ATWATER -- U.S. Penitentiary Atwater has begun lifting a prisonwide lockdown that's been in place since two inmates stabbed and killed a correctional officer there two months ago, a prison spokesman said this week.
"The institution has begun a slow, gradual transition period toward restoring institution operations," spokesman Miguel Chavez said Tuesday.
Inmates are being allowed out of their cells in small groups for short periods of time under heavy supervision, Chavez said.
Jose Rivera, a 22-year-old Navy veteran who had worked at USP Atwater less than a year, was killed June 20 by two inmates wielding a handmade weapon.
The two inmates accused of stabbing him, James Leon Guerrero and Jose Cabrera Sablan, were charged by federal prosecutors with first-degree murder last week. They could face the death penalty.
The prison ordered a lockdown immediately after the attack. Until this week, USP Atwater's 1,100 inmates haven't been allowed to see visitors, make phone calls or leave their cells except to shower.
On Monday, the prison began allowing inmates outside their cells for one-hour stretches, one tier at a time, correctional officers said. A tier includes 16 cells, with one or two inmates per cell.
Inmates are taking some of their meals outside of their cells, Chavez said. They are allowed to make phone calls, though visitors still are prohibited and inmates are not attending classes or going to work inside the institution.
Chavez said the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the federal agency that oversees federal prisons, sent 21 employees from other institutions across the country to assist USP Atwater as it transitions from lockdown status.
Since Rivera's death, national union officials and local community leaders have demanded safety reforms at the 7-year-old high-security prison.
Reforms sought are for staffing increases and policy changes that would make stab-resistant vests and nonlethal weapons, such as batons and Tasers, standard equipment for all federal correctional officers.
The issue of when the prison will end its lockdown has been watched closely. Some have called for the lockdown to be kept in effect until safety improvements, namely the stab- resistant vests, are added.
A community group formed after Rivera's death, Friends and Family of Correctional Officers, issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the Bureau of Prisons for beginning to lift the lockdown ahead of safety reforms.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, was critical. Though prison officials promised to keep him apprised of developments, he said no one informed him of the plan to transition from lockdown.
Word that the lockdown might end this week began circulating last week, but prison officials only released information about it Tuesday.
Cardoza 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 officers.
A handful of officers in addition to the temporary ones have been added to USP Atwater's ranks, Chavez said. The Bureau of Prisons has agreed to make stab-resistant vests available to its staff, though it's still selecting and buying them.
A date for lifting the lockdown completely has not been established, Chavez said. There have been no disturbances, fights or attacks since the transition from lockdown status began this week, he added.