On the heels of the homicide of federal corrections officer and Nanticoke resident Eric Williams, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced Thursday it will issue pepper spray to officers at high-security prisons, including the Wayne County facility where Williams was killed.
The Justice Department instituted a pilot program to arm corrections officers with pepper spray, or oleoresin capsicum aerosol, in June 2012 at seven federal prisons, including the high-security prison in Lewisburg. On Thursday, it expanded the program to all high-security prisons, including the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan near Waymart, according to Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke.
Williams, 34, was working at the Canaan prison Monday night when he reportedly was beaten and stabbed by an inmate. Federal corrections officers are equipped with an alarm system on their bodies that they can trigger if they are in danger, but according to his father, Donald Williams, initial reports indicate Eric Williams did not trigger the alarm.
It remains unclear why. The FBI is investigating his homicide.
The new operations memorandum detailing the use of pepper spray allows officers at specific posts within prisons, including housing unit officers, corridor officers and recreation officers, to carry pepper spray after they have received training in its use. The training consists of an initial four-hour class and quarterly refresher courses.
It permits officers to use the spray as a “last alternative after all other reasonable efforts to resolve a situation have failed.”
“Prior to any OC aerosol spray being used, staff must attempt verbal intervention to defuse the situation when feasible,” the memorandum states. “… When authorized, staff must use only that amount of force necessary to gain control of the inmate; to protect and ensure the safety of inmates, staff and others; to prevent serious property damage; and to ensure institution security and good order.”
U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Scranton, applauded the decision by the Justice Department, calling it an example of federal administrators addressing a problem brought on by growing prison populations and inmate-staff ratios without legislative intervention.
“It’s good news,” Casey said. “Unfortunately it comes in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. I wish this policy had been in effect a while ago.”
Casey introduced a bill in 2011 to allow corrections officers to carry pepper spray after hearing repeatedly about the dangers of prison overcrowding. Prison statistics show assaults on guards have been increasingly common. There were 1,902 assaults on guards, of which 97 were considered serious, in 2009, the last year for which data was available.
While some states allow prison guards to carry pepper spray, the new federal procedures are not mirrored in Pennsylvania and Luzerne County prisons.
Without detailing specific procedures, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said state corrections officers have access to nonlethal weapons such as pepper spray for incident response, but they are not normally carried in areas where inmates congregate.
“We do have other methods that are available,” Bensinger said. “However, we do not carry them inside the fence.”
Instead, state corrections officers undergo “constant” training in verbal conflict resolution in hopes of diffusing conflicts.
“There are times when a job goes into a physical situation, but the more weaponry you introduce, the more weapons the inmates could potentially have,” Bensinger said, noting that she had worked as a corrections officer.
“I’m not real big,” she said. “You stand me next to a 6-and-1/2-foot tall inmate, it would be a possibility of getting that off of me.”
James Larson, acting warden of the Luzerne County Correctional Facility, said the prison stockpiles pepper spray and trains officers in its use, but does not issue it to officers who walk cell blocks and yards. Officers carry radios and alarms to alert other staff members in an emergency, he said.
“The officers walking the blocks are always outnumbered,” Larson said. “The ratio is always far and away more inmates than officers, so if the officer would ever be taken by surprise while he was doing his rounds — if they were to jump him or something — the inmates could get control of his gas. So that’s why we don’t issue it on the blocks.”
A supervisor must issue pepper spray to officers, he said, adding that it is sometimes used in forcible cell extractions and other planned tactical operations.
Larson said he has “mixed feelings” about arming guards with pepper spray.
Casey responded to those concerns by noting “no solution here is zero risk.”
“That’s why the training is very important,” Casey said. “That’s why they’re not going to put this in the hands of anyone before they’ve received the training.”
“I think in some ways it’s self-evident,” he added. “You don’t have to be a prison law enforcement expert to understand that it gives them a reasonable nonlethal alternative when they’re confronted with these attacks.”