Atwater prison holding back safety vests from correctional officers

ATWATER -- After wide-spread outrage over the stabbing death of Correctional Officer Jose Rivera at the U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in June, the prison purchased stab-resistant vests for its workers. But they can't use them.

Citing a grievance over the quality of the new vests, filed by the union's national office, the Bureau of Prisons has withheld the new vests, according to Donald Martin, vice president for Local 1242.

"It's the union's position that the officers should be issued the vests that have been purchased in the interim," said Martin of the vests bought by the Bureau of Prisons.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to questions for this story.

The union filed a grievance against the prison for not consulting them before the vests were purchased and buying vests without the wire mesh lining the correctional officers say they need.

Martin wrote in a letter on the issues that, "Basically they (the Bureau) want to use the withholding of these vests as a bargaining chip in their negotiation with the union. That is unconscionable."

Martin, who works at the Atwater prison, was notified Sunday that the vests had arrived.

Before the grievance filing, said Martin, the officers had already been measured for the vests.

As of a week ago, Congressman Dennis Cardoza said he thought the vests were going to be issued.

"I had heard complaining about vests, but I am not an expert in vests," said Cardoza. But he thought any issues had been dealt with. "The last word that I got from the prison was that they were going to make vests available to guards."

Rivera was stabbed by two prisoners with a homemade shank in June.

The stabbing sparked national media attention, and a campaign began to force the Bureau of Prisons to buy better protection equipment for its employees, said Andy Krotik, who is the spokesman for Friends and Family of Correctional Officers, a local advocacy group.

Until the issue has been resolved, the prison's 285 staff members will continue to go with no protection against stabbing.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209)385-2484 or