Atwater prison officers to carry pepper spray
By Michael Doylemdoyle@mcclatchydc.com
last updated: June 22, 2012 10:59:57 PM
WASHINGTON -- ]
A 37-year-old U.S. Penitentiary Atwater inmate is dead after being assaulted by another inmate at the prison about 8:30 p.m. Sunday, prison officials reported. - (The Modesto Bee) -
Corrections officers at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater and six other tension-racked federal prisons now will be armed with pepper spray, prompted in part by a 2008 slaying that still haunts a California court.
Urged on by lawmakers, U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials are training selected officers to use the spray canisters, which can drop a violent inmate from as far as 12 feet away. Although described as a "pilot program" that will formally start in several weeks, the decision marks a policy shift for officials who until now have warned against the dangers of arming prison officers.
Under the prior no-weapons policy, Atwater guard Jose Rivera carried only a radio and body alarm when two inmates are believed to have turned on him on June 20, 2008. They are accused of running Rivera down, tackling the 22-year-old Navy veteran and stabbing him repeatedly, based on what's seen on a prison videotape. The two accused inmates are awaiting trial.
"The senseless and tragic murder of Jose Rivera highlighted the dangerous risks correctional officers face on a daily basis when working in overcrowded prisons," stated Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, adding that he is pleased with the new policy, which he believes will "save other law enforcement officers from injury or even death."
After Rivera's slaying, Cardoza introduced legislation to direct a pepper-spray pilot program in federal prisons. Although the legislation has not moved, the version reintroduced in the current Congress has collected 61 House co-sponsors; it's the kind of congressional support that can grab an agency's attention.
Besides Atwater, which opened in 2001, the pepper spray will be distributed to guards at high-security federal prisons in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and Louisiana. Training is under way, and the pepper spray is supposed to be deployed by August, with officials planning to study its use and effectiveness for the next year.
"I hope it helps someone not get injured, and absolutely save a life," Dale Deshotel, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Council of Prison Locals 33, said in an interview Friday. "We hope we can (eventually) get this into all employees' hands."
Known technically as oleoresin capsicum, pepper spray incapacitates by causing retching, uncontrollable coughing, burning pain, eye swelling and more.
State officers carry spray
While state prison officers in California and several other states are armed with pepper spray, federal authorities until now have reasoned that the potential disadvantages outweighed the benefits.
Arming guards, even with a nonlethal weapon such as pepper spray, would impede communication with inmates, officials have stated. Officials also have warned that unruly inmates could seize the three- to four-ounce pepper spray canisters and turn them against the guards.
"Management at one (federal) institution explained that, regardless of the amount of equipment officers carry, inmates will always outnumber officers. Therefore, the officers' ability to manage the inmates through effective communication, rather than the use of equipment, is essential to ensuring federal safety," the Government Accountability Office noted in a 2011 study.
The prior director of the Bureau of Prisons, who had been steadfast in resisting arming guards, Harley Lappin, left the agency last year to join the private Corrections Corporation of America. The current director, Charles E. Samuels Jr., has been more open to the idea, though the pilot program announcement "came out of the blue," Deshotel said.
A Bureau of Prison spokesperson could not be reached Friday.
In certain cases, Bureau of Prisons officials have granted waivers to permit the deployment of additional equipment. Guards at the so-called Supermax facility in Florence, Colo., for instance, were given special permission to carry batons. Pepper spray and other weapons have been stored and kept available for emergency use.
Federal prison inmates committed 73 "serious" assaults on staff in 2010 and 1,623 "less serious" assaults, Bureau of Prisons records show. In 2008, the year of Rivera's death, federal prisons reported 94 serious assaults and 1,392 less serious assaults.
Inmates James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan could face the death penalty if convicted of Rivera's slaying. Attorneys, though, are contesting whether Guerrero is mentally fit to stand trial.