Crisis at Canaan: Prison on the brink
Published: March 10, 2013
Darkness fell just before lights out.
An inmate at the United States Penitentiary, Canaan blindsided correctional officer Eric Williams as he made his rounds for nightly lockdown between 9:45 and 10 p.m. Feb. 25.
The attacking inmate, whose name has not been released by authorities, hurled the 34-year-old Nanticoke native down a set of steps and pounced, beating him and repeatedly stabbing him with a crude, knife-like weapon known as a "shank."
"Before he could even react, the inmate was on him," a fellow Canaan correctional officer said.
Several correctional officers at the facility spoke to The Citizens' Voice last week on the condition of anonymity, saying they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Together they provided a detailed narrative of the ambush that killed Williams, underscoring the dangers of life inside facilities like Canaan and the fragile balance of authority between correctional officers, who are assigned alone to units of more than 100 inmates, and the hardened criminals they guard.
The secrecy of the investigation and drips of information from within the prison - one guard posted on a message board that anger over the removal of audio speakers from a cell led to the attack - have made it especially hard to determine precisely what led the inmate to attack.
This much is known for sure: Williams' murder was the crescendo to a wave of violence within the walls of Canaan. Since the facility opened in 2005, more than a dozen inmates have been charged with assaulting correctional officers or attacking each other. In the last three years, three inmates have stabbed other inmates to death. The latest victim was 29-year-old Ephraim Goitom in January.
But Williams' murder, Warden David Ebbert said, was "clearly the darkest day" in Canaan's history.
Rated as a high-security institution, one rung below maximum security, the prison's inhabitants are a motley crew of some of the world's most vile offenders. Among them: Somali pirate Mohammad Shibin, al-Qaida conspirator Abdul Kadir and James Kopp, who protested abortion and killed a Buffalo, N.Y., doctor who performed them.
"If you're not scared when you go to work, you're not right," one correctional officer said. "These inmates are there for a reason. If you don't watch your back, you're going to be in trouble."
Darrell Palmer, the president of the union representing correctional officers at Canaan, put it this way:
"Imagine what it would be like if you came to work and they put you in this cell block with 130 criminals and they gave you a set of keys and a radio and said, 'Run it.' And there's murderers, drug dealers, rapists and even terrorists. And you're going to deal with them for eight hours, five days a week. People in the public don't realize what it's like."
End of watch
Williams was working alone when the inmate ambushed him.
Help, his colleagues said, was nowhere nearby.
One unarmed officer, alone, to watch and control about 130 inmates in a two-level cell block about half the length of a football field. And in Williams' case, alone, when an inmate launched a savage sneak attack.
It does not make sense, correctional officers and their union officials contend, to assign one guard per 100-plus inmate housing unit. But that has been the norm since 2005, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to assign only one officer to each cell block, instead of two, to save money.
That decision has cost lives, some say.
A federal correctional officer at a U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., in June 2008 was killed by inmates in nearly the same way as Williams. The attack was launched from the second tier to the ground floor, and the guard was fatally stabbed with a shank, Dale Deshotel, national president for the American Federation of Government Employees' Council of Prison Locals, said.
"We've been rolling the dice since 2005 and we lost two officers because they are alone. There's no other way around it. If Eric would not have been alone, we would not be where we are. He would have had a fighting chance," Deshotel said. "The inmate would have had a different attitude if there were two people. That's for sure."
When Williams failed to leave the housing unit after the nightly head count, another officer grew suspicious and found him down, union officials previously said. They said it wasn't clear how long it took the other officer to realize Williams was in distress.
Against the inmate with a homemade weapon, Williams was equipped with only keys, handcuffs and a radio with a panic button.
"The guy in Atwater had hit his body alarm. This time, Eric didn't even have the chance to do that. He was attacked so fast," Deshotel said.
While rumors are circulating about what led to the attack, the inmate's motive is not entirely clear.
"We are still working with the FBI to investigate all of this," one officer collecting information on the killing said. "Everybody wants a conviction on this guy. Our biggest goal right now is to make sure every single T is crossed and I is dotted so there is nothing this individual can do to get out of this."
In the aftermath of Williams' death, federal officials have expanded a pilot program to arm officers with pepper spray. But the officers who work behind the prison walls say only beefed up staffing will make their jobs safer.
"Pepper spray wouldn't have saved Eric Williams. A gun wouldn't have saved him. What happened was so fast," another Canaan correctional officer said. "The only thing I think would have is another staff member. Without someone there pressing that (panic) button, all that stuff is ineffective. If they don't put more staff on, this is just going to keep happening."
Within hours of Williams' death, the director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Charles E. Samuels Jr., placed a call to Deshotel just after midnight Feb. 26 to discuss the killing. Samuels, who arrived in Nanticoke to eulogize Williams at his funeral last week, would later call it the "saddest day" in his quarter-century career with the bureau.
Williams' brothers and sisters at Canaan were sickened by grief. One officer who was working the surveillance and control room at the time Williams was killed took the death part particularly hard - and then took his life, coworkers said.
The officer, a 43-year-old man from Scranton, fatally shot himself in wooded area of Archbald last Monday, two days after Williams' funeral.
"This kid took it very hard. He did everything right. However, he felt he could have done more. This kid is very meticulous in his work. He's that kind of worker. He doesn't leave a stone unturned. I've been on this job (many years) and he was twice the officer I ever was," said another veteran correctional officer at Canaan. "Without a doubt, this was not his fault in any shape or form. Not one of those guards who were there that night did anything wrong."
Following the suicide, the Williams family quickly rallied behind his coworkers, telling them not to feel guilty and place blame where it lies: the inmate.
"It's another tragic loss of life all stemming from the act of this one man," Williams' father, Donald, said. "I don't want anyone blaming themselves. There's only one person responsible for this."
Coworkers say there was some chatter among officers Williams might have radioed briefly during the attack.
Such communications or requests for help are automatically logged in a computer system, an employee familiar with the system said. The guard who committed suicide sat in the control room for nearly six hours after the attack, reviewing records, looking to if he missed something, but there no indication that he missed anything, the person said.
"He beat himself down to the point he did what he did," the officer noted.
Inside the prison
Unarmed and massively outnumbered, federal correctional officers "walk the toughest beat of any law enforcement agency in the world," said Palmer, the head of the guards' union at Canaan.
They are in charge of watching over America's most notorious and dangerous criminals.
The scary part, he notes, is that many of the inmates have nothing to lose.
So far this year, inmates at Canaan have been especially ruthless, perpetrating the first inmate-on-inmate murder, the first assault on a guard with a weapon and recently the first homicide of an officer out of all the 114 facilities in the Bureau of Prisons, Palmer said.
"We're just unlucky souls. It's a bad year for Canaan," Palmer said last week. "Not to say it can't happen anywhere else, because it could."
High-security prisons like Canaan are the final stop in the criminal justice system for big time offenders, many serving 25 years to life. After their arrest, trial and sentencing - which often make news - they enter prison and fade out of the public's memory.
But correctional officers deal with them every day - mostly unnoticed and often under-appreciated, those working this job say.
"We're the forgotten ones. We walk around with 130 of them at night by ourselves. It's probably one of the most dangerous jobs bar none," said Palmer, a correctional officer for 20 years who has been working as a prison counselor the past three.
"Once he's off the street, he's still a dangerous criminal," explained another veteran officer at Canaan. "He's still that violent person sitting in a cell. He has 24 hours a day to make weapons, to try to get contraband, to try to escape or hurt staff."
Several unionized correctional officers at Canaan spoke to The Citizens' Voice on the condition of anonymity, saying they are not authorized to speak to the media, but think the public deserves to know what it's like behind prison walls. More importantly, they say the elected officials who set policy and control funding need to know.
"Everybody thinks an inmate is locked down all day and all night and they don't get any freedom. No, we're walking among them just like the general public on a daily basis," one officer noted.
The officers explained these freedoms.
The only times inmates are locked in their cells is from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and once again for a midday head count, usually around 5 p.m. If an inmate has no disciplinary infractions, he is allowed to work his prison job, go to educational classes, see doctors, head to the chow hall or work out. Sometimes they can just lounge around and watch television or spend time with family during in-person visits that even allows for kisses goodbye.
"They're out interacting with each other, interacting with the guards. They say you're almost like a father figure to them," one Canaan officer said. "You're somewhat of a counselor. You're an authority figure and somewhat of a mentor to them, too. A lot of your job is talking to these inmates. This is their day in and day out. They're never going home. You have to approach them with some respect. You're not just bossing them around."
Correctional officers, however, know they could never let down their guard. Prisons like Canaan house the worst of the worst of the criminal world.
"Some people think, 'You work in the federal prison. You got doctors and lawyers.' No, we have murderers and drug traffickers and more," the officer said.
And in any given cell block, the ratio is about 130 of these inmates to one correctional officer.
That one officer is in charge of a two-tiered, triangular-shaped housing unit that is about 40 yards long and has 68 double-bed cells. While making rounds, breaking up fights or seizing contraband, that officer can't always be watching his or her back for a surprise attack, officers say.
"We're at the mercy of these inmates," Deshotel said.
The public recently got a rare glimpse at what can happen inside a federal prison after the television news station King 5 in Seattle, Wash., obtained surveillance footage from a March 1, 2012 attack of a correctional officer at Federal Detention Center SeaTac in Seattle.
As an officer made his morning rounds unlocking cells on the ground floor, two inmates sat calmly at a table and watched.
"He is all alone in this unit. He has no one else to watch his back. They know it's the perfect time to take us by surprise," Michael Meserve, a correctional union official for the Western Region, noted in the news report that was aired last month.
When the officer approached the cell nearest to the inmates, one sprung from his seat, cocked his arm back and violently swung at the guard's head. He never saw it coming. The inmate was armed with a large pipe he dislodged from the sink in his cell. The video shows several minutes of ensuing chaos as fellow guards - just three who were available - rushed in to help. Despite being doused in the face with pepper spray, the inmate - now armed with a homemade weapon - violently charged at responding officers in a scene reminiscent of a linebacker's unabated blitz at a quarterback.
Something happened in the Seattle attack that didn't the night Williams was killed. Other inmates rushed to the guard's aid, broke up the assault and saved his life. A year later, that officer is still recovering and has not returned to work.
"We run into places that most people run away from because it is our duty and because our very lives and our coworkers' lives depend on it," Palmer said.
The only solution to the crisis facing correctional officers is more staffing, Palmer said, noting help must come from Washington, D.C.
"There's not much more we can do than lobby congressmen and senators. The warden's hands are tied. If they're not going to give them the tools or money to run the prison the proper way, there's nothing they can do."