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Prison officers to get vests within 6 weeks; union says vests aren't enough

Correctional officers at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater will have stab-resistant vests within six weeks — but officers and union officials are warning the vests aren’t enough.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which oversees USP Atwater, signed a contract last week to buy stab-resistant vests for all federal correctional officers who want them. The company that sells the vests, Armor Express, began measuring Atwater officers for the custom-fit gear Thursday, with the vests to be delivered within six weeks.

Union officials began demanding the vests, among other safety reforms, after USP Atwater correctional officer Jose Rivera was stabbed to death by inmates at the high-security prison in June.

The Bureau of Prisons eventually agreed to provide the vests, but disagreed with union officials over exactly which type to buy. The union worried that the bureau would buy cheaper vests that don’t protect against all sharp weapons.

News that the bureau had signed a contract and begun fitting officers for vests emerged Thursday during a public meeting at Atwater City Hall, where Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, met with community members to discuss ongoing safety concerns at the prison.

“I’m told that officers at USP Atwater are being fitted for the vests today,” said Cardoza, who introduced legislation after Rivera’s death that would make stab-resistant vests mandatory for all federal correctional officers. “But it’s taken a long time, and it should have happened without congressional intervention.”

After the meeting, union officials and USP Atwater officers said the vests on order aren’t adequate because they protect against only certain types of sharp weapons.

“They’re not the ones we were looking for,” said Bryan Lowry, president of the Council of Prison Locals of the American Federation of Government Employees. “The agency made the decision to buy these vests while we were still negotiating, and they’re not the quality we wanted. That said, they do provide some protection, and it’s much better than what we had before, which was nothing.”

Besides costing far less than the vests the union had proposed — about $400 a vest compared with about $800 — the bureau’s choice is made of layers of textile with no metal, Lowry said. The union asked for vests that contain a layer of metal mesh that would protect against a wider range of weapons, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, Traci Billingsley, said she wasn’t familiar with the particulars of the vest the bureau selected or the reasons it was chosen, but that it is certified for use in prisons by the National Institute of Justice.Jeremy Schroer, a USP Atwater correctional officer and chief steward of the local union, criticized the bureau’s choice. “In our contract, it says (the Bureau of Prisons) will make every effort to reduce all the possible safety threats to the lowest level,” Schroer said. “They’re not doing that when there’s better equipment out there than what they’re providing.”USP Atwater’s spokesman, Jesse Gonzalez, declined to discuss the vests. The prison’s warden, Dennis Smith, didn’t return phone calls.

The contract between Armor Express and the Bureau of Prisons is worth up to $4 million, according to the contract paperwork.

Vests will only be provided to employees who ask for one. Lowry said he didn’t know exactly how many USP Atwater employees have requested vests, but that as much as 60 percent of employees at some federal prisons have asked for one.

Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran, died June 20 after he was attacked by two inmates wielding a handmade weapon inside a prison housing unit. The inmates accused of his murder, James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan, were charged last month.

In line with standard procedures, Rivera was alone with more than 100 inmates when he was attacked, wearing no protective equipment and carrying no weapons. Correctional officers in California state prisons and in Merced County’s jails already wear stab-resistant vests.

USP Atwater, which opened in 2001 and houses roughly 1,100 high-security inmates, is still on lockdown as a result of Rivera’s stabbing.

Also at the community meeting Thursday, Cardoza said he has had “generalized discussions” with members of the House Judiciary Committee asking for more funding to increase staffing at USP Atwater and across the federal prison system. A community group that formed after Rivera’s death to demand safety improvements at USP Atwater, called Friends and Family of Correctional Officers, organized Thursday’s meeting.

Flip Hassett, a former Merced city councilman and founding member of the group, called for Warden Smith to be removed, saying that he has ignored safety concerns, refused to listen to the community and changed safety policies to the detriment of employees. “He’s shown an amazing amount of arrogance and disregard for our community,” Hassett said. “That lack of leadership is unacceptable.”

No USP Atwater officials attended Thursday’s meeting.

The Sun-Star published a story in July 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.Besides stab-resistant vests, union officials and community leaders have called for increased staffing at USP Atwater and policy changes that would make nonlethal weapons, such as batons and Tasers, standard equipment for all correctional officers.