The Federal Bureau of Prisons has instituted a pilot program based on Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced) bill, H.R. 1175, to issue oleoresin capsicum (pepper) spray to trained correctional officers at seven U.S. Penitentiaries, including USP Atwater.
Re-introduced in 2011, Cardoza's bill directed the Bureau of Prisons to conduct a pilot program to determine whether issuing pepper spray to correctional staff results in a decrease in incidents of violence against them by inmates. Cardoza originally introduced this bill following the murder of correctional Officer Jose Rivera in 2008. A four-year veteran of the Navy who had completed two tours of military duty in Iraq, Officer Rivera was stabbed by two inmates using weapons made from materials acquired inside the prison. He only had a radio with which to defend himself.
"The senseless and tragic murder of Jose Rivera highlighted the dangerous risks correctional officers face on a daily basis when working in over-crowded prisons," said Cardoza. "When I introduced my bill, I aimed to give officers a fighting chance to defend themselves from violent criminals. I couldn't be more pleased that the Bureau of Prisons is instituting this pilot program and am optimistic that it will save other law enforcement officers from injury or even death."
BOP will operate the pepper spray program under the Department of Justice's Policy Statement on the Use of Less-Than-Lethal Devices and under the following guidelines:
• Will be authorized for select and trained institution staff;
• Consistent with BOP's policy on Use of Force and Application, pepper spray may be used to incapacitate or disable disruptive, assaultive, or armed inmates posing a threat to the safety of others, or to institution security and good order;
• The dispenser authorized for this pilot program is the 3-4 ounce canister with a full cone spray, with an effective range of 10-12 feet.
Cardoza has advocated in Congress for greater funding for the Bureau of Prisons and sufficient resources for correctional officers to more safely handle the dramatic increases in prison populations over the past few decades. In response to Congressman Cardoza's requests, the Bureau of Prisons has already provided correctional officers with stab-resistant vests, given local penitentiaries greater control over inmates, and supplied penitentiaries with additional staff during evening and weekend watch.
Over the last 20 years, the inmate population in the federal prison system has increased by more than 150 percent while staffing levels have not kept pace, increasing only 18 percent from 2000 to 2011. Nationwide, the inmate-to-staff ratio is only 5 to 1, a significant increase from the 1997 level of 3.6 to 1. Currently, the entire federal prison system is 39 percent over its rated capacity. The most dangerous levels of overcrowding are occurring at high security facilities, such as USP Atwater, which are operating at an average of 55 percent over their rated capacity.