Atwater correctional officers union calls for security changes

08/22/2014 11:30 PM

08/22/2014 11:31 PM

A federal correctional officers union president believes the recent assault of two officers at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater should prompt authorities to review security procedures regarding inmate attacks.

Donald Martin, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1242, the union representing the 325 correctional officers working at USP Atwater, said extended lockdowns should be a standard procedure any time officers are assaulted by inmates.

Two USP Atwater correctional officers were assaulted, allegedly by one inmate, about 8 p.m. Aug. 15. Both officers, whose names have not been released, were treated and released from a regional hospital. Their injuries were described as serious, but not life-threatening.

The name of the inmate allegedly involved in the attack has also been withheld.

Kristi Rodriguez, the prison’s public information officer, said the FBI has been notified of the incident. “Because this incident is under investigation and may be referred for criminal prosecution, no additional information can be released at this time,” Rodriguez told the Merced Sun-Star.

Martin said prison staff objected to the warden’s response to the incident.

He said after the assault, the prison was placed on lockdown for security reasons, but the lockdown was lifted the following morning. “There should’ve been a methodical search for other contraband, and they should’ve ensured that things had simmered down amongst the inmates before it was lifted,” Martin said.

The union on Saturday formally complained to Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., who apparently responded by issuing a new lockdown order, Martin said, overriding Warden Paul Copenhaver. Martin said the second lockdown remained in effect Friday.

Ed Ross, spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment on Samuels’ decision to override Copenhaver. “Generally, we never discuss any internal matter or how internal decisions are made,” Ross told the Sun-Star in a telephone interview.

Rodriguez declined to comment on the separate lockdown orders. “These decisions are based on a number of factors which must be considered before the institution can be returned to normal operations,” Rodriguez said. “Maintaining the safety and security of both staff and inmates is always the first priority of this facility.”

Rodriguez also declined to comment on the security concerns raised by the correctional officers union.

Martin said Atwater correctional officers are working in “a continuum of distrust for the warden’s lack of regard for their morale and their safety.”

The assault was not disclosed publicly by the prison until a Sun-Star reporter contacted prison administration seeking comment. Rodriguez acknowledged the prison chose not to issue a news release, saying, in part, “ ... the warden did not believe it necessary to alert the media because the incident was isolated and swiftly brought under control by the quick response of staff.”

“At no time was the public in danger,” Rodriguez said.

Martin said the union cannot force administration to change security protocols, but hopes the incident causes officials to re-examine policies, particularly lockdown procedures following assaults on officers.

“I’d hope that most wardens around the country would learn from this experience and realize there’s not just an inmate component to running a prison, there’s also an officer safety component, which too frequently gets placed on the back burner,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, security measures are solely at the discretion of the agency’s administration and are not negotiable by the union.”

Martin said the union may seek “outside help” from the U.S. House of Representatives or, possibly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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