Crisis at Canaan: Federal prisons fought pepper spray for guards
Published: March 31, 2013
They begged and pleaded. They went to court. They gave dire warnings.
After inmates fatally stabbed federal correctional officer Jose Rivera at the United States Penitentiary at Atwater, Calif., in June 2008, his colleagues and lawmakers urged the federal Bureau of Prisons to arm staff with pepper spray for protection.
But the prison system's top administrators stood firm on its policy of no weapons for officers.
It took four years of continued pressure, highly publicized inmate attacks and predictions of another tragedy for the bureau to budge, finally approving a limited pilot program in June 2012 to allow guards at seven of the 117 federal prisons to carry pepper spray.
Then came the murder of another unarmed correctional officer.
'Too little, too late'
Much like the Rivera murder, Eric Williams, 34, of Nanticoke, was blindsided by an inmate and fatally stabbed Feb. 25 at the United States Penitentiary at Canaan. The high-security facility in Wayne County was not included in the pilot program. Like Rivera, Williams was equipped only with keys, handcuffs and a radio when the inmate ambushed him with a crude, hand-made knife.
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Three days after the Williams slaying, the Bureau of Prisons expanded the pilot program to include all 20 of the nation's high-security prisons, including Canaan.
"It is too little, too late. It should have been a no-brainer. It was an unnecessary struggle to get pepper spray," Timothy M. DeBolt, who was western region vice president of the correctional officers' union when Rivera was killed, said in a telephone interview. "I'm disappointed it has taken this long and am sickened that another officer has been murdered in federal prison."
Following Rivera's murder, the union filed grievances against the Bureau of Prisons, seeking the ability to negotiate the use of protective equipment, including pepper spray. The bureau, DeBolt said, fought every step of the way in labor-relations courts, arguing management had the sole authority to determine security measures.
"They skirted the issue," DeBolt said.
Warden: BOP 'dragging its feet,' afraid of lawsuits
The Bureau of Prisons framed its argument against arming staff with pepper spray or other weapons, like batons, around the idea that those items could be seized by inmates and used against staff.
A year after Rivera's murder, then-Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin explained the no-weapons rationale to a congressional panel, saying: "You've got to realize, anything we give to an employee, you must assume an inmate can have."
But a former federal prison warden said there was another, overriding reason.
"They are afraid of being sued. They are," the retired warden said. "During my time as warden, the bureau's executive staff feared the staff would use it inappropriately and it would lead to litigation. They are going to have to not worry about issues of litigation. They have to show they are more concerned about protecting staff."
The warden, who contacted The Citizens' Voice following Williams' death, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid any conflicts his opinions might create for his current employer.
He said he has long advocated the use of pepper spray as federal prisons become increasingly overcrowded and dangerous. He called the Bureau of Prisons the "best corrections agency in the world," but accused it of "dragging its feet" on an issue vital to staff safety.
The bureau's culture, the retired warden said, has always relied on verbal communication between staff and inmates to quell problems. He said he believed that is shortsighted with prisons packed with more violent, predatory inmates than ever before.
"You want your staff to relate well with inmates. I've always appreciated that," the warden said. "But the problem is, it doesn't work in a high-security environment. Some of these guys are animals. In my opinion, they understand two emotions: anger and fear. And you have to be able to meet their violence head on."
A long wait for a 'major advantage'
David Nance's family has been supplying pepper spray to law enforcement agencies and state prisons for nearly three decades.
Their company, Fenton, Mo.-based Security Equipment Corp., lists 87 city and state police and county sheriffs departments as clients, as well as 28 state corrections departments and nine federal agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons. The firm even created a special formulation of its highly rated Sabre Red pepper spray, the flagship of its law enforcement product line, for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Until the recent pilot program, however, the Bureau of Prisons' only pepper spray orders were for high-capacity products used for crowd control and for suppressing inmate riots, not day-to-day patrols, according to Nance and federal spending disclosures.
The bureau - with an annual budget of more than $6 billion - spent $2.3 million in the last decade on tools classified in contracts and purchase orders as chemical weapons and nonlethal munitions, including rubber pellets and grenades that expel a vapor of pepper spray. The pepper spray pilot program launched last July accounted for a fraction of those costs. Supplying canisters of Sabre Red to correctional officers at Canaan after Williams' death, for instance, cost less than $5,000, according to federal disclosure records.
Arming correctional officers with pepper spray gives them a "major advantage" in an increasing hostile prison environment, Nance, the vice president of Security Equipment Corp., said in a telephone interview. Correctional officers like Williams, who was working alone guarding a unit of more than 100 inmates, are "vastly outnumbered" by inmates who can be "extremely violent," Nance said.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction," he said.
State correctional departments learned the value of pepper spray years ago, employing it as an inexpensive but effective tool in curing the imbalance between their unarmed correctional officers and inmates who craft their own weapons from a myriad of material including mess hall cutlery and pieces from their in-cell plumbing fixtures.
"Almost all correctional facilities throughout the United States - state correctional facilities - the officers are carrying pepper spray," Nance said. "It's not like (the Bureau of Prisons) is doing something here that hasn't been done before."
Pepper spray, developed from the chemical that gives chili peppers their tear-inducing kick, causes involuntary eye closure and can compromise an inmate's balance, leading to a pivotal "pause in combat," Nance said.
Pepper spray, he said, enables correctional officers to temporarily distract and disable an armed inmate without the face-to-face confrontation and hand-to-hand combat that often leads to injury or death. In most situations, he said, a correctional officer can fire a jet of pepper spray at a threatening inmate from a "safe distance" of 10 to 15 feet away. The sprayed inmate will become distracted by his or her inability to see and stand straight, giving a correctional officer an opportunity to safely restrain the inmate, Nance said.
The Bureau of Prisons has spent $23,938 on arming correctional officers with pepper spray since Williams' death. On March 7, just a week after Williams' death, the bureau paid Security Equipment Corp. $4,999 for 500 pepper spray bottles and 97 holsters for officers at the Canaan facility where he worked, according to federal spending disclosures. The bureau followed with similar purchases from the company to arm correctional officers at facilities in Allenwood and Lewisburg, on March 8; in Tucson, Ariz. on March 13 and at Hazelton, W.Va. on March 18.
A 3.3-ounce canister of the Sabre Red Mk-4 pepper spray supplied to officers at Canaan and the other Bureau of Prisons facilities in the pilot program retails for $16.68 to $18.25, according to the General Services Administration and other distributors. A 3-ounce canister of the special Coast Guard formulation retails on a government website for $10.40. Nance would not disclose pricing information, but discounts for volume purchases would likely drive the price of arming correctional officers down considerably.
Even at the higher prices per unit, calculations showed, the cost of arming all of the Bureau of Prisons' 38,726 employees with a single canister of pepper spray would run far below $1 million. The holsters, some of which retail for $9.99 each, would elevate the total cost to no more than $1.1 million.
Clamoring for a proven tool
The former warden adamantly supports arming guards with pepper spray because he has seen it effectively used in federal prisons many times before.
While rank-and-file guards have not been able to carry it, federal prisons have pepper spray locked in control centers and armories to use during emergency situations, like riots or cell extractions for unruly inmates.
"When you blast that inmate, he will give up and the team doesn't even have to fight him. I've seen it dozens and dozens of times. Every single time, the inmate gave up," the warden said. "Pepper spray will put down almost any man."
The problem, union officials said, is the emergency use of pepper spray has to first be approved by the prison warden - a step that can delay a response interminably, giving troublemaking inmates time to gather and grow in force.
"In situations where aggressively dangerous inmates, who often have homemade lethal weapons, are physically attacking correctional officers, there is little or no time for the warden to authorize the use of pepper spray," Gary Mills, national legislative coordinator for the correctional officers union, recently told a congressional subcommittee.
In his testimony to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, Mills urged congressional leaders to expand the pilot program even further to include staff in all federal prisons, not just the high-security facilities.
"It's just another tool that could give a correctional officer the opportunity to still be alive," said Dale Deshotel, national union president for the American Federation of Government Employees, Council of Prison Locals. "Most state facilities use it. Every policeman on the street has it."
Union: Make pilot program permanent
As officers at high security prisons complete pepper spray training, the correctional officers union is calling for the Bureau of Prisons to make pepper spray a permanent part of the staff's equipment.
"It's still a pilot program," Deshotel said. "They could still pull the plug."
While the Bureau of Prisons expanded the pilot program three days after Williams' murder, a spokesman attributed the program's expansion to "positive experiences" in the initial seven prisons where it was tested.
"Pepper spray is just one of a number of safety and security enhancements the Bureau of Prisons has made over time. We continually review, test and implement security technologies, consistent with agency policy and budget constraints," bureau spokesman Ed Ross said. "We remain committed to continually reviewing operations and procedures and making modifications as needed to ensure we are doing everything possible to reduce the risks associated with this inherently dangerous line of work."
Ross declined to comment about the former warden's accusations that the bureau has held up the measure in fear of lawsuits and staff abuse.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., first suggested the pilot program in 2009 following the murder of Rivera, but several attempts to introduce the legislation failed.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., then proposed a similar bill in October 2011, urging the Bureau of Prisons director and congressional colleagues to "take the necessary steps to protect our nation's correctional officers" by giving them pepper spray. Before the bill came to a vote, the bureau decided to institute the pilot program in June 2012. The expansion is being implemented in phases, Casey said, with Canaan and other high-security penitentiaries in the Northeastern U.S. among the first to receive new shipments of pepper spray.
"I'm glad that the Bureau of Prisons agrees with me now, after fighting for this for the last three years," Casey said in a recent interview, adding that he would continue pressing the Bureau of Prisons to expedite the program expansion.
"We have to be vigilant about the efforts they undertake to implement this quickly and do the training that's necessary so that these prison guards have the pepper spray they need and also the training that goes with it," Casey said. "We have to make sure it's implemented over weeks and maybe months instead of many months."
Cheri Nolan, a deputy assistant attorney general during George W. Bush's presidency who is now a federal prison consultant, understands the bureau's hesitancy and could see both sides of the long-standing debate.
"Pepper spray, like anything else, has risks and it has its benefits. There are reasons why there are no guns in prisons," she said. "What is going to be used in the defense and safety of a correctional officer could be quickly turned on the officer."
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