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Violence on the Rise in BOP Facilities

Killings, assaults and other acts of violence are becoming more widespread in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), as the prison population increases and staff-to-prisoner ratios decline. Fifteen prisoner-on-prisoner BOP homicides occurred in 2008 compared with 12 in 2007. Serious assaults on staff increased to 82 in 2008 from 72 in 2007, following a decline in previous years.

The BOP operates 115 facilities that house over 205,000 prisoners. Most of the violence is relegated to U.S. Penitentiaries (USPs), which typically hold high-security offenders serving lengthy sentences.

On April 20, 2008, for example, a massive 30-minute riot at the USP in Florence, Colorado broke out in the recreation yard. The incident began after white supremacist prisoners celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday began yelling racial epithets at black prisoners. The white supremacists were drinking hooch, a form of homemade wine, and were armed with rocks and improvised weapons. Approximately 200 prisoners were involved in the melee.

To quell the riot, guards fired more than 200 M-16 rounds, 300 pepper balls and almost a dozen tear gas canisters, plus sting grenades. Two prisoners, Brian Scott Kubik and Phillip Lee Hooker, were shot to death by tower guards. Although the BOP initially reported that five other prisoners had been hurt, it was later learned that 30 prisoners and one staff member were injured during the incident.

Frank Sims, a prisoner allegedly involved in the riot, described the scene on the yard as “lil’ Baghdad.” Ken Shatto, president of the American Federal of Government Employees Local 1302 (AFGE), which represents BOP workers at the prison complex, remarked “It’s the craziest thing in 15 years I’ve seen with the Bureau.”

Outsiders like Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups, were surprised that white supremacist prisoners were allowed to congregate in the yard that day. “I’m not an expert in keeping prisons calm, but it certainly does seem like dangerous business to allow groups of white supremacist criminals to congregate on Hitler’s birthday,” said Potok. “The truth is, it is an iconic day in the white supremacist calendar.”

Leann LaRiva, a spokesperson for USP Florence, said prisoners are not separated by race on Hitler’s birthday or any other anniversary. “We don’t discriminate on race or ethnicity or segregate,” she said. Not even, apparently, to prevent riots that result in prisoners being shot to death.

Union officials have long called for increased staffing to help prevent such violent outbreaks – and, of course, to boost their membership ranks. In April 2008, just weeks before the riot occurred, Phil Glover, a legislative coordinator with the AFGE, testified before Congress about rising levels of violence in the BOP. Glover blamed the violence on insufficient staffing and resources.

According to Glover, the BOP has filled only 87 percent of staffing positions compared to 95 percent during the 1990s. He stated that staffing levels in federal prisons may drop as low as 76 percent if budget shortfalls continue. Compounding this staff shortage, BOP facilities are 36 percent over capacity systemwide.

The BOP has recognized the potential for increased violence due to staffing deficiencies. In a March 2008 memo, prison officials estimated that a projected $289 million budget shortfall could force the cutting of guard positions to the point “where safety and security of staff and inmates could be in jeopardy.”

Immediately following the USP Florence riot, then-U.S. Senator Ken Salazar contacted Attorney General Michael Mukasey and requested that additional guards be sent to the facility. Salazar has also called on the BOP to release reports about the riot to the public.

“The people of Colorado, especially those in the communities surrounding the USP, deserve the assurance that the BOP is taking the steps necessary to improve security at the facility and prevent terrible incidents like this in the future,” Salazar wrote to BOP Director Harley Lappin. Despite Salazar’s requests, the BOP refused to release details regarding the riot, citing an ongoing investigation. The FBI is also conducting a review.

Amazingly, just three months after the riot, the warden of USP Florence, Sara Revell, received an Excellence in Prison Management award. According to Felcia Ponce, a BOP spokesperson, the award “recognizes outstanding contributions by a warden in the overall management of staff, inmates, and general population.” The BOP did not comment on why Revell was given the award following a major riot.

On August 10, 2008, just weeks after Revell was recognized for her excellence in prison management, USP Florence was again placed on lockdown due to a prisoner-on-prisoner homicide.

Violence at USP Florence has even extended to the visiting room. In November 2008, days after visitation was restarted at the institution, a prisoner attacked two visitors. An unidentified BOP guard claimed the prisoner tried to stab his wife and mother-in-law. “It was some type of paper, folded or rolled really tight with a blade in the end of it,” the guard said. “He managed to cut his wife’s neck and then tried to cut up the mother a little bit.” The visitors were taken to a hospital and released.

The BOP is in the process of separating outside recreation yards at all USPs into smaller, more manageable areas. While the timing of the change may seem related to the Florence riot, BOP officials said it was part of a nationwide move following the June 20, 2008 murder of Jose Rivera, a guard at USP Atwater in California.

Rivera was stabbed at least 28 times with an 8” ice pick-like weapon; he was unarmed, had no protective equipment, and other prison employees were delayed in coming to his rescue due to a locked door. The two prisoners accused of stabbing Rivera to death, Jose Cabrera Sablan and James Ninete Leon Guerrero, who are both serving life sentences, are scheduled to go to trial on murder charges in September 2010. They face the death penalty.

USP Atwater was placed on lockdown for three months after Rivera was killed. Once the lockdown was lifted, the prison was plagued by numerous fights – including a dozen stabbings over a one-week period – which resulted in another lockdown. In November 2008 the BOP replaced Atwater warden Dennis Smith, who was transferred to a medium-security facility.

A subsequent BOP report found that weapons were commonly available at USP Atwater and prisoners were able to get drunk on homemade alcohol. The prisoners who killed Rivera were reportedly drunk at the time. Between 2005 and 2007 the number of prisoner-on-staff assaults at Atwater had quadrupled from 13 to 57 per year. This included assaults involving prisoners spitting or throwing urine on guards, and attacking them with fists or food trays. Half of the reported assaults took place in the facility’s Special Housing Unit.
The AFGE sharply criticized the BOP over Rivera’s murder, calling for the resignation of top BOP officials and demanding that prison guards be provided with stab-proof vests and Tasers, pepper spray and other self-defensive equipment.

“We have lost all faith in the BOP management,” stated AFGE president John Gage. “It’s incredible to us that the Bureau is making this a labor dispute, that they refuse to give these basic, common-sense tools to our officers. We feel, in the Rivera case, if these simple things we are asking had been granted, he would be alive today.”

Violence in the BOP has not been confined to USP Florence and Atwater. USP Pollock in Louisiana was the leader in prisoner-on-prisoner homicides in 2007. Two prisoners, Tyrone Johnson and Derrick Sparks, were killed in April 2007 after being stabbed with homemade weapons. Three months later another two prisoners were stabbed in the stomach. In November 2007, prisoners William Bullock and Donald Till were murdered by other prisoners. USP Pollock rang in the new year in January 2008 with the killing of prisoner Peter Avalos Gutierrez, 55, barely a month after he was transferred to the facility. He was stabbed to death with a shank.

Other institutions with high levels of violence include USP Beaumont, better known as “Bloody Beaumont.” In November 2007, prisoner Gabriel N. Rhone was stabbed to death; a guard received 13 puncture wounds during the attack, which involved two other prisoners.

USP Lee is another honorable mention. On September 30, 2008, prisoner Quentin Corniel died after sustaining multiple stab wounds. He was less than a year away from his release date.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Chicago, Illinois; the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Three Rivers, Texas; and the FCI in Phoenix, Arizona round out the top-ranked BOP facilities for levels of violence.

Jason Katz, serving a nine-month sentence, was beaten to death at the MCC in March 2008 by fellow prisoner Jason Tolen, 20, who was indicted on second-degree murder charges. At FCI Three Rivers, a prisoner was killed during a fight in March 2008. And a brawl involving three prisoners at FCI Phoenix in January 2008 resulted in one prisoner suffering stab wounds to the head.

Other BOP facilities have experienced their own share of violence. On January 25, 2009, a “large-scale fight” at Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Coleman, located about 50 miles northwest of Orlando, Florida, left eight prisoners hospitalized with stab or gunshot wounds. One of the prisoners was shot by guards “to prevent possible loss of life,” stated Rita Teel, a BOP spokeswoman.

Another major fight broke out at the facility in March 2009 that involved dozens of prisoners and left 14 prisoners with serious injuries. Eleven were airlifted to hospitals.
FCC Coleman was placed on lockdown, and the incident is under investigation. “It was a busy day, to say the least,” said Jim Judge, director of Lake-Sumter Emergency Medical Services.

Two separate fights at the USP in Tucson, Arizona on May 28, 2009 sent three prisoners to the hospital with stab wounds. Most recently, FCI Victorville was placed on lockdown on June 6, 2009 following an attack by prisoners in which four staff members suffered minor injuries, and on June 11 a prisoner was shot by guards at USP Terre Haute during a fight with another prisoner on a recreation yard. Both prisoners were hospitalized.

On June 18, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill that includes $71 million for hiring 745 new BOP guards; the bill still must be approved by the Senate. It is hoped that an increase in staffing levels will reduce violence in federal prisons. The BOP has taken additional steps to confront increasing levels of violence, including transferring high-security offenders to other facilities and prosecuting prisoners involved in fights.

In October 2008, the BOP created a new security level – dangerous prisoners at USP Atwater will be sent to USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania, a high-security prison. “What we’ve seen is some very positive steps and progress. We are going to see a change in the entire federal penitentiary system,” stated U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, after touring Atwater.

Rep. Cardoza introduced federal legislation in 2008 that would have required the BOP to provide stab-resistant vests to all federal prison guards, who would have to wear them while on duty (H.R. 6462). The bill, titled the “Jose Rivera Correctional Officer Protection Act,” failed to pass; however, the BOP has been distributing vests to BOP staff who request them.

In regard to prosecutions, in October 2008 two FCC Terre Haute prisoners, Michael S. Vaught and Whitney H. Smith, were indicted on charges of assault with intent to commit murder and assault resulting in serious bodily injury, resulting from a May 27, 2008 razor attack on another prisoner. In August 2008, FCC Coleman prisoners Gerardo Martinez and Osbaldo Farias were charged with conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the October 2007 death of Orlando Yazzie, who was beaten and stabbed to death in a recreation cage.

On June 4, 2009, USP Big Sandy prisoner Manuel Cardosa, 28, was convicted of attacking and stomping fellow prisoner Marvin Fontenette, leaving him paralyzed and half-blind. While prison officials may not be able to prevent violence at BOP facilities, that doesn’t stop them from prosecuting violent offenders after the fact.

Meanwhile, in June 2009, the mother of slain prison guard Jose Rivera filed a lawsuit against federal officials, including BOP Director Harley Lappin and former Atwater warden Dennis Smith. The suit alleges that BOP officials “willingly and knowingly participated in the creation of dangerous conditions that resulted in [Rivera’s] death.” See: Rivera v. Lappin, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:09-cv-00954-LJO-SMS.

According to Mark J. Peacock, the attorney representing Rivera’s family, “Officer Rivera’s death highlights the complete and utter breakdown of the prison’s management in protecting their employees. This can’t be allowed to continue.”

The same can be said about the inability of BOP officials to protect prisoners from increasing levels of violence, which also cannot be allowed to continue.

Sources: Colorado Independent, Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post, Associated Press, Channel 13 KRDO, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Beaumont Enterprise, Arizona Republic, Chicago Tribune, Bristol Herald Courier,, KSWT,

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Related legal case

Rivera v. Lappin