Prison is safer year after guard was slain

WASHINGTON -- Spit and unsavory liquids are weapons within the forbidding confines of U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

So are fists, feces and food trays. In the months preceding the June slaying of Atwater guard Jose Rivera, newly obtained records reveal inmates were improvising madly as they escalated their war with correctional officers.

The number of reported inmate assaults on Atwater staff members quadrupled from 2005 to 2007, Bureau of Prisons records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show. When Rivera died June 20, 2008, the high-security prison was on track to again exceed its previous year's assault record.

"These guys are clever," said Andy Krotik, spokesman for the Atwater-based Friends and Family of Correctional Officers. "They have all day to sit around and figure out how to make weapons."

Inmates assaulted Atwater staff 142 times from Jan. 1, 2005, to Sept. 4, 2008, the Bureau of Prisons records show. The number of reported assaults leaped from 13 in 2005 to 38 in 2006 and 57 in 2007.

Through the first eight months of 2008, the number of reported assaults reached 34.

Now under the stewardship of Hector Rios Jr., its fourth warden in eight years, the Atwater prison has by several accounts become a safer and more orderly place. Although up-to-date individual prison assault records weren't available, Krotik said Atwater conditions have "dramatically improved" since Rivera's murder.

"It's completely different now," said Krotik, a former Atwater city councilman.

A spokesman for the Atwater prison could not be reached for comment. But at the national level, Bureau of Prisons officials have identified at least some favorable trends. Nationally, the number of assaults on federal prison staff characterized as "serious" declined steadily from 128 in 2005 to 82 in 2008.

"We have not experienced an increase in the rate of serious assaults on staff over the past several years, but there is a sense that the assaults are more severe," Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said in an e-mail.

Krotik and Billingsley credited tighter control of inmate movement, beefed-up staffing and the transfer of what Billingsley called "problematic" inmates into more restrictive prisons.

Under union and political pressure after Rivera's murder, the Bureau of Prisons made protective vests available to staff.

"They have not adopted everything we wanted them to, but they have taken substantial steps," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Two former Atwater inmates serving life sentences, 40-year-old Jose Cabrera Sablan and 42-year-old James Ninete Leon Guerrero, face the death penalty if convicted of Rivera's killing.

Prosecutors say Guerrero held Rivera while Sablan stabbed the 22-year-old Navy veteran with an 8-inch pick-type weapon.

Rivera was the first worker killed at the Atwater prison since it opened in 2001, but he was neither the first nor the last to be attacked.

The Bureau of Prisons reports are summaries that lack crucial context. For instance, on Oct. 21, 2006, an Atwater inmate simply was reported to have been "aggressive toward staff." On another date, an inmate was reportedly "combative."

Often, the reports detail the myriad dangers guards confront. On Jan. 31, 2008, for instance, an Atwater corrections officer was reported to have cut his hand because of "razor blades taped to unit officer's door handle." A week later, an inmate threw his food tray at a staff member, striking him in the chest. Over the next several weeks, Atwater workers reported being kicked, spat upon and punched.

During one representative week in November 2007, reports show that at different times unidentified Atwater inmates "threw food tray at staff," "swung elbow at staff," "spit on staff" and "(struck) staff with closed fists." Spit, in particular, is plentiful. Seventeen of the Atwater assaults reported since January 2005 involved spitting.

Spit can be disease-laden, but there are more revolting things. Repeatedly, inmates throw urine and feces at guards.

Eight of the reported inmate-on-guard assaults at Atwater involved urine or feces, or both, and 21 involved "unknown liquid." Half of the reported assaults have taken place in the Special Housing Unit. This is where officials send inmates for added discipline; conditions are particularly spare and inmates do not always respond well.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.