Inmate homicide reported at USP Atwater

ATWATER -- A 37-year-old U.S. Penitentiary Atwater inmate is dead after being assaulted by another inmate at the prison about 8:30 p.m. Sunday, prison officials reported.

The inmate who was killed has been identified as Wade Edward Austin. He was serving a sentence of 15 years for intent to distribute cocaine base and knowingly using a firearm during a drug trafficking crime, according to a prison statement.

FBI officials are investigating the death.

Miguel Chavez, spokesman for USP Atwater, said he couldn't comment about how Austin was killed or if anyone has been arrested, citing the FBI's investigation.

Chavez also declined comment when asked about a possible motive. "All of that is under investigation," he said. "We are fully cooperating with the FBI."

Prison officials said inmates have been temporarily confined to their cells.

A statement on the website of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1242, the prison's correctional officers' union, read: "A black inmate was killed by another black inmate in unit 5 at approximately 8:30 p.m. Prison is on lockdown."

Austin is the second inmate homicide reported at the prison since 2006. Domosanies Duvall Slaughter, 28, was killed Aug. 2, 2006. His cellmate, Juwan Tonay Ferguson, 38, was sentenced to life in prison for beating him to death. The sentence was later reduced to eight years after a federal appeals court reviewed the case.

In addition, correctional officer Jose Rivera was killed by two inmates at the prison in 2008.

The cases of the accused inmates are pending in federal court.

Andy Krotik, spokesman for Friends and Family of Correctional Officers, a group geared toward promoting safety for correctional officers at the Atwater prison, said he heard from "multiple sources" that Austin was beaten to death by the other inmate.

Krotik has been a vocal critic regarding some prison policies, saying correctional officers are working without adequate stab-resistant vests.

Krotik maintains the vests federal correctional officers have will protect only against a slicing weapon not a weapon with a sharp point.

The prison's warden, Hector Rios Jr. was criticized by the correctional officers union in January after a controversial decision to shut down six of the prison's seven security towers.

Krotik said he initially supported closing the security towers because he hoped would result in more correctional officers working in the prison's housing units.

Instead, Krotik said, those shifts are being used to cover overtime, vacations and sick time.

Krotik said Sunday's death illustrates why more correctional officers are needed inside the prison. He said the correctional officer who responded to Sunday's assault had to wait for backup before being able to intervene.

"It's a lack of staffing and the inmates know that. They know who's watching them," Krotik said. "I continue to fear for staff's safety."

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.