U.S. Sen. Robert Casey said he’s going to continue to push for legislation that would allow all federal prison guards to be armed with pepper spray to protect themselves.
The murder Monday of Eric Williams, a guard at the Federal Correctional Institution at Canaan, serves as a stark example of the dangers guards face each day, Casey said. The Bureau of Prisons needs to ensure guards are provided proper equipment to protect themselves.
“This tragedy is a terrible, horrific reminder of why having something as basic as pepper spray can mean the difference, sometimes, between life and death,” Casey, D-Scranton, said. “It shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to get the federal government more focused on dealing with the problem.”
Officials with the union that represents federal prison guards on Tuesday said they have been lobbying for years to equip guards with pepper spray, but they have met resistance from prison authorities.
“It’s routine stuff a mall cop has, but we don’t have it working in a federal prison,” said Gary Mills, legislative coordinator for the Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. “It makes no sense.”
Casey has supported the use of pepper spray based, in part, on a study by the Government Accountability Office that showed a reduction in the number assaults at state correctional facilities in which guards were permitted to carry the spray.
BOP statistics show assaults on guards in federal prison have become increasingly common. There were a total of 1,902 assaults on guards, of which 97 were considered serious, in 2009, the latest year for which data was available.
The federal prison system also has been plagued by overcrowding for years. A 2012 study by the GAO showed federal prisons were 39 percent over capacity in 2011. That comes at a time when the number of guards are continuing to be reduced due to budget concerns.
“When you combine a lack of access to defense mechanisms with fiscal constraints where you have fewer and fewer guards, it’s a real recipe for suffering and hurt for people who do a job that’s dangerous to begin with,” Casey said.
Casey introduced legislation in 2011, known as the Federal Correctional Officer Protective Equipment Act, that would require the BOP to hold a one-year pilot program to test the effectiveness of equipping officers with pepper spray.
The BOP in June agreed to create the pilot program, which is currently being tested at seven federal prisons. Casey wants to see that program expanded. He said he’s hopeful prison officials will voluntarily agree to do so, without the need for legislation
“I don’t know why we need to pass legislation to do this,” Casey said. “We need to highlight the issue and the problem and push other ways to accomplish the same goal.”
Williams’ death is evidence that works needs to be done quickly, he said.
“We are already working on that and are making progress. I think it gives the work we’ve been doing even more urgency,” Casey said.