Sen. Casey: Unarmed Prison Guards Can Use Pepper Spray Against Knife-Wielding Inmates

October 4, 2013 - 3:36 PM

Eric Williams

Canaan prison guard Eric Williams, 34, was killed by an inmate using a homemade weapon on Feb. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Courtesy Lauren Williams)

(CNSNews.com) – Shortly after a federal prison guard in Pennsylvania was stabbed to death at the U.S. Penitentiary-Canaan by a knife-wielding inmate in February, Sen. Robert Casey (D-Penn.) announced the expansion of a pilot program allowing unarmed federal correctional officers at two high-security institutions, including Canaan, to carry pepper spray.

“I’m working to ensure prison guards have the resources they need to stay safe,” Casey followed up on his Facebook. account in August.

On Tuesday, the father of Eric Williams, the 34-year-old guard who was stabbed 129 times by an inmate brandishing a jailhouse “shank,” said he only learned after his son’s death that he had been sent alone to lock 125 hardened criminals in their cells for the night at the high-security prison equipped with just handcuffs and a radio.

Casey was scheduled to appear with relatives of slain prison guards and union officials from the Council of Local Prisons at a press conference at the National Press Club Tuesday to push for more funding for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), but cancelled due to the government shutdown.

Federal corrections officers are not allowed to carry weapons, including sidearms, in cell blocks because they could be wrested away by inmates. A call to Casey’s office to ask why that same justification did not apply to pepper spray was not returned.

“On Feb 25th of this year, 1:30 in the morning, I learned that my son had been murdered by some inmate that to this day I don’t know what his motives were… he stabbed my son 129 times, broke his skull, and I didn’t even recognize my boy laying in that casket," Williams' father, Donald, said at the press conference.

“And that was the first thing I learned. And I said to myself, and I talked to some of the people from Canaan prison, and I said, well, what about the fellow corrections officers that were there, they couldn’t intervene, they couldn’t help, what happened?

“And then I found out, I learned something else,” Williams continued. “My son was working with around 125 of the worst…people to deal with, and he's all by himself in an open setting. How crazy is that? That's inviting it. I was shocked."

The elder Williams called for the hiring of more prison guards to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. As of October 3rd, 10 other guards have been assaulted by weapon-wielding inmates, and 31 others have been attacked by unarmed prisoners, according to the Council of Prison Locals.

Williams was the 24th federal correctional officer killed by inmates in the line of duty since 1901. He was attacked by a gang member convicted of a 2002 murder in Arizona who is currently awaiting trial. (See Staff homicide Bureau of Prisons.pdf)

Two other federal prison guards, Jose Rivera of Atwater, Calif., and Osvaldo Albarati, of Puerto Rico, were also killed by inmates over the past five years.

The union wants BOP’s current $6.5 billion budget increased by $78.7 million so it can hire 1,054 additional corrections officers.

But the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies recently recommended that the bureau’s budget be decreased $112 million below 2013 levels, noting that BOP has not adopted money-saving recommendations previously made by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“While BOP cannot control how many people enter prison, a recent GAO report found that BOP underutilizes operational authority to shorten prison stays by failing to maximize the use of community confinement at the end of sentences,” the subcommittee report stated. (See Subcommittee on Justice, Science, & Related Agencies appropriations report.pdf)

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