Atwater prison will transfer some inmates to East Coast

Sign at the entrance to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater from Fox Road Monday.

ATWATER — In an effort to increase staff safety at the federal penitentiary in Atwater, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, announced that an East Coast penitentiary would house some of its most- dangerous inmates.

Cardoza explained the changes at a news conference outside the penitentiary, which he toured Friday with Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“What we’ve seen is some very positive steps and progress,” he said. “We are going to see a change in the entire federal penitentiary system.”

The change creates another security level within the Bureau of Prisons.

Before the decision, the only prison with more dangerous criminals than Atwater was the maximum-security penitentiary in Florence, Colo.

The penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., is a high-security level facility, as is Atwater, but violent inmates here will be transferred to Lewisburg before they could be sent to Florence.

Cardoza declined to offer more specifics on the plan and directed questions to prison officials.

Lappin didn’t make himself available for questions after the meeting with Cardoza.

Bureau of Prisons officials, headquartered on the East Coast, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Cardoza and a Merced County group have been lobbying the federal prison system for changes since Correctional Officer Jose Rivera was stabbed to death by two inmates June 20.

They’ve managed to get the Bureau of Prisons to buy stab-resistant vests for the correctional officers.

Other requests have included more staffing and giving workers nonlethal weapons, such as batons or pepper spray.

Cardoza attributes the prison system’s resistance to such changes to a different philosophy compared with state prisons and local jails, which use such weapons.

“It’s a significant disagreement that remains,” he said. “We will let that play out. We’ll see where that goes.”

Lack of funding cited

Problems within the system have been caused by a lack of federal funding, he said, though he didn’t say what would be done to improve its budget.

Cardoza spent about five hours with Lappin touring the penitentiary, discussing its policy and how to improve the conditions.

Leaders from Friends & Family of Correctional Officers also met with Lappin to discuss what they think should be done. Spokesman Andy Krotik said he asked Lappin to keep the penitentiary on lockdown until the stab-resistant vests arrive.

“We’re not trying to be micromanaging,” Krotik said. “It’s simply common sense.”

The Atwater penitentiary has been on lockdown for the past month after a rash of inmate-on-inmate stabbings.

The prison had been on lockdown after Rivera’s death. In the one week prisoners were allowed out of their cells, 12 were stabbed in a series of assaults.

Last month, the prison bureau said Atwater Warden Dennis Smith would be transferred to a prison in Illinois. Officials said Smith’s transfer was not related to Rivera’s death.

Warden Hector Rios Jr., warden of U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky, will take over in Atwater.

Cardoza said that could be within a couple of weeks. He plans to meet with Rios and introduce him to the community.

Krotik said the discussion with Lappin was “frank, candid and sometimes heated,” but said he was thankful for the chance to meet. The community group wants to meet the next warden to share its concerns, Krotik said.

“We want them to view us as part of the solution,” he explained, “not the problem.”



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