A pilot program to arm federal correctional officers with pepper spray, which gained support following the February 2013 murder of a correctional officer from Nanticoke, will be expanded to include other staffers who deal directly with inmates at United States penitentiaries, the Bureau of Prisons announced Tuesday.
Three days after Eric Williams was killed while working at the United States Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County, the bureau expanded a limited pepper spray program to include all 20 of the nation's high-security prisons, including Canaan.
Only correctional officers were armed, not other staff who also come in direct contact with inmates. The latest expansion, urged by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, will allow other staffers such as case managers and counselors to carry pepper spray at the nation's 20 penitentiaries, which are the highest security level prisons in the federal system.
"Personnel working in high security institutions face thousands of assaults every year, so they deserve to have every tool possible to ensure their safety and lessen the risk of violence they face every day," Casey said in a news release. "I'm pleased that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has chosen to implement this policy that has helped to reduce assaults."
The administration of the federal Bureau of Prisons had long been opposed to arming staff with pepper spray or other weapons, saying those items could be seized by inmates and used against staff.
In 2012, Casey spearheaded the initial push to arm officers with pepper spray by proposing the Federal Correctional Officer Protective Equipment Act. Officers at seven federal prisons were allowed to carry pepper spray and that program was extended in all 20 high security prisons after Williams' murder.
Prosecutors said Williams, 34, was beaten and repeatedly stabbed by an inmate on Feb. 25, 2013 while working alone in a housing unit of approximately 130 inmates.
His death, lawmakers said, highlighted dangerous understaffing and overcrowding in the nation's system of approximately 120 federal prisons.
The Bureau's announcement on the pepper spray program came on the same day U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright toured USP Canaan and met with its warden.
"I applaud the Bureau of Prisons' decision to expand the use of pepper spray to all our nation's high-security prisons, including here at USP Canaan. After the tragic loss of Officer Williams, this is a step in the right direction to ensure the safety of our prison guards and inmates," Cartwright stated.
"Our budgetary priorities must not interfere with the safety of our correctional officers. Congress must take action to prevent future tragedies. The Bureau's expansion of the pepper spray pilot program represents a commendable measure in this direction, but understaffed facilities will not adequately ensure safety of our officers even with this additional protective equipment.