Prison guards getting vests, union says

WASHINGTON -- Guards at high- security federal prisons will be provided the kind of stab-proof vests that might have saved Atwater correctional officer Jose Rivera, under a new Bureau of Prisons policy.

Facing pressure from unions and lawmakers, the Bureau of Prisons has told union leaders the vests can be worn by guards at U.S. penitentiaries. These are the facilities that, like Atwater, house the most dangerous federal prisoners.

"It's a good plan to start off with," Bryan Lowry, president of the Council of Prison Locals, said Friday. "However, I feel the protective vests should be allowed for correctional officers at all security level prisons."

Bureau of Prisons spokespersons could not be reached by phone or e-mail Friday afternoon.

Lowry said he has been advised that penitentiary guards will be permitted, but not required, to don the relatively heavy outer vests that now are stocked for special purposes such as subduing unruly inmates. This could start within a week, Lowry predicted. Over the longer term, officials will begin evaluating what other kinds of vests might be bought.

The high-security federal prisons also will provide additional staffing on the day and night watches, and control inmate movement more rigorously, according to a briefing provided to union officials.

The new protective vest policy described by Lowry would be expanded further under a bill introduced by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, that would require all 16,400 Bureau of Prisons guards to wear vests while on duty. Cardoza's bill would provide the Bureau of Prisons $20 million to buy the vests.

"Like our soldiers and our police officers, these individuals help to ensure the protection of the American public," Cardoza said in a statement Friday. "This bill is a necessary step toward helping prevent another tragedy like the one that occurred at ... Atwater on June 20."

Cardoza named his measure the Jose Rivera Correctional Officer Protection Act in honor of the slain 22-year-old Navy veteran.

Officials say two inmates at the high-security penitentiary stabbed the unarmed Rivera with prison-made shanks. The FBI is investigating the slaying, which occurred while Rivera was alone overseeing more than 100 prisoners.

After Rivera's death, the union that represents federal correctional officers began increasing public pressure for enhanced safety measures. Union leaders met with federal Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin two weeks ago, and they applauded the thrust of the legislation introduced late Thursday.

"It's a needed plan," Lowry said of Cardoza's bill. "I think every correctional officer needs to have an opportunity to wear a vest."

Lowry stopped short of recommending that all guards be required to wear the vests as mandated under Cardoza's legislation.

More talks scheduled

Cardoza and Lappin will meet on Capitol Hill this week to discuss safety policies. Until now, federal prison guards have not routinely been equipped with the safety vests customarily worn by some state prison guards.

"The Bureau of Prisons ... has for some time considered expanding the availability (of protective vests) to staff," Bureau of Prisons spokesman Mike Truman said by e-mail two weeks ago. "We recently decided to greatly expand the availability of vests to more staff, the details of which will be worked out as we implement this change."

Truman added that the Bureau of Prisons will "make adjustments to our policies, practices and procedures as necessary to ensure the safety and security of our institutions."

Federal prisons reported 1,362 armed and unarmed inmate-on-staff assaults in the 2006 budget year. The federal prisons reported 1,780 armed and unarmed inmate-on-inmate assaults during the same period.

A policy question provoked by Cardoza's bill is whether the protective vest requirement reasonably should apply across the board to all federal facilities. Thirty-eight percent of federal prisoners are housed in low-security institutions. Sometimes, the lowest-security facilities, which are called federal prison camps, do not even have perimeter fencing.

Only 11 percent of the most dangerous federal inmates are held in high-security penitentiaries, such as Atwater.

Cardoza's legislation states that the Bureau of Prisons "shall require" that "each correctional officer" wear a protective vest within 90 days of the bill's passage. Legislative details often change during the course of Capitol Hill negotiations. Bills also can serve as leverage, exerting pressure on federal agencies to take certain actions.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.

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