Violence curbed inside Atwater penitentiary

WASHINGTON — Inmate violence at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater peaked in late 2007 and subsided throughout last year, newly obtained records suggest.

The number of inmate-on-inmate assaults reached their high in November 2007, when four serious assaults were reported. Those attacks occurred during a volatile six-month stretch in which at least one serious inmate-on-inmate assault was reported monthly, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal.

Reported assaults have decreased since then, apparently in part because of sporadic lockdowns. No serious inmate-on-inmate assaults were reported at Atwater during the last five months of 2008, the Bureau of Prisons records show.

"While we cannot say positively what contributed to the decline, we believe it may have occurred as a result of some of the changes implemented in Atwater," Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said Friday.

Nonetheless, even with the decline in inmate assaults during 2008, Atwater remains a dangerous place.

In August, an Atwater inmate was sent to the hospital after being stabbed, and in June the prison was placed on lockdown after what was reported to be a gang-related attack.

The violence appears to ebb and flow. Fourteen serious inmate assaults were reported at Atwater during the first 11 months of 2007. During the most violent months of the year, the rate of inmate assaults at Atwater exceeded the average rate at other federal prisons.

By contrast, only six serious inmate assaults were reported at Atwater during the first 11 months of 2008. None of them occurred after June.

The inmate-on-inmate violence decline last year coincided with a crackdown that followed the June 2008 killing of Atwater correctional officer Jose Rivera. The decline began even before the November 2008 arrival of a highly regarded superintendent, Hector Rios Jr., who has been credited with improving security at the penitentiary.

The Bureau of Prisons figures do not convey the full picture of the high-security penitentiary, which holds roughly 1,110 inmates. The records identified only those assaults in which there was a "guilty finding" for the inmate involved.

Other Bureau of Prisons records newly obtained under the Freedom of Information Act further reveal that Atwater reported three escape attempts, two hostage-takings and 10 incidents of riot or encouraging a riot from December 2005 to December 2008. Atwater reported 475 seizures of inmate weapons during the same period.

"Weapons appeared to be plentiful at the penitentiary," the Bureau of Prisons Board of Inquiry noted after an investigation into Rivera's slaying.

The Board of Inquiry concluded Rivera was stabbed to death with an "ice pick weapon" fashioned from metal taken out of a prison dishwasher. Former Atwater inmates Jose Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero are awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder.

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