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How Accurate Is Con Air To Real Life Convict Transportation?

Released in 1997, "Con Air" is an explosive action film from noted producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose best-known films include "Top Gun" and "National Treasure," as well as the CBS show "CSI" and its many spin-offs. The story follows Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), a former Army Ranger who accidentally kills a bar patron during an altercation. He serves prison time for eight years before being released on his daughter's birthday. Unfortunately for Poe, in order to get home, he has to catch a ride with "Con Air" on the Jailbird, a prisoner transport airplane filled to the brim with psychopaths, drug dealers, rapists, and mass murderers en route to a maximum-security prison. Cage's character must navigate this dangerous scenario, and the movie eventually culminates in a bombastic finale only Jerry Bruckheimer could deliver.

Also starring John Malkovich, Dave Chappelle, an uncharacteristically scary Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, and John Cusack, "Con Air" was a self-aware blockbuster, earning around $224 million against an $80 million budget (via The Numbers), making it one of Cage's biggest movies. But with a wild plot and over-the-top action sequences, fans might wonder, how close the plane in "Con Air" is to real-life prisoner transportation?

How close is "Con Air" to real life?

Oddly enough, within the prison system, the airplane network is actually referred to as "Con Air," though just as a nickname, according to a report by the Sun Sentinel in 1997 around the film's release. Officially, the system is called the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, or JPATS for short, and it has only been around since 1995, per the U.S. Marshals Service. JPATS does indeed fly convicts across the United States, in addition to deported illegal immigrants, and is one of the largest prisoner transport networks in the world.

Operating through a joint-venture between the Federal Bureau of Prisons and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, JPATS does have some similarities to the system featured in "Con Air." Per the Sun Sentinel, prisoners' hands and ankles are cuffed, sometimes double- or even triple-locked. More volatile convicts are given restrictive hand coverings to prevent any movement, and in some cases, masks to prevent biting and spitting. The inmates are thoroughly inspected while boarding the plane in order to search for contraband, much like in the movie. 

Unlike "Con Air" and most of the prison system, JPATS does not separate female and male convicts. Another major difference is the aircraft itself. In "Con Air," the C-137 has a military-style hull and seating arrangement, whereas the Boeing 737s used by JPATS are just like civilian planes, give or take a dozen U.S. marshalls. 

And no, they do not play any Lynyrd Skynyrd over the loudspeakers in real-life.