Mother of slain California prison guard says jails need help

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 1, 2013 

— Prison inmates killed Terry Rivera’s son, a correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

The two former Atwater inmates now await trial for the 2008 attack, whose fundamental facts are not in dispute. Rivera, meanwhile, awaits something else:

Peace of mind.

“My family, my life, will never be the same again without my son,” Rivera said Tuesday.

A 46-year-old Merced resident, Rivera traveled to Washington, D.C. this week to help press for increased federal prison staffing and support. Accompanied by other family members of slain correctional officers, as well as union officials with Council of Prison Locals 33, Rivera put a grieving human face on a debate over budgets and staffing levels.

“I believe if my son had the right protection and was not working in a housing unit alone, he would still be alive today,” Rivera said.

Rivera’s son, Jose, a Le Grand High School graduate and 22-year-old Navy veteran, died June 20, 2008. Prison videotape, legal filings and witness interviews conducted as part of a Bureau of Prisons inquiry show the basics of what happened.

Inmates Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero had been drinking prison brew that day. Defense attorneys acknowledged in a Sept. 9 legal filing that “Sablan suddenly stabbed Officer Rivera with the approximately 9-inch long, ice pick-shaped shank while Officer Rivera was locking Mr. Leon Guerrero in his cell.” Rivera head-butted Sablan and ran for safety. The two inmates chased him and tackled him. Leon Guerrero held down Rivera while Sablan stabbed him repeatedly.

Though Sablan stabbed Rivera “approximately 27 times,” the defense attorneys wrote in a legal filing, they say that Sablan “did not intend to kill him and has repeatedly expressed his remorse and regret for having done so.”

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for both men. One trial is set to start in July 2014 and the other is set for April 2015.

Rivera was unarmed at the time of his slaying, and was not wearing a stab-proof vest. He was also dealing, federal investigators and defense attorneys have subsequently concluded, with a violent and unruly environment in which homemade weapons and prison-brewed alcohol were prevalent.

The broader Atwater prison conditions will be part of the defense and, despite reports of some improvements, conditions remain worrisome.

In early August, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., wrote the Bureau of Prisons to voice “serious concerns regarding the safety of correctional officers” at the Atwater prison, and he echoed a call for adding an extra officer for each housing unit. Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. responded in late August that “with existing resources, we are working toward a goal of adding a second officer” to housing units in high-security institutions.

“The safety of staff is my highest priority,” Samuels wrote. “The bureau has taken a number of steps to improve security at our facilities by providing staff additional tools.”

Since Rivera’s death, the Bureau of Prisons has made available stab-resistant vests, and in some facilities, including Atwater, officials have instituted pilot evaluations of arming correctional officers with pepper spray. Union officials, who have frequently been at odds with Bureau of Prisons leadership, call the improvements inadequate.

“What you have are staff being assaulted in record numbers and America’s heroes being killed in the line of duty,” said Eric Young, the newly elected president of the Council of Prison Locals 33. “We believe that we need to be given the funding necessary to do our job.”

The Obama administration requested $6.8 billion for the Bureau of Prisons for the new fiscal year that began Tuesday, with funds slated for hiring additional correctional officers. House Republicans have proposed spending less money, but the current Capitol Hill standoff that caused the federal government to shut down has left final budget numbers in flux.

Appearing at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Terry Rivera did not delve into the congressional budget machinations. She did talk, between tears, about losing her son, the youngest of her five children. He was, she said, an ‘A’ student in high school, a veteran of the Iraq War and a man who aspired, one day, to join the California Highway Patrol.

“We lost a son, an uncle, my best friend,” Rivera said.

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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