Slain Atwater correctional officer honored in D.C.

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Bagpipes keened and candles flickered Monday as federal prison guards honored their slain brother-in-arms Jose Rivera, killed last year by two inmates in Atwater.

Few of the 200 or so correctional officers who gathered at dusk around the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial knew Rivera personally. None appear ready to forget him, the first federal correctional officer killed in the line of duty since 1997.

"We're all kind of like family," said Gary Mills, who works at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. "When something like this happens, it's senseless."

The 22-year-old Rivera, a Navy veteran of the Iraq War, died June 20 when two inmates attacked him inside Atwater's high-security U.S. penitentiary. His killers stabbed him through the heart with a prison-made shank; he had not been issued a protective vest.

On Monday, a large black-and-white photograph of Rivera wearing civilian duds was leaned up against a stand holding a wreath. The wreath and photo were at the center of the memorial that honors the 17,000-plus law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty.

It was apparently the first time since the memorial opened in 1991 that federal correctional officers had formally gathered to honor one of their own.

"We're here to make the public aware of critical safety issues," Bryan Lowery, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Council of Prison Locals. "We see making this an annual event."

One bagpiper led casually dressed, crew cut-favoring correctional officers down the street from a hotel where they were meeting and onto the memorial's three-acre grounds. Silently, they walked past statues of lions protecting baby cubs. They arrayed themselves on either side of Rivera's photograph, cupping their individual candles and passing the flame from one to another.

A three-man honor guard from the Washington, D.C., police department marched in bearing the American flag. A man with a deep voice sang the National Anthem like he meant it. Then two police department bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," a sound to change your life.

Rivera's death riveted attention to the Bureau of Prisons' policy of not supplying guards with protective vests and prompted Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, to introduce protective vest legislation. The Bureau of Prisons subsequently revised its policies, to make vests available but not mandatory.

"It took someone getting murdered for the Bureau of Prisons to say, 'OK, we should do something,'" Mills said.

But Mills and a co-worker at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Steve Weber, complained that the bureau's revised policy remains problematic. Now, they said, if correctional officers request a vest, they are required to wear it at all times, even during classroom training. Consequently, Weber said, many officers decline the opportunity.

"It's pathetic," Weber said.

The union representing some 26,000 federal correctional officers and prison workers does not have warm relations with Bureau of Prisons' leaders. Lowery has already called for the resignation of Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin, a career prison administrator.

Cardoza, who attended the service Monday, said he "will work with whoever is there," and he indicated that Lappin has actually proven himself responsive to congressional concerns. Lowery's union is pushing a proposal to hire an additional 3,000 federal prison workers; a political long shot, perhaps, but reflective of the debate now underway as the first anniversary of Jose Rivera's death comes closer.

"They're trying to make improvements," Cardoza said, "but they won't be able to make those improvements without staffing or funding."

The two inmates charged with killing Rivera, James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan, have since been transferred.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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