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Unions call for changes in wake of prison guards death
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As the one year anniversary of Jose Rivera’s death approaches, prison guard unions are stepping up the pressure for reforms within the Bureau of Prisons and for new safety regulations.
The American Federation of Government Employees and the Council of Prison Locals have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to demand the resignation of Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin. They’re also increasing the call on Congress to fully fund the agency and provide correctional officers with stab-resistant vests and non-lethal weapons like batons, pepper spray, and Taser guns.
“It has become painfully clear that BOP management is out of touch with its own prison system,” said CPL President Bryan Lowry. “We are tired of hearing about policy restrictions. We want our correctional officers to be protected on the job. Immediate action is the only acceptable outcome.”
“We have lost all faith in the Bureau of Prisons management,” said John Gage, the national president of the AFGE. “They care more about public relations than officers’ safety. For heaven’s sake, give us the simple tools we have been requesting.”
Rivera, a 22-year-old Iraq war veteran and correctional officer at the Federal Penitentiary in Atwater, was stabbed to death by two inmates on June 20, 2008. The two inmates, Jose Canberra Sablan and James Leon Guerrero have been 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.
Following Rivera’s death, the Department of Justice conducted an investigation at the Atwater facility and subsequently released a report that found the prison to be lacking in certain procedures and standards that could have prevented the attack.
“Not only are we frustrated by what we read in this report, we are angry about it,” Lowry said.
Rivera was stabbed with a homemade shank from a dishwasher, according to the report. The report also indicated the two inmates were drunk from a homemade brew. The report states both weapons and alcohol were found in numerous quantities at the Atwater facility, and that inmates were not being sufficiently punished for these infractions.
“...The lack of enforcement of the disciplinary process has led inmates to believe they will not be held accountable for their actions,” the report states. “This leads to a dangerous environment for staff and inmates.”
A review of the video surveillance showed Rivera was chased down and stabbed 10 times before the first staff member arrived on scene. Because that staff member did not have a key to open the unit door, it was several more minutes before help was able to reach Rivera, during which time, he was stabbed another seven times.
“What happened to Jose Rivera in Atwater is typical of the entire BOP system,” Gage said. “Prisoners are armed with homemade weapons, they access or create intoxicants, and then threaten the safety and security of the entire facility. Our correctional officers deserve protection — protection that will allow them to go home to their families at night — something Jose Rivera didn’t have.”
The unions are requesting more guards need to be hired to watch over the 206,000 inmates held in federal prisons. The Bureau of Prisons reports they have approximately a 5-to-1 inmate to correctional staff ratio. Union leaders said this number includes administrators and secretaries — positions unable to assist guards or intervene on their behalf. The first person to reach Rivera was an unarmed female secretary, who could do nothing but watch helplessly as Rivera was stabbed repeatedly, according to the report.
In addition to increased staffing, the unions want stab-resistant vests and non-lethal weapons to become standard issue for all correctional officers. Lowry said vests are currently given only to those guards that request them and that the guards have reported retaliatory punishments for making those requests.
“They (the Bureau of Prisons management) don’t think the vests are necessary,” Lowry said.
Rivera’s family recently filed a civil suit against the Bureau of Prisons, claiming the poor management and unsafe working conditions contributed to Rivera’s death.
“Terri Rivera, Jose’s mother asks ‘why was he slaughtered the way he was,’” said Mark Peacock, the attorney representing the family. “The family doesn’t understand why upper management still has their jobs.”
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.