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Correctional officers union says deal close on stab-resistant vests

Though it has taken far longer than they hoped, national union officials said Thursday that they are moving closer to reaching a deal with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to make high-quality stab-resistant vests available to all federal correctional workers.

Union officials began demanding safety related reforms across the federal prison system after a correctional officer at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater, Jose Rivera, was stabbed to death by two inmates inside a housing unit at the prison in June.

Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran, was alone with more than 100 inmates when he was stabbed through the heart with a handmade shank. Though guards in many state prisons and local jails often carry non-lethal weapons and wear stab-resistant vests, federal prison policies have barred such equipment.

National union officials met Thursday with the Bureau of Prisons to discuss union demands to make stab-resistant vests available to all federal correctional officers.

Though the bureau previously agreed to widen its use of protective vests, union leaders hope to make them mandatory across the federal prison system, said Bryan Lowry, president of the Council of Prison Locals of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The union also wants to ensure the bureau buys high-quality vests that will stop all types of sharp weapons inmates are known to fashion inside prisons.

Bureau officials declined to discuss Thursday’s meeting. Lowry characterized it as a productive session where the union and the bureau each staged demonstrations to show the effectiveness of the two different types of vests the sides have proposed.

The bureau wants to purchase vests that protects against only certain types of sharp weapons, Lowry said. Besides costing half as much compared with the vests the union has proposed, the bureau’s choice is made of layers of textile and no metal, he said.

The union is asking for vests that contain a layer of metal mesh that would protect against a wider range of weapons, Lowry said. “We want something that is going to stop all kinds of attacks,” he said. “We don’t see the point otherwise.”

Ultimately, no decisions came out of the meeting. But Lowry said he left feeling optimistic. “They basically told us that what we want isn’t out of reach,” he said, adding that the bureau promised to give a formal answer on the vests by next week.

“It’s taken longer than it should have to get to this point because we still have officers in danger every day,” Lowry said. “But we’re making progress.”

Union officials have also demanded staffing increases across the federal prison system and policy changes that would make non-lethal weapons, such as batons and pepper spray, standard equipment for officers.

Lowry said neither of those issues was discussed Thursday, though the union plans to continue pursuing both.

In an e-mail Thursday, a spokeswoman said the Bureau of Prisons plans to increase staffing as some facilities. It also plans to rework inmate movement schedules so that only certain portions of a prison’s population are allowed to move from one location to another — to their cells, to meals, to classes, work or church — at a time.

“The (bureau) will implement changes at high-security institutions first and consider changes to other institutions in the months ahead,” wrote spokeswoman Traci Billingsley.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, also has called for stab-resistant vests, more funding to adequately staff federal prisons and pay increases for USP Atwater officers. He recently introduced legislation that would make the vests mandatory for all federal correctional officer.

USP Atwater, which houses roughly 1,100 high security inmates, is still on lockdown as a result of Rivera’s June 20 stabbing. Correctional officers at the prison, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they finished this week shaking down the institution, searching prisoners and cells for weapons.

The Bureau of Prisons has offered no timeline for when the lockdown might end. USP Atwater’s spokesman, Jesse Gonzalez, and its warden, Dennis Smith, didn’t return phone calls Thursday.

The Sun-Star published a story last month detailing what several USP Atwater correctional officers said are failed safety policies at the prison.

Besides low staffing and a lack of protective equipment, the officers said USP Atwater doesn’t adequately search inmates for weapons or punish inmates who act out violently.

They said assaults on officers and fights among inmates have increased dramatically in the past two years or so.

Rivera, who lived in Chowchilla, had worked at USP Atwater about 10 months.

The FBI’s Fresno office is investigating his death. The two inmates suspected of killing Rivera, James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan, still haven’t been charged.