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Marking guard's slaying, activist seek changes at federal prisons

Marking guard's slaying, activist seek changes at federal prisons

SALT LAKE CITY - Union activists are using the one-year anniversary of Atwater
prison guard Jose Rivera's slaying to amplify their demands for reform and

Stabbed to death at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater on June 20, 2008, Rivera is
now near the status of political symbol. On Thursday, his picture stood near
center stage as union leaders repeated their call for the resignation of
Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin.

"We have lost all faith in the Bureau of Prisons' management," John Gage,
president of the American Federation of Government Employees, declared at
the National Press Club.

Gage previously asked Attorney General Eric Holder to fire Lappin in May, as
have, repeatedly, leaders of the affiliated Council of Prison Locals. Holder
has not responded publicly, and there's no apparent groundswell of
anti-Lappin sentiment on Capitol Hill.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman could not be reached to comment.

But with events like the news conference Thursday, and with a newly filed
lawsuit promising to shed more light on how Rivera died, family members and
leaders of the unions that represent correctional workers are trying to
reclaim the offensive.

"We're angry," Council of Prison Locals President Bryan Lowery said
Thursday. "We're upset."

Specifically, the union leaders want more guards to handle the 206,000
inmates now in federal prison. Currently, the Bureau of Prisons employs
about 16,000 correctional officers -- guards -- in addition to about 28,000
other correctional workers. The union leaders also seek wider distribution
of stab-resistant vests.

From Congress, the activists hope for increased overall funding as well as
hearings into prison safety issues.

"Tight budgets have ... meant that we have not been able to increase our
staffing to the level necessary to keep pace with the population growth,"
Lappin acknowledged in testimony before a House panel in March, adding that
"increased crowding and an increase in the inmate-to-staff ratio result in
an increase in serious assaults."

The unions' public relations campaign includes a bit of hype, like the four
members of Congress who were said to have been invited to the National Press
Club news conference but who did not show up. The applause following some of
the presentations Thursday came not from journalists but from union
supporters filling the room. Those attending included Andy Krotik, an
Atwater Realtor and spokesman for Friends & Family of Correctional Officers.

"They're right on the mark," Krotik said of the concerns raised anew

Rivera became the first federal correctional officer in a decade to die in
the line of duty when he was stabbed. Prosecutors have charged former
Atwater inmates Jose Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero with the

The June 20 slaying occurred one day after Guerrero arrived from another
federal prison, from which he had been transferred for disciplinary reasons.
According to a Justice Department Board of Inquiry report, obtained by
attorney Mark Peacock on behalf of Rivera's family, Sablan, Guerrero and
other inmates "began consuming intoxicants" during the afternoon Rivera

The Board of Inquiry report states that Sablan first attacked the
22-year-old Rivera, who then ran. The inmates pursued him. Rivera
head-butted Guerrero and then kept running until he was tackled by Guerrero,
who reportedly held him down while Sablan stabbed the officer with an ice
pick-type weapon.

"Inmate Sablan struck Officer Rivera approximately eight times in the torso
until the arrival of the first staff on the scene," the report states.

The first staffer to arrive was an unarmed female secretary, and the second
was an unarmed female unit manager. The unit manager "did not intervene or
render assistance during the assault," the report found.

The Bureau of Prisons counts secretaries and administrative unit managers,
among other non-guard correctional workers, in calculating that there's a
roughly 5:1 inmate-to-correctional staff ratio nationwide. Union officials
contend this leaves a misleadingly optimistic impression about correctional

AFGE Takes on the Bureau of Prisons

I'm at a press conference right now where the American Federation of
Government Employees is launching an all-out assault on the Bureau of
Prisons for failing to address safety issues faced by prison guards. John
Gage, AFGE's president, just said:

"We have lost all faith in the BOP management. We think their whole
understanding of the mission of the bureau is outdated, it's wrong. They
care more about public relations than they do the safety of our officers. We
are taking our case to the Attorney General; we believe it is his
responsibility to correct this situation immediately, and that would be by
removing Mr. Lappin, as well as, for heaven's sake, give us the simple tools
we have been requesting: vests for our officers to wear in dangerous posts,
as well as some non-lethal weaponry such as tasers, pepper spray, or batons.
It's incredible to us that the bureau is making this a labor dispute, that
they refuse to give these basic, common-sense tools to our officers. We
feel, in the Rivera case, if these simple things we are asking had been
granted, he would be alive today."

They're working with the lawyers for Jose Rivera, a 22-year-old prison guard
who served two deployments in Iraq as a member of the Navy, who was killed
by inmates in the prison where he worked on June 20,2008. The family wants
$100 million from the Bureau. AFGE wants officers to be able to wear
stab-proof vests and carry pepper spray, tasers, and batons in high-risk

Union criticizes prison bureau for understaffing, lack of safety equipment

The American Federation of Government Employees blasted the leadership of
the Bureau of Prisons on Thursday, saying the agency was understaffed and
jeopardized corrections officers' safety by failing to provide them with
stab-resistant vests. An agency spokeswoman said the bureau was working on
both issues.

"We have lost all faith in the Bureau of Prisons management," said John
Gage, president of AFGE. "We think their whole understanding of the mission
of the bureau is outdated, it's wrong. We are taking our case to the
attorney general; we believe it is his responsibility to correct this
situation immediately."

Between 2002 and 2006, the agency lost about 4,600 correctional officers as
the inmate population in federal prisons rose, according to Phil Glover,
legislative coordinator for AFGE's Council of Prison Locals. In 2000, there
were 145,000 people incarcerated at 115 federal prison facilities, the union
said. Today, those facilities hold 205,000 inmates.

Inadequate staffing contributed to an increase in violent incidents, AFGE
officials said. Between fiscal 2005 and 2006, inmate assaults on other
inmates rose 15.5 percent, and assaults on prison staff rose 6 percent,
according to the union's statistics.

President Obama included funding for a Bureau of Prisons staff boost in his
fiscal 2010 budget proposal, but Gage said he was concerned that the
agency's director, Harley Lappin, would spend the money on other priorities.
Felicia Ponce, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said the agency planned to make
new hires "to the maximum extent possible within the enacted resources."

Staffing is only one of the issues AFGE is targeting. Union officials said
the bureau should provide all correctional officers with stab-resistant
vests when they work in dangerous units. The vests cost about $400 each, and
must be custom-fitted to be effective.

In a November letter to Lappin and a May follow-up to Attorney General Eric
Holder, AFGE said the bureau was making vests available only to corrections
officers who asked for them. The agency then subjected those officers to
disciplinary action if they did not wear the vests at all times, even if
they were doing office work, union officials said.

Ponce said the final policy would be determined by negotiations between the
Council of Prison Locals and the bureau, echoing the agency's March 2009
response to AFGE General Counsel Mark Roth's November letter.

"Both the union and BOP management supported ordering and issuing
stab-resistant vests to staff prior to conducting bargaining," Ponce said.
"Negotiations regarding the vests are presently under way, and the parties
have successfully negotiated many proposals."

Gage said he thought the agency should not wait until bargaining is over to
give officers vests and nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray, Tasers and

Safety issues have become particularly heated as the one-year anniversary of
the murder of corrections officer Jose Rivera by two federal inmates
approaches. Rivera's family has filed a $100 million lawsuit against the
bureau, Lappin and other agency officials.

The Justice Department Board of Inquiry's report on Rivera's June 20, 2008,
stabbing found that the U.S. penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., where Rivera
worked, had 332 staffers, even though there were 389 positions available.
Thirty percent of the prison's workers had less than three years of
experience, and 80 percent had been with the bureau for less than a decade.

The report also noted that the coroner who examined Rivera determined the
cause of his death was two stab wounds that punctured his heart, though he
was stabbed many more times. AFGE and Mark Peacock, the lawyer representing
Rivera's family, contend that if Rivera had been wearing a stab-resistant
vest, he would not have died in the assault.

Ponce said that because court cases against Rivera's assailants and
Peacock's civil suit are pending, and because the bureau has not released
the Board of Inquiry's report, the bureau would not comment on the report or
its recommendations.
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