A new federal law, passed by Congress without a dissenting vote and signed by President Barack Obama, directs the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to provide pepper spray to corrections officers in all federal prisons except minimum- or low-security facilities.
The measure (S. 238, the “Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act”) cleared both chambers of Congress under parliamentary procedures used for non-controversial measures that allowed the bill to bypass committee hearings and votes, and required only a voice vote, not the recording each legislator’s vote, in each house. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship and the support of prison workers’ groups.
Public Law 104-133 bears the name of a 34-year-old correctional officer who was killed in February 2013 in the high-security federal prison in Canaan, Pennsylvania. While working alone to oversee a routine evening lockdown in a high-security housing unit with two levels and over 100 inmates, Williams was blindsided by an attack by an inmate on the cellblock’s second level.
The attack knocked him down a flight of stairs, where the attacking inmate beat Williams so severely that the corrections officer’s skull was crushed. The officer was also stabbed more than 100 times with a shank, a crude prison-made weapon.
The inmate who killed Williams was serving an 11-year term for drug trafficking for the New Mexican Mafia gang, and has also been convicted of the first-drug murder of a rival gang member in Arizona. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty when he is tried later this year for Williams’ murder.
BOP policy forbids corrections officers bringing weapons into cellblocks. At the time of his death, Officer Williams had only a radio, handcuffs, and keys; the blind-side attack was so sudden the corrections officer was unable to hit the alarm button on his radio, nor did he have any defensive gear or equipment to repel an attack.
Nor was there any back-up help nearby: in 2005, the year the Canaan penitentiary opened, a cost-cutting BOP measure reduced cellblock staffing from two officers to a single officer. Government records show a very similar fatal attack on a corrections guard occurred in a federal penitentiary in California in 2008.
At the time of Officer Williams’ murder, BOP had begun a pilot program, which did not include the Canaan penitentiary, on pepper spray use. That non-lethal but incapacitating self-defense and riot control compound (more formally known as oleoresin capsicum), irritates the eyes, causing tears, pain, breathing difficulty and temporary blindness.
The new law directs the BOP to issue pepper spray routinely to BOP officers and other employees of all federal prisons, except minimum- or low-security facilities, who may be required to respond to a prison emergency; it can also decide to issue it to other staffers. Initial staff training is required before they can carry pepper spray, along with annual refreshers. The law specifically allows pepper spray use to reduce violent acts by prisoners against other prisoners, BOP staff or prison visitors.
The new statute also requires the Government Accountability Office to study and report to Congress within three years on the effectiveness of pepper spray in reducing prison crime and violence, the advisability and cost of expanding it to minimum- and low-security prisons, and other steps to improve the safety of BOP prison officers and staff.
Hopefully, the BOP will closely monitor its new self-defense measure to ensure proper training of correctional staff as well as to ensure it is used within reason to benefit both correctional staff and inmate safety.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com