Politics & Government

Cardoza says he warned Atwater warden about prison conditions

WASHINGTON -- The former warden of U.S. Penitentiary Atwater ignored congressional warnings before the June 2008 slaying of correctional officer Jose Rivera, Rep. Dennis Cardoza told lawmakers Tuesday.

In the months preceding Rivera's murder, Cardoza said he had received multiple complaints from Atwater guards about conditions at the maximum-security facility. But when the Merced Democrat tried alerting then-warden Dennis Smith, he says he got the brush off.

"I wrote to him and then I called him, and he didn't respond," Cardoza told a House panel. "He wouldn't return my phone calls."

Testifying before the House subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, Cardoza underscored that it's rare for top federal agency employees to ignore congressional communications. Unresponsiveness wasn't the only issue.

"There were a number of things that were a failure by the prior warden," Cardoza said, adding that he is very satisfied with the work of the current Atwater warden, Hector Rios Jr.

An April 2009 Bureau of Prisons Board of Inquiry report into Rivera's slaying identified multiple problems at the prison, ranging from widespread availability of "intoxicants" and homemade weapons to infrequent pat searches and troubling gang control over cell assignments.

Smith was transferred to an Illinois prison following Rivera's killing and could not be reached to comment Tuesday. He was named, along with other top Bureau of Prisons officials, in a federal lawsuit filed by Rivera's family. The $100 million lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno last month contended that federal prison officials bore responsibility for the "dangerous conditions that resulted in the death" of Rivera.

Rivera's family has since withdrawn the lawsuit in order to first file a required administrative claim. If the Bureau of Prisons rejects the claim within the next six months, an attorney working with Rivera family lawyer Mark J. Peacock said Tuesday, the lawsuit will resume.

Two former Atwater inmates, Joseph Cabrera Sablan and James Leon Guerrero, now await trial on murder charges. Both men were intoxicated when they attacked Rivera with an ice pick-type weapon, investigators concluded.

"Sablan admitted to the FBI he was drunk at the time of the incident and stated he did not remember what happened," the board of inquiry report stated.

In their most recent court filings, defense attorneys last week spelled out in 23 pages all of the potential evidence they want from prosecutors, ranging from videos and maps to Rivera's autopsy report and the arrest records of every potential witness.

Rivera was unarmed and not wearing a stab-proof vest at the time he was attacked. His death accelerated calls for additional staffing and better equipment, though some pleas for help had preceded his killing, as well.

In an April 2008 letter sent to Smith as well as Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin, Cardoza stated that "personnel are worried that they simply do not have the resources to cope" with overcrowded, understaffed facilities. Currently, the Bureau of Prisons oversees more than 207,000 inmates nationwide.

In 1997, federal prisons maintained a 3.7 inmate-to-staff ratio. Currently, federal prisons have a 4.9 inmate-to-staff ratio.

"Our number one priority is increasing staff," Lappin told the House panel Tuesday, adding that "we have not had the available funding" to do so recently.

Lappin added that "there is a direct, statistically significant relationship" between prison overcrowding and prison violence. An increase of one inmate in a facility's inmate-to-staff ratio is associated with an additional 4.5 serious assaults per 5,000 inmates, Bureau of Prisons research has shown.

The House and Senate are working on a fiscal 2010 Justice Department funding bill that includes $70.5 million for additional federal prison staffing. Union representatives, who have been calling for Lappin's resignation, say they fear the additional money will be used for purposes other than hiring more staff.