PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The federal prison system has begun supplying pepper spray canisters to cooks, counselors and other civilian workers at some of its most violent institutions, yielding to efforts following a 2013 fatal attack by an inmate on an unarmed Pennsylvania prison guard.
The Bureau of Prisons expanded a pilot pepper spray program to include civilian workers at all 18 high-security prisons, according to a November operations memorandum. The program previously covered only correctional officers at high-security facilities.
In addition, the memo said, correctional officers and workers at six medium-security prisons and 24 detention centers and jail units were included in the expansion. Employees at dozens of other medium, minimum and low-security facilities were not included.
“We’ve made some progress, but still have a ways to go,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. said Tuesday.
Legislation sponsored by the Pennsylvania Democrat mandates pepper spray for officers and workers at all medium and high-security prisons. The bill was named for the slain correctional officer, Eric Williams.
“I don’t think there’s any question, if he had this, he would have had a much better chance of survival,” Casey said.
The program’s expansion covers thousands of civilian workers and officers and includes facilities in Atlanta, Georgia; Victorville, California; Beaver, West Virginia; Terre Haute, Indiana; Allenwood, Pennsylvania; and Forrest City, Arkansas.
“These are individuals that spend the majority of their time working with the inmates,” Casey said. “I think we’ve proven that we need to do this.”
Unions representing prison workers lauded the expansion. The unions had taken the Bureau of Prisons to labor-relations court during a four-year fight to arm their members with pepper spray.
“Our staff — day-to-day — work with some of the worst offenders our society has ever produced,” E.O. Young, the national president of the Council of Prison Locals, said in a statement. “Prior to this, correctional officers had no means of self-defense.”
Ninety percent of high-security inmates have a history of violence and 71 percent have been sanctioned for violating prison rules, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics. Inmate Jessie Con-ui, described as a member of a Southwestern U.S. prison gang, has been charged with first-degree murder in the Williams’ stabbing death.
The American Civil Liberties Union did not respond to questions Tuesday about the effect of pepper spray on prisoner rights. The Bureau of Prisons also did not respond to a message.
The agency, a unit of the Justice Department, approved the pilot program in 2012 for officers at seven facilities. It expanded the program to include all high-security officers but no civilian workers in February 2013, three days after Williams was attacked at a high-security penitentiary in Canaan, Pennsylvania.