August 21, 2014

Federal correctional officers assaulted at USP Atwater

Two federal correctional officers continued recovering at home Thursday, nearly a week after they were assaulted, allegedly by federal inmates at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in Merced County.

Two federal correctional officers are recovering at home after they were allegedly assaulted last week by federal inmates at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

The Aug. 15 incident, which apparently resulted in separate and controversial lockdown orders, was not disclosed until a Merced Sun-Star reporter called seeking comment. Kristi Rodriguez, the prison’s public information officer, confirmed two correctional officers were assaulted by inmates but provided no further details Thursday.

The names of the two injured officers were not released. Circumstances of the alleged attack also were not disclosed.

Donald Martin, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1242, the union representing the 325 correctional officers working in Atwater, declined to comment directly on the assault because of the investigation. Martin did say that both officers are recovering and their injuries are not life-threatening.

Martin said prison staff members were “dismayed” with Warden Paul Copenhaver’s response to the incident. “There’s a perception that the administration appears to care more about the viewpoints and concerns of the inmates than they care about the staff,” Martin told the Sun-Star in a telephone interview.

Martin said the prison was placed on lockdown after the assault, which he said happened around 8 p.m. on Aug. 15, but was lifted the following morning.

“There was a lot of expression of dismay and concern that we were not locked down on Saturday, especially with a correctional officer still in the hospital,” Martin said. “The administration seemed to be preoccupied with how the other inmates would feel; that they would feel they were being punished, too. All day on Saturday was just business as usual.”

About 1,555 male inmates are housed at USP Atwater, according to the prison’s website.

Martin said the union on Saturday contacted Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., and formally complained. Samuel personally issued a new lockdown order, Martin said, overriding Copenhaver. Martin said the lockdown remained in effect Thursday.

Numerous efforts seeking comment Thursday from Atwater prison officials, including Copenhaver, were unsuccessful.

Martin said the assaults stirred dark memories for correctional officers who worked with Officer Jose Rivera, who was stabbed to death at the prison by inmates in June 2008. “A lot of the staff members were working here when Jose Rivera was murdered, but a lot of the administrators weren’t,” Martin said. “I think it’s possible there’s a disconnect for the administration there.”

James Ninete Leon Guerrero, 48, of Guam, pleaded guilty earlier this year in connection with Rivera’s death. He received a life sentence on May 30. Co-defendant Joseph Sablan, 46, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges and is scheduled to go to trial next year, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Martin said staff safety has improved since Rivera’s death and those improvements may have saved the lives of the correctional officers last week. “There were two officers present in the housing unit this time, and when Jose was murdered, there was a policy of only one officer, so he was alone. Both the officers were injured, but one of them may have been killed if the other hadn’t been there with pepper spray,” Martin said.

Still, Martin said, there are measures and policy changes that staff members believe would further improve security, including the way inmates on lockdown are handled.

“The lockdown being lifted on Saturday is our biggest issue right now,” Martin said. “We feel it sends the wrong message to the inmates – that you can assault staff to the point of putting them in the hospital and administration doesn’t care enough to lock down.”

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