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Congress Passes Legislation Allowing BOP Guards to Carry Pepper Spray

by Derek Gilna

The “Eric Williams Correctional Officers Protection Act” (S.238), named after a federal prison guard murdered by a prisoner at USP Canaan in Pennsylvania, passed both houses of Congress by unanimous votes. The bill provides authority for Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employees to carry OC pepper spray in medium and higher security facilities.

Federal lawmakers were energetic in their praise of Williams, 34, and lamented his death in the line of duty. He was kicked down a flight of stairs, brutally beaten and stabbed over 100 times by prisoner Jessie Con-Ui on February 25, 2013; Williams was working alone in a housing unit at the time. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.56].

Con-Ui, 40, is currently facing first-degree murder charges and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. He reportedly said he killed Williams over a “disrespect issue.”

Under the Act, federal prison employees who are allowed to carry pepper spray must undergo training; further, the Government Accountability Office is required to evaluate the impact of the legislation, including the effect of issuing pepper spray to BOP staff on reducing crime and violence in federal prisons, whether staff at lower-security facilities should be provided with pepper spray and recommendations for any safety improvements.

While federal lawmakers were quick to pass the Eric Williams Correctional Officers Protection Act, they have been slow to address other issues affecting the BOP, including comprehensive criminal justice reform, the provision of adequate medical care for prisoners, understaffing in BOP facilities and ensuring prison officials are properly utilizing the compassionate release program.

Although equipping prison guards with pepper spray may seem like a great idea to members of Congress, it only increases the chances that prisoners will be subjected to the arbitrary and sometimes abusive use of chemical agents. In state prison systems, there have been many documented cases where guards have pepper sprayed prisoners without justification – sometimes for their sadistic amusement. Ultimately, the safety of prison staff, who are vastly outnumbered by the prisoners they oversee, depends less on pepper spray and other defensive armaments and more on effective management, fair treatment and mutual respect.

The Eric Williams Correctional Officers Protection Act was signed into law by President Obama on May 9, 2016, as Public Law 104-133; the bipartisan bill had been introduced by Pennsylvania U.S. Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey.