U.S. prison officials considering safety vests, union says

WASHINGTON -- Bureau of Prisons officials are now considering equipping federal guards with safety vests following the murder of Atwater correctional officer Jose Rivera, union leaders revealed Wednesday.

In what one participant termed a "heated" meeting, Bureau of Prisons Director Harley G. Lappin indicated knife-resistant vests could be a viable option for at least some of the nation’s 16,000 or so federal prison guards.

Some think a vest might have saved Rivera, who died June 20 after being stabbed through the heart with a prison-made shank.

"This is something that I think is pretty hard to argue with," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "I think it’s pretty much a no-brainer."

No final decision, however, has yet been made on obtaining the vests, at a cost of roughly $400 each. And in other areas ranging from staffing levels to the use of nonlethal weapons, Rivera’s violent death has only underscored sharp differences still separating the Bureau of Prisons, members of Congress and the union that represents federal correctional workers.

The 22-year-old Rivera was the first federal correctional officer to be murdered since 1997. Assaults, however, remain relatively common. A total of 1,362 armed and unarmed inmate-on-staff attacks were tallied in federal prisons in fiscal 2006, Justice Department figures released by the union show. This marked a 6 percent increase in assaults from 2005.

Atwater's high-security penitentiary led the nation in armed assaults by inmates on staff members in 2006, with 10 such attacks, according to the Justice Department records. The union obtained the prison violence records from the department’s Web site, which apparently no longer posts them.

"Every minute that goes by, the staff is in danger from the inmates," said Bryan Lowery, president for the AFGE's Council of Prison Locals.

Two inmates reported to be suspects in Rivera's murder, James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera, have been transferred and remain under investigation.

Bureau of Prisons spokesman Mike Truman said no agency official was available to comment late Wednesday afternoon about the meeting with union leaders. Bureau officials stressed their concern to union leaders Wednesday that nothing be said that might interfere with the investigation.

Union leaders want an additional 10,000 federal correctional officers hired, starting with about 280 to boost staffing immediately at high-security facilities. They want officers who now carry only a radio to be armed with batons or Tasers or other non-lethal weapons. They want, politically speaking, Rivera’s murder to serve a purpose.

"We're hoping this event will really push the public, and the Congress, and the pencil pushers," said Phil Glover, legislative liaison for the Council of Prison Locals.

Glover, Gage and Lowery met with Lappin to present what Gage termed the union's "demands." It's a wide-ranging list that predates Rivera's death; in February, for instance, correctional officers picketed Justice Department headquarters to call attention to their grievances. Some of the union's renewed demands, like opposition to prison privatization, appear unrelated to the specifics of Rivera's death.

In some ways, the meeting Wednesday may have only confirmed pre-existing tensions. Lowery announced he was "highly offended" by the Bureau of Prisons’ responses, while Gage used a mocking tone to say the Bureau was "poor-mouthing us" on the budget questions.

The agency, part of the Justice Department, has an annual budget of about $5.1 billion and employs about 34,000 staffers overall, not all of whom are correctional officers.

A recently passed supplemental spending bill includes an additional $178 million for the Bureau of Prisons. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, is preparing a letter urging the bureau to spend at least some of the money on safety vests.

"We've heard from the bureau that they will review the (vest) policy," Cardoza's press secretary Jamie McInerney said Wednesday.

McInerney added that Cardoza's staffers are brainstorming other ideas, potentially including addressing the pay disparity that shortchanges federal guards compared to their California correctional counterparts.

Nationwide, the Bureau of Prisons holds about 165,000 inmates in its facilities and another 35,000 in contract or privately run prisons. The agency reports that it’s been hard to keep staffing up, citing budget problems and the loss of guards to reserve military duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.