Officers at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater voice safety concerns -- and reach out to elected officials for help

'Shakedown crew' is eliminated

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comAugust 11, 2013 

— Correctional officers at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater say the recent elimination of a special team geared toward keeping tabs on inmates is making the prison a more dangerous place to work.

Members of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1242, the union representing the prison's correctional officers, say they've reached out to elected officials about deteriorating conditions and elimination of the team, generally referred to as a "shakedown crew."

The shakedown crew's job is to search the prison for eight hours, looking for contraband items and weapons on inmates and inside their cells.

Donald Martin, president of the union, said the shakedown crew was cut in March by prison officials because staff were needed to cover overtime slots to eliminate expenses.

Eliminating the shakedown crew, according to the union, is particularly troubling in the wake of a July 27 riot at the prison. According to the union, a lone officer was working in a housing unit with about 115 inmates when the riot erupted at the prison.

The union statement said the "institution lost control of an entire prison housing unit, forcing the responding officers to use chemical and other non- lethal munitions to take back the unit by force."

No correctional officers were hurt during the incident, although Martin said some inmates were hurt.

A call was placed Friday to the office of USP Atwater Warden Paul Copenhaver, who could not be reached for comment at press time.

Chuck Ringwood, USP Atwater spokesman, disagreed with all of the union's assertions.

Ringwood said the disturbance at the prison that union officials spoke of was not a "riot." He characterized it as an isolated incident that resulted in three inmates suffering minor lacerations and one inmate requiring transport to an outside hospital. Ringwood said that inmate has since recovered and has returned to the prison.

Ringwood said the cause of the incident remains under investigation.

When asked about the elimination of the shakedown team, Ringwood said that staff from all departments are required to perform the shakedowns that the team used to do.

Without the team, Martin said, conditions at the prison now are returning to as they were in 2008, when correctional officer Jose Rivera was killed by inmates. "The sentiment is definitely there," Martin said Friday.

Two inmates are currently pending trial on federal murder charges in Rivera's death.

Martin said the federal board of inquiry report also recommended shakedown teams in the aftermath of Rivera's death — and they were subsequently implemented at the prison.

"For them to turn around and eliminate (the shakedown teams) is irresponsible, really," Martin said.

Ringwood said the prison has increased staffing in correctional services in the past six months, and will be above "100 percent staffing" by mid-September.

Ringwood was asked to provide specific numbers, but he said that information wasn't available Friday. He said the prison is actively recruiting more staff.

"We feel very good about our projected numbers," Ringwood said.

Ringwood disagreed with Martin's claim that USP Atwater is becoming as dangerous as when officer Rivera was killed. "We are always committed to the safety of the inmates and the staff, and we continue to be committed," Ringwood said.

But union officials said they've reached out to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, as well as California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, asking for help.

Martin said Costa's the only elected official thus far to respond to the union's pleas.

Costa couldn't be reached at press time Friday evening. However, his office did send a letter to federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. on Friday, saying it's come to Costa's attention there are "serious concerns" about the safety of correctional officers at the prison.

"The officers at USP Atwater have suggested that mandating two officers on guard per housing unit rather than the current one officer could help improve the environment of the facility and protect the lives and safety of the officers," Costa said in the letter. "I agree that it is time to immediately re-evaluate current policies in light of the officers' concerns. I look forward to hearing how you and your agency plan to address this situation."

Martin said he and other union officials hope Costa's efforts in Washington, D.C., will pay off. "He's made a commitment to us that he's going to do what he can from his side," Martin said.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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