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U.S. Bureau of Prisons to arm some guards with pepper spray

Corrections officers at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California and six other tension-racked federal prisons now will be armed with pepper spray, prompted in part by a 2008 murder that still haunts a California court.

Urged on by lawmakers, U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials are currently training selected officers to use the spray canisters that can drop a violent inmate from up to 12 feet away. Although described as a “pilot program” that will formally start in several weeks, the decision marks a policy shift for officials who until now have warned against the dangers of arming prison guards.

Under the prior no-weapons policy, Atwater guard Jose Rivera carried only a radio and body alarm when two inmates turned on him June 20, 2008. They ran Rivera down, tackled the 22-year-old Navy veteran and stabbed him repeatedly, a prison videotape shows. The two accused inmates are awaiting trial.

“The senseless and tragic murder of Jose Rivera highlighted the dangerous risks correctional officers face on a daily basis when working in overcrowded prisons,” stated Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, Calif., adding that he was “pleased” with the new policy that he believes will “save other law enforcement officers from injury or even death.”

Following Rivera’s murder, Cardoza introduced legislation to direct a pepper-spray pilot program in federal prisons. Although the legislation has not moved, the version re-introduced in the current Congress has collected 61 House co-sponsors; it’s the kind of congressional support that can grab an agency’s attention.

Besides Atwater, which opened in California’s Central Valley in 2001, the pepper spray will be distributed to guards at other high-security federal prisons in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and Louisiana. Training is now under way and the pepper spray is supposed to be deployed by August, with officials planning to study its use and effectiveness for the next year.

“I hope it helps someone not get injured, and absolutely save a life,” Dale Deshotel, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals 33, said in an interview Friday. “We hope we can (eventually) get this into all employees’ hands.”

Known technically as oleoresin capsicum, pepper spray incapacitates by causing retching, uncontrollable coughing, burning pain, eye swelling and more.

While state prison guards in California and a number of other states are armed with pepper spray, federal authorities until now have reasoned that the potential disadvantages outweigh the benefits.

Arming guards, even with a non-lethal weapon like pepper spray, would impede communication with inmates, officials have stated. Officials also have warned that unruly inmates could seize the three- to four-ounce pepper spray canisters and turn them against the guards.

“Management at one (federal) institution explained that, regardless of the amount of equipment officers carry, inmates will always outnumber officers. Therefore, the officers’ ability to manage the inmates through effective communication, rather than the use of equipment, is essential to ensuring federal safety,” the Government Accountability Office noted in a 2011 study.

The prior director of the Bureau of Prisons who had been steadfast in resisting arming guards, Harley Lappin, left the agency last year to join the private Corrections Corporation of America. The current director, Charles E. Samuels, Jr., has been more open to the idea, though the pilot program announcement “came out of the blue,” Deshotel said.

A Bureau of Prison spokesperson could not be reached Friday.

In certain cases, Bureau of Prisons officials have granted waivers to permit the deployment of additional equipment. Guards at the so-called Supermax facility in Florence, Colo., for instance, were given special permission to carry batons. Pepper spray and other weapons have also been stored and kept available for emergency use.

Federal prison inmates committed 73 “serious” assaults on staff in 2010 and 1,623 “less serious” assaults, Bureau of Prisons records show. In 2008, the year of Rivera’s death, federal prisons reported 94 serious assaults and 1,392 less serious assaults.

Inmates James Leon Guerrero and Joseph Cabrera Sablan potentially face the death penalty if convicted of Rivera’s murder. Attorneys, though, still are contesting whether Guerrero is mentally fit to stand trial.

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