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Rivera's death was a matter of when

It was 3:30 in the afternoon -- count time on housing unit 5A at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater. Jose Rivera was a half-hour short of finishing his shift.

He had just announced the count, ordering the inmates under his charge -- all 110 or so -- to return to their cells. He began locking them down one by one, as he did every time he worked the eight-to-four.

It would be the last inmate count he'd conduct.

The two prisoners moved in, at least one of them clutching a sharp handmade shank. Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran who'd started at USP Atwater less than 11 months earlier, hit the panic button on his radio.

The other correctional officers were quick to respond. But the attack was quick, too. And brutal. By the time the officers got there, it was too late.

Probably chosen by his attackers for no other reason than convenience, Rivera had been stabbed directly in the heart.

If the prisoners to blame were set on killing a correctional officer that Friday, then Rivera never really stood a chance, several of his former co-workers say.

He was by himself with more than 100 inmates. Backup was nowhere in sight. Strapped to his black duty belt were a radio, keys, a flashlight and a pair of handcuffs -- no match for the well-armed population he oversaw. He was wearing slacks and a thin, white-collared shirt with no stab-resistant vest under or over it. The penitentiary didn't provide him one, and if he'd wanted to buy his own to wear, he wasn't allowed to.

In the wake of Rivera's June 20 killing, officials at USP Atwater and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons have declined to answer basic questions about what happened that day and about how Rivera was equipped: Where in the prison was he attacked? How many other officers were with him? How many were nearby? Was he carrying any weapons? Was he wearing a stab-resistant vest?

So the Sun-Star interviewed six current and former USP Atwater correctional officers. Two are still employed there. They asked for anonymity because the Bureau of Prisons has instructed them not to speak with reporters.

Four recently left the prison. Two allowed their names to be published. Two did not, one because he feared it could hurt his attempts to get a new job in law enforcement and the other because he still works for the Bureau of Prisons, the Washington, D.C.-based agency that oversees all federal correctional institutions.

Though they all said they were stunned by Rivera's death, none of them said it was surprising.

"It wasn't really a matter of if it was going to happen. It was more a matter of when -- and to who," said James Spencer, a retired lieutenant who worked at the prison from its 2001 opening until last December. "I guess I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner, actually."

The current and former correctional officers, along with union officials, all said they think policies at USP Atwater are putting employees there at unnecessary risk -- from inadequate staffing and a lack of protective equipment to too little control over the prison's 1,100 high-security inmates and too few consequences for the ones who act out violently.

They said their safety complaints and warnings to local, regional and national prison administrators have gone largely unanswered.

"It's getting worse and worse," said an officer who is planning to leave the penitentiary after about a year there because of his concerns about safety. "Sometimes there's attacks (on correctional officers) twice a week. Sometimes it's every three weeks or so. All I know is it's way more than it should be ... and not enough is being done to try to protect us."

No officials from USP Atwater or the Bureau of Prisons would answer questions for this story.

Just not enough staff

All the current and former correctional officers interviewed said inadequate staffing at the prison has made it unsafe there for both employees and inmates.

"There just aren't enough staff to do things the right way," said Ryan Silva, who left USP Atwater last month after working 12 years for the Bureau of Prisons, the last seven of them in Atwater. "It's dangerous. We've been saying that for a while."

Officials with the Bureau of Prisons have said USP Atwater actually has a better staff-to-inmate ratio than most comparable federal facilities: The systemwide average for similar federal prisons is about one staff person for every five prisoners, compared to a 1-to-4 ratio at the Atwater facility.

Union officials argue that staffing across the federal prison system is drastically inadequate, and correctional officers at USP Atwater said the 1-to-4 figure is misleading.

"If you divide the total number of people who work there by the total number of inmates, it probably comes out to 1-to-4, and that doesn't sound too bad," the officer who started about a year ago said. "But that includes every employee -- from the secretaries to the dental technicians. And not all the staff are there for every shift, obviously. The inmates are. ... After 4 p.m., it's a skeleton crew."

Inside each of USP Atwater's 12 housing units, one correctional officer is typically alone with about 100 inmates, the officers interviewed said. The housing units are separated and configured in such a way that officers in nearby units can't easily see inside or quickly access other units.

"That means you're pretty much on your own in there," said the officer who recently left the Bureau of Prisons after several years at USP Atwater.

Between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., the officers interviewed said, about 25 employees are left to oversee the prison's entire 1,100-inmate population.

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