland shaking his head as he watched the video.
The other officer gets off and heads into a Subway restaurant to order a salad. Neither officer was wearing his side-arm. State police says they should be for obvious reasons.
"He can't even defend himself much less stop a fleeing felon," said Strickland.
The bus sits for 50 minutes before finally pulling back on to I-85. They go to Highway 52 than Interstate 40. The bus pulls into the transfer station around 10 a.m. The 90-minute, 70-mile ride became a 3-hour, 115-mile trip. WBTV didn't see it happen just once. It happened every time we followed. Five times over the past couple months.
On the fifth time we approached one of the officers as he walked out of the Subway restaurant and asked why they were taking the scenic route?
"I'm not going to answer that," said the officer.
He then added they were staying away from the main roads for safety. It begged a follow-up. Is it safe to park inmates at a truck stop, day after day after day?
"They're back out of the way sir," said the officer. "I had to use the restroom, when I go to the restroom I go to get something to eat."
When asked if they are following policies and procedures, he said there are doing what they are "told to do." WBTV also asked if they are racking up overtime making the trip.
"I am not answering any more questions sir," said the officer.
WBTV took the video to Raleigh to show the George Solomon. He is the state's Director of Prisons.
"Obviously it's concerning," said Solomon. "We appreciate you sharing that with us. We've initiated an internal investigation."
WBTV has also obtained travel logs for the Albermarle to Sandy Ridge run. So far in 2013, the records show the bus running has racked up more than 4500 extra miles. Over the past two years each member of the two man crew has run up more than $2000 in overtime. We asked Solomon if this was being good stewards of taxpayer money.
"I will wait for the investigation to come back," said Solomon. "Our investigation is statewide."
He did not know how long the investigation would take.
"The department's priority is to keep the public safe," said Solomon in a follow-up written statement. "It strives to do that in as efficient a way as possible. DPS (Department of Public Safety) takes issues relating to bus transportation of inmates very seriously."
WBTV has asked for travel records from all the state's prisons. DPS says it is working to fulfill the "Freedom of Information" request.
Elton Riffle who has ridden a number of the busses from various prisons says slow-downs, stops and scenic routes are not uncommon.