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Mike Tharp: No shortcuts at Atwater Penitentiary

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

ATWATER -- Three other Mercedians graduated this week.

They did it without the first lady and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the first four-year graduating class at UC Merced.

They did it without the 600 mortarboards flung into the air at last night's Merced College commencement.

They did it without the limos and parties and corsages that will mark next week's high school gala graduations.

Theirs was a different and separate graduation. Sure, they wore blue gowns and caps and switched their tassels from left to right, on signal. But they did it inside a federal prison. And they did it with only the warden, a handful of prison officials and a few of their inmate buddies sitting in the audience.

Three men got their GEDs, the equivalent of a high school diploma, Friday at the Satellite Prison Camp, which sits just outside the walls and razor wire and six towers of U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

Their commencement speaker had to fax a form to make sure his own record was clean. The speaker was told not to wear green khaki-colored clothing. The speaker could take no photographs. He was warned that his bio would be shared with inmates.

Because federal prison officials hadn't cleared the inmates' names for release, the graduates can't be congratulated here. But for the two dozen or so people gathered in the camp assembly room, this was as big a deal as all the other commencements in our county.

"It's an accomplishment nobody can take away from you," said Miguel Chavez, supervisor of education at the prison. Chaplain Hussain Sheikh talked of the "toil and struggle" they went through to get their diplomas.

Probably proudest of all was Hector Rios Jr., the warden, who's been at USP Atwater for all of seven months. For the El Paso, Texas, native, who's worked in 12 federal penal institutions across the county, the diplomas added one more piece of proof that his leadership at the once-troubled prison was working.

Rios assumed his fourth tour as a federal warden after the prison had undergone its worst turmoil in years. In June of last year, corrections officer Jose Rivera, 22, was killed by two inmates already serving life sentences at the high-security prison, which today houses 1,104 inmates.

(The minimum security camp holds about 120 inmates, nonviolent, white-collar criminals, drug cases and even, for three months, Barry Bonds' trainer.)

In the wake of Rivera's death, the prison was locked down for weeks, a community group formed to lobby for safer practices for corrections officers, the warden was transferred and Rios, 48, was brought in.

By most accounts, the prison is a tighter, safer place now than before he arrived. Andy Krotik, one of the leaders of the community group, said earlier this month that "it's completely different now," that conditions have "dramatically improved."

Take a walk in the yard with Rios after lunch at 10:30 a.m. Rios, who wears a brush mustache and is built like Walt Garrison, a fullback for his beloved Dallas Cowboys, calls many of the inmates by name. "Aight?" he asks. The prisoners nod and say, "Rios," or "Sir." He does the same in Spanish with the Latino inmates, who make up a third of the population.

Earlier, he stopped a lone black inmate, walking along the fence outside the huge rec area -- a softball diamond, basketball and boccie courts, horseshoe pitch, jogging track and soccer field.

"Hey, big guy," Rios says, "Why are you on the west side (housing units)?" The inmate mutters something about a gate being locked. "You're spinnin' me!" Rios says. Then he relents. "This one's on me," he says, as the inmate heads back to where he belongs.

Since he came, there had been only one lockdown -- until Wednesday. He came to work that day and said, "Keep 'em in." The apparent reason: too much unauthorized linen piling up in the cells. Corrections officers ordered inmates to place all their excess linen outside their doors. Sixty-five carts of linen were filled -- and the inmates learned that Hector Rios tries to be proactive.

"It's all about respect," he says. "It's all about the safety of the staff, the inmates, the community."

Four words emblazon a wall where officers walk down the middle of a hallway, inmates always to the left of a yellow line: "Correctional excellence, integrity, respect."

Rios is a firm believer in MBWA, management by walking around. A tour with him through the self-contained town within a town, including a surprise shakedown in the Special Housing Unit -- the egg within an egg that houses problem inmates -- suggests that Andy Krotik's upbeat take on USP Atwater is well founded.

A black inmate stands in the drafty Challenge Program Unit, a favored facility the men must qualify for to live in, according to their behavior. "It's a challenge to us to change," the inmate says. "How we deal with attitudes, how we deal with our inmate population, how we deal with each other, how we deal with substance abuse in our past. We study openmindedness."

On a white board is scrawled the unit's latest morale message: "The integrity of a man is to be measured by his conduct and not by his profession." Inmates spend nine to 12 months in the Challenge Program.

A cell in the unit is clean. The bottom bunk is made. Sandals, boots and athletic shoes are aligned beneath the bed. Sweatshirts and pants and a change of uniform hang straight on hangers. There's no odor in the cell. "It stresses the importance of high standards," Rios says.

Every prisoner seen on the tour has his tan shirt tucked in and his boot laces tied.

Rios is proud of the prison's recycling program, called Unicor, where inmates disassemble electronic and computer parts to keep e-waste from going to landfills. There's a waiting list to work there, and the money they make helps pay some officers' salaries. It also provides inmates income for their families or the commissary.

He's proud of the prison's health services, both physical and psychological. Except for serious cases, most inmate medical problems can be handled within the walls.

But he also knows that the fragile sense of peace can be blown apart in a second. "Just one knucklehead is all it takes," Rios says. "Sometimes I'll get a guy coming up to me, 'Hey, warden, it's gonna jump up in the rec yard,' so we always have to be ready."

What has he brought to USP Atwater that maybe wasn't there before? Over a lunch of fried fish, mac and cheese, spinach and a whole jalapeno pepper, he thinks before he answers.

"The passion. The commitment. The caring about the staff. My knowledge. My experience in penitentiaries. We needed to turn the place around. Your heart's got to be in it."

As the inmates' mattresses are X-rayed outside the Special Housing Unit, bags and bags of trash and unallowed items fill the room. The men in this part of the prison spend 23 hours a day inside their cells.

Rios puts his face to the glass of one cell door after an inmate beckons him. He tells the man that associate warden J.H. Bell will help him with his problem.

Then he leaves the egg within the egg. A sign by the door as it slams shut sums up how Hector Rios Jr. has run USP Atwater since he got here:

"No shortcuts."

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456.