Hundreds of people gathered in an Atwater parking lot Tuesday to demand safety reforms at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater, where a correctional officer was stabbed to death by inmates two months ago.
Organized by a community coalition that formed after officer Jose Rivera's murder, the rally drew national union leaders, local elected officials, Rivera's family and reporters from CNN.
"We need action and we're not getting it from an institution that begged us to come here," said Flip Hassett, who helped to found the coalition, the Friends and Family of Correctional Officers. "My question is, Why isn't the warden standing here with us demanding these changes be made?"
Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran, died June 20 after he was attacked by two inmates wielding handmade weapons inside a USP Atwater housing unit. He was alone with more than 100 inmates at the time, wearing no protective equipment and carrying no weapons.
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Since his death, national union officials and the local coalition have demanded safety reforms at the seven-year-old, high-security prison — reforms that officers say could have prevented Rivera's death.
Specifically, the coalition has called for staffing increases at USP Atwater and policy changes that would make stab-resistant vests and nonlethal weapons, such as batons and Tasers, standard equipment for all law enforcement officers.
It also has demanded that a lockdown ordered at USP Atwater after Rivera's death be kept in effect until those changes are made.
"We all understand that there is an inherent risk in being a correctional officer," said Andy Krotik, a former Atwater city councilman and a spokesman for the coalition. "But there are simple things that can be done to make the job safer."
Krotik asked the crowd of about 200, "Would you send a firefighter out to a fire without water? Would you send a police officer out without bullets for his gun?"
"No!" the crowd shouted.
"Then why would you send a correctional officer out without a (stab-resistant) vest?" Krotik then asked.
Several members of Rivera's family attended the rally. His mother, Terry Rivera, told reporters her son would have been proud of the movement for change. "He would have been happy we're doing this," she said, wearing a white T-shirt bearing her son's photo. "Every day is still very hard for us. We miss him more than ever."
Besides several short speeches, the rally included a moment of silence to honor Rivera and a prayer led by a retired USP Atwater lieutenant, James Spencer.
During a speech that followed the prayer, Spencer said USP Atwater was among the safest federal prisons in the country before 2005. Now it's among the most dangerous, he said, blaming the shift on policies that reduced staff and allowed inmates freer movement inside the prison.
"When (Rivera) was murdered, he was alone and no one could help him because they were too far away to get there in time," Spencer said. "One of my 'kids' was murdered, and I'm damn mad about it."
Other speakers urged the public to ask legislators to push for safety reforms at the prison and to support legislation recently introduced by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, that would require stab-resistant vests for all federal correctional officers.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which oversees USP Atwater and all federal prisons, has promised to meet some of the safety demands.
It has agreed to increase staffing at some facilities and it's now working with union officials to make stab-resistant vests widely available.
The bureau has said it also plans to rework inmate movement schedules at some facilities 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.
In an e-mail Tuesday, a bureau spokeswoman said the bureau is dedicated to reducing the risks correctional officers face at work. "The safety and security of our staff has always been our highest priority," spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said.
Union officials have criticized the bureau's response to Rivera's death as far too slow. USP Atwater's leaders, namely its warden, Dennis Smith, have publicly said almost nothing about the matter.
Atwater resident Yolanda Valdez, 28, said she attended Tuesday's rally to speak out on behalf of a close friend who works at the prison. "We're here to speak for him because he's not allowed to," she said. "We just want some basic safety measures put in place."
Daniel Coggin, Jr., of Merced, said he attended because his son works at USP Atwater. "I was a deputy sheriff for 28 years and we had so much more protection than they get," Coggin said. "It's like, ‘You're on your own out there. Good luck.' Something has to change."
Rivera lived in Chowchilla and had worked at USP Atwater about 10 months.
The third of five children, he graduated from Le Grand High School in 2003 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after. He served four years in the military, including two tours in Iraq.