USA Today ad pressures prison for safety gear

"Jose was taken from us because of the situation inside federal prisons today," stated the ad, which was paid for by the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents federal correctional officers. "Overcrowding, underfunding and depriving our officers of the tools they need to defend themselves will only lead to more violence and more lives lost ... When will the Justice Department take action? Do more correctional officers have to die?"

Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran who had worked at USP Atwater less than 11 months, died June 20 after he was attacked by two inmates wielding handmade shanks.

For years, union officials have been asking the U.S. Bureau of Prisons -- the Justice Department agency that oversees all federal prisons -- to make changes aimed at better protecting correctional officers.

Now union officials are seizing on Rivera's death as an opportunity to finally win those changes.

Specifically, they are calling for more funding to increase staffing in all federal prisons and policy changes that would make stab-resistant vests and nonlethal weapons, such as batons and Tasers, standard equipment for all officers.

Rivera was alone with more than 100 inmates when he was attacked -- a standard inmate-to-officer ratio inside federal prison housing units, according to correctional officers.

Unlike California correctional officers, federal officers don't wear stab-resistant vests to protect themselves from prisoners carrying handmade weapons -- a problem that officers say is rampant.

Also unlike state correctional officers, federal officers are equipped with no weapons of their own. Rivera was carrying only a flashlight, keys, a radio and handcuffs when he was attacked, his co-workers have said.

"I definitely think the ad got the bureau's attention, and that was the point," said Bryan Lowry, president of the Council of Prison Locals of the American Federation of Government Employees. "We need to see these changes before another officer dies."

USA Today is the most widely circulated newspaper in the United States, with full-page ad prices starting at $112,000 a day.

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the ad Thursday. So did Rivera's family. USP Atwater's spokesman, Jesse Gonzalez, didn't return phone calls.

So far, Bureau of Prisons officials have promised no changes in the wake of Rivera's death, though they have said they are considering making stab-resistant vests available to some correctional officers.

Lowry said bureau officials told him they will respond by today to a list of safety-related requests submitted by union leaders during a meeting last week with the bureau's director, Harley Lappin.

Besides more staff, stab-resistant vests and nonlethal weapons, the union has asked for new surveillance systems that would allow officers in a central location to better monitor entire institutions and improvements to the bureau's inmate classification system that would ensure violent offenders aren't placed in lower security units.

In addition to efforts by union leaders on the national level, family members of USP Atwater correctional officers are working locally to inspire changes.

In response to a request by a coalition of family members formed last week, the Merced City Council passed a resolution Monday calling for safety improvements at the prison.

"We're speaking out because the correctional officers themselves aren't allowed to," said Dennis Anderson, whose son works at USP Atwater. "We recognize that no one family member wants to speak out alone for fear that their relative might face retaliation at work. There's strength in numbers."

The group is launching a Web site and a letter-writing campaign. It plans to take resolutions similar to the one passed Monday to the Merced County Board of Supervisors and city councils in Atwater, Livingston, Los Banos, Gustine, Dos Palos, Turlock, Chowchilla and Modesto, Anderson said.

The signed resolutions will be sent to USP Atwater, the Bureau of Prisons and legislators.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, already has called for stab-resistant vests and more funding to adequately staff federal prisons.

If the Bureau of Prisons doesn't comply, Cardoza said last week, he plans to introduce legislation that would require vests for all federal correctional officers.

USP Atwater is still on lockdown as a result of Rivera's stabbing, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, Traci Billingsley, said Thursday.

Correctional officers at the prison, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they have spent the week shaking down the institution, searching prisoners and cells for weapons.

The Sun-Star published a story last week detailing what several USP Atwater correctional officers said are failed safety policies at the prison.

Besides low staffing and a lack of protective equipment, the officers said USP Atwater doesn't adequately search inmates for weapons or punish inmates who act out violently.

They said assaults on officers and fights among inmates have increased dramatically in the past two years or so.

The Bureau of Prisons said it could only provide statistics on in-prison assaults that have been adjudicated. Lowry said he believes the bureau under-reports attacks.

Rivera, who lived in Chowchilla, was buried two weeks ago in Merced. He had worked at USP Atwater about 10 months.

The third of five children, he graduated from Le Grand High School in 2003 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after. He served four years in the military, including two tours in Iraq.

The FBI's Fresno office is investigating his death. The two inmates suspected of killing Rivera, James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan, haven't been charged.

Both of them come from Guam, a U.S. territory, and both were transferred off the island because of their violent behavior inside a prison there. One has been accused of killing a correctional officer before, though he wasn't convicted.

They are longtime friends, according to corrections officials in Guam. One of them arrived at USP Atwater the day before Rivera's death.

Guerrero, 43, is now being held at the Federal Detention Center Sea-Tac in Seattle. Sablan, 40, is at the Bureau of Prison's Dublin site in Alameda County.

To see more of the Merced Sun-Star or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2008, Merced Sun-Star, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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