Atwater guards lobby for pepper spray

WASHINGTON — Gary Pullings knows what he wants as a correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

"I want to carry the damn pepper spray," Pullings said Wednesday.

The 30-year-old former Marine, an Atwater guard since 2006, said he and his fellow officers remain dangerously exposed at the maximum security prison. He contends that staffing is too low and incarceration policies are imperfect.

Even the newly available stab-resistant vests designed to fend off knives are inadequate given inmates' customary armament, he says.

"We're not finding knives," Pullings said. "We're finding ice picks."

An ad hoc ice pick, he notes, was used last year by the two inmates now accused of murdering Atwater corrections officer Jose Rivera. A Bureau of Prisons Board of Inquiry determined the ice pick was fashioned from metal scavenged from a prison dishwasher.

This week, Pullings and his fellow federal correctional officers are lobbying Congress for reinforcements. They bring to the political task myriad horror stories — "we're finding weapons at an alarming rate," Pullings said — as well as written handouts about legislation and the no-nonsense physical solidity one expects of prison guards.

From lawmakers, the prison workers want legislation similar to a bill sponsored earlier this year by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. Cardoza's bill would establish a two-year pilot program at a federal prison, where correctional officers could be equipped with the pepper spray that's formally known as oleoresin capsicum.

"The Bureau of Prisons management has taken a number of steps," Cardoza said Wednesday, "but I don't think by any stretch of the imagination that we've done enough."

So far, the pepper spray bill has five co-sponsors but has not been the subject of a hearing. Bureau of Prisons officials have traditionally resisted arming guards who are working on the inside of a facility.

"I am not a huge fan of putting Tasers and batons on our employees, given the risks that are created," Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin told a House panel earlier this year. "Because you've got to realize, anything we give to an employee you must assume an inmate can have."

Pullings countered Wednesday that the potential for violence remains high even though the number of inmate fights has fallen at Atwater from about one per shift to one every week or so. Older prison gang leaders are being shoved aside by younger, more aggressive inmates, while the pending closure of an inmate computer recycling program will leave inmates with more time on their hands.

"When they shut it down, we're going to have 200 inmates sitting idle," Pullings warned. "The only thing they'll have left to do is fight."

Pullings is a broad-shouldered, six-year veteran of the federal Bureau of Prisons, and treasurer of Local 1242 of the Council of Prison Locals. Like other activists within the union, part of the Association of Federal Government Employees, he is vehemently critical of Lappin.

"He lied to us," Pullings declared. "He came to our institution and said we would get more staffing" following Rivera's death.

Cardoza, though, said Lappin has been making improvements at Atwater, including the appointment of the well-regarded Hector Rios Jr. as warden.

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