Highway 99 sign is memorial to slain Atwater USP correctional officer

It's been more than three years since correctional officer Jose Rivera was stabbed to death by two drunken inmates at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

Despite the time that's passed, the tragedy remains at the forefront of many people's memories.

Law enforcement officials joined Rivera's family Thursday at the Atwater Community Center to commemorate him, push for better safety for correctional officers and display a highway sign to mark the Jose Rivera memorial stretch of Highway 99.

The sign will be placed near the Applegate Road exit.

Terry Rivera, Jose Rivera's mother, said her son's death still feels as if it happened yesterday.

Fighting back tears, she spoke at Thursday's gathering and encouraged officials to fight for the tools correctional officers should be equipped with, including better stab-proof vests, batons and Tasers.

"We need to fight together to get all the right tools for correctional officers," she said.

Bryan Lowry, national president of the Council of Prison Locals, which represents all unionized federal prison workers in the United States, said the council is working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to improve officer safety.

Lowry thinks the stab-proof vests correctional officers have available to them now are good quality, but that more can be done.

"We've had an irresponsible policy in place to this point that has not really put the emphasis on protecting staff members in the workplace," he said.

New policy needs to be implemented to include who wears the vests, when and where they're worn, and how they should be maintained, Lowry said.

"We believe that by the end of the year we will have something in place that will give staff protection should they be attacked or assaulted by an inmate with a weapon," he said.

More safety concerns at the prison have been raised since Rivera's death. One is that six of seven security towers were shut down in January in what some called a cost-saving measure.

Prison officials said an electrified fence, which was activated shortly before the towers were closed, was an overall improvement to safety.

But exchanging manpower for technology is not an acceptable tradeoff, Lowry said.

"Electric fences do not respond to emergencies, they do not provide safe harbor to staff," he said. "I'm not opposed to electric fences, I'm a proponent. But they do nothing to respond to or prevent or quell and control violence that occurs."

The concerns are part of an effort to prevent more heartbreak resulting from prison violence.

Rivera was killed in 2008 when two drunken inmates used an ice-pick-type weapon to stab him to death inside one of the prison's housing units, according to prison officials.

The two former USP Atwater inmates have been charged with murder and are awaiting trial.

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