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Safety concerns remain an issue at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater

A former inmate at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater who was sentenced to life in prison for killing his cellmate was recently resentenced to eight years for the crime after a federal appeals court reviewed the case.

Defense attorneys say the prison was partially responsible for the death. Prison officials deny that claim.

Juwan Tonay Ferguson, 38, was sentenced to life in prison for beating to death 28-year-old Domosanies Duvall Slaughter on Aug. 2, 2006, when the pair were kept inside a prison special housing unit.

Ferguson had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter by a federal jury. He was sentenced under the federal "three strikes" law, under which a person who commits three violent crimes is sentenced to life without parole.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reviewed the case and voided Ferguson's life sentence because the crime he was originally sent to prison for didn't qualify as a strike under federal law.

Ferguson was convicted in 2002 of assaulting a postal employee with intent to rob. But according to the appeals court report, "The 2002 pre-sentence report and the findings of the 2002 sentencing court taken together clearly establish that the injuries inflicted by Ferguson did not threaten a substantial risk of death or cause the victim extreme physical pain and disfigurement as described (under the three strikes law)," the appeals court determined.

The appeals court upheld Ferguson's manslaughter conviction but tossed out his life sentence. As a result, he was resentenced on June 24 to eight years in prison.

John Balazs, the Sacramento attorney who defended Ferguson, said his client should be released from prison within six to seven years because of the time he's served. Ferguson had faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for killing his cellmate.

Balazs argued that the Federal Bureau of Prisons was partially at fault for Slaughter's death, mainly because Slaughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Even so, he was moved from the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex to USP Atwater, although it wasn't properly equipped to address Slaughter's condition. And Ferguson had asked corrections officials to move Slaughter out of his cell, Balazs argued, adding that Ferguson didn't start the fight. Balazs said those factors played a role in the judge's sentencing decision.

"I think the evidence was clear that the other guy threw the first punch," Balazs said.

The office of U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner declined to comment about the case.

USP Atwater Warden Hector Rios Jr. was contacted and responded in an e-mail to the Sun-Star:

"Thank you for your inquiry. Miguel Chavez, Public Information Officer, has addressed this matter. Know that we remain committed to protect society through the provision of safe, secure, humane and cost-effective correctional facilities."

In the U.S. attorney's office's court response to Ferguson's resentencing, the defendant was referred to as a man who has "shot people, beat up and robbed a mailman and now stomped his incapacitated cellmate to death."

The document, submitted by Wagner and Senior Litigation Counsel Dawrence Rice Jr., also stated:

"The defendant testified at trial that he 'did not commit murder or any other crime in this case (and) was strictly defending (himself).' That is not acceptance of responsibility. That is a deliberate attempt to escape responsibility."

The fight

Ferguson and Slaughter had been cellmates for about a week before the Aug. 2, 2006, fight, according to court documents. Earlier that day, Ferguson had told his girlfriend during a recorded phone conversation that he was having problems with Slaughter and would have to get rid of him. Ferguson had told a correctional officer that day that he wanted Slaughter removed from his cell.

About 6:20 p.m., Ferguson told a correctional officer that he had 30 minutes to get Slaughter out of his cell. The officer agreed and said he would have Slaughter removed in about 10 minutes.

Right afterward, he and another officer heard loud thumping sounds coming from the cell, according to court documents.

An officer went to the scene and saw Slaughter lying facedown on the cell floor, with his upper body halfway under a bed and Ferguson kicking him. The officer saw Ferguson drag the motionless Slaughter from under the bed, position the victim's head facedown and repeatedly stomp the victim's head into the concrete floor. The officer ordered Ferguson to stop, but he refused and said, "Ferguson's not home," according to court documents.

Eventually, Ferguson stopped and was arrested.

Slaughter was pronounced brain dead at a hospital Aug. 6, 2006, and was declared dead two days later.

During interviews with investigators, Ferguson said the victim had punched him in the nose after he'd told the correctional officer he had 30 minutes to remove Slaughter from the cell. Ferguson said blood was coming from his nose and felt that his life was in danger. Photos taken of Ferguson after the incident showed he did have a bloody nose, according to court documents.

The Sun-Star asked Chavez, the public information officer, if the prison was partially responsible for Slaughter's death, as Ferguson's attorney had claimed. "No. We take our responsibility for the safety and security of inmates in our institution very seriously," Chavez wrote in an e-mail. "We follow sound correctional practices and procedures to supervise and monitor the inmates under our supervision."

Chavez was asked if USP Atwater was properly equipped to handle an inmate like Slaughter, who Ferguson's attorney maintains was schizophrenic. "USP Atwater has competent medical and psychological staff available to handle a wide variety of mental health issues. Inmate Slaughter's mental health needs were adequately addressed while he was at USP Beaumont and USP Atwater," Chavez wrote.

Other prison violence

Slaughter's death is one of several violent incidents reported at the prison in recent years. The most notable was the June 20, 2008, death of correctional officer Jose Rivera, who was stabbed to death by two inmates.

A few months afterward, then-warden Dennis Smith left the penitentiary and Rios took over.

The Sun-Star requested the number of inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-staff assaults from USP Atwater dating to 2005. The data show reported serious inmate-on-inmate assaults have risen significantly since 2005, with 22 reported last year, compared with three in 2005. The prison reported 16 serious inmate-on-inmate assaults in 2009, 12 in 2008, 17 in 2007 and seven in 2006.

According to the prison's data, serious inmate-on-staff assaults spiked in 2007, with 10 incidents reported. The prison reported no serious inmate-on-staff assaults last year, one incident in 2009, two incidents in 2008, nine incidents in 2006 and none in 2005. Chavez said the data specifically documents inmates who've had their cases heard through the institution's disciplinary process and were found guilty of committing a serious assault.

The prison didn't supply any data for inmate-on-staff or inmate-on-inmate assault this year.

Regardless, safety remains a perennial issue at the prison:

In April a correctional officer was taken to a hospital with severe head trauma after being punched in the face by an inmate.

Inmates Juan Solorio-Mendoza and Orlando E. Ibarra escaped from the prison in March and remain at large.

According to data from USP Atwater's union, the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1242, there have been 11 inmate assaults on staff this year and eight inmate-on-inmate assaults. In addition, there were 25 reported inmate fights, 12 of them with weapons; one inmate suicide; and 18 gang-related incidents. The inmate fights number is an aggregate that includes disturbances involving more than two people.

Rios was criticized by the prison's correctional officers union in January after a controversial decision to shut down six of the prison's seven security towers.

Although some have said prison conditions have improved since Rios took charge, the prison still has its critics including some who work closely with the prison's staff.

Andy Krotik, spokesman for Friends and Family of Correctional Officers, a group of about 1,000 people geared toward promoting safety for correctional officers, said the prison remains a "ticking time bomb." Krotik mentioned a gang-on-gang fight within the past six months at the prison.

Three years after Rivera's death, Krotik said, the prison's correctional officers still lack proper safety equipment. For example, correctional officers requested stab-resistant vests after Rivera's death. The vests the federal correctional officers received will protect only against a slicing weapon not an edged weapon. "I believe the conditions (the correctional officers) are working in are very disconcerting," Krotik said. "These guys do the job most of us couldn't do or wouldn't do."

Krotik said he initially supported the closure of the security towers because it would create 32 position shifts, which he hoped would be used in the prison's housing units. Instead, Krotik said those shifts are being used to cover overtime, vacations and sick time.

In terms of officer morale at the prison, Krotik said it's at a low point. "I haven't seen it this low since shortly after Jose Rivera was murdered a little over three years ago."

Chavez, the prison's spokesman, was asked whether Krotik's concerns are justified and whether there are any plans to upgrade the vests for federal correctional officers. "The safety of staff and inmates are primary concerns. The agency periodically reviews the safety equipment available to staff," Chavez wrote. He added that the vests USP Atwater staff use today were determined to best meet the needs of the agency.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, earlier this year reintroduced legislation directing the Bureau of Prisons to conduct a pilot program to determine whether issuing pepper spray to correctional staff would decrease incidents of violence against them by inmates. That legislation is pending.

USP Atwater houses about 1,150 high-security male inmates.

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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