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Lawsuit filed over guard’s fatal stabbing

POSTED June 27, 2009 3:23 p.m.
The family of Jose Rivera, the prison guard stabbed to death by two inmates, has filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons alleging poor management and unsafe working conditions contributed to his death.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Fresno by attorney Mark Peacock.
In filing the lawsuit, Peacock pointed to a report from the U.S. Department of justice that stated the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater was found to have insufficient discipline, problems finding and retaining employees, and allegations that management ignored repeated warnings of possible violence. The report was issued in April.
The Bureau of Prisons would not comment on the report because it is part of an internal investigation.
Rivera was killed in June of last year. Two inmates, Jose Cabrera Sablan and James Leon Guerrero were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The U.S. Attorney General’s Office has authorized the prosecution to seek the death penalty for the two men.
The report states that Rivera was stabbed more than 38 times by a homemade shank made from dishwasher parts. During the attack Rivera tried to escape but was held down by Guerrero, while Sablan stabbed him repeatedly. One of the stab wounds pierced Rivera’s heart, according to the autopsy report.
Both of the inmates were serving life sentences according to the Bureau of Prisons. They had been transferred to the Atwater facility from a prison in Guam, which is a U.S. territory, because of their violent behavior.
Guerrero, 43, was sent to the Guam corrections facility for an armed robbery. He was implicated along with three other inmates in the 1987 murder of Corrections Officer Douglas Mashburn, but was never brought up on any charges. Guerrero was sent to the Atwater facility one day before the fatal attack.
Sablan, 40, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Julienne Sablan and the attempted murder of a 14-year-old girl. He was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater in July 2005.
A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging the two men with first degree murder, first degree murder of a federal correctional officer and murder by a federal prisoner serving a life sentence.
Since the murder Guerrero has been held at a federal prison near Seattle and Sablan in a Dublin facility.
Rivera had been working at the Atwater prison for 10 months. Prior to that he served four years in the U.S. Navy and did two tours of duty in Iraq. His death sparked a grassroots effort to push for safety reforms within the U.S. Penitentiary system.
The national union representing federal correctional officers have stated that Rivera’s death was a preventable tragedy and have been calling for safety reforms that include stab-resistant vests, protective equipment like Tasers and batons, and staffing increases. At the time of his death, Rivera was the lone guard watching over 100 inmates.
Congressman Dennis Cardoza has introduced the “Jose Rivera Correctional Officer Protection Act,” which would provide $20 million in funding to the Bureau of Prisons for purchasing the stab-resistant vests.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.
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