Politics & Government

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

WASHINGTON — Union activists are using the one-year anniversary of Atwater prison guard Jose Rivera's slaying to amplify their demands for reform and reinforcements.

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 Thursday.

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 killing.

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 died.

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 staffing.