Dueling Definitions On Prison Violence

Some assaults committed against correctional officers (COs) working in federal facilities are not being reported correctly, union officials say. It’s bound to happen at some point in a correctional worker’s career. Inmates can sometimes throw a wide range of bodily fluids at COs, and have attempted to assault workers in other ways from holding cells, whether it be with random objects or makeshift weapons. 

At the federal United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (Supermax) in Florence, Colorado, union leaders and workers have said that assaults against COs are increasing. There is also the matter of what actually defines “assault.”

For Supermax COs, assaults are only officially designated if the employee is forced to leave the facility to seek medical attention under Bureau of Prison (BOP) definitions, says Barbara Batulis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1302, which represents the correctional workers. 

“Unless somebody gets seriously injured that they can’t handle at the institution it’s not assault,”  Batulis says.

When contacted, the BOP provided a document called “Inmate Discipline and Special Housing Units,” which explains two categories of prohibited acts which define assault. There is a “Greatest” category that is generally used for murder or “only when serious physical injury has been attempted or carried out by an inmate,” and then there is a “High” category for when “less serious physical injury or contact has been attempted or carried out by an inmate.”

Although the definitions leave a lot of room for interpretation, they don’t cover bodily fluid incidents or attempts while inmates are in cells, according to union represenatives. Information on CO assaults is not publicly accessible on the agency’s Web site or in the agency’s annual reports. A spokeswoman for the BOP said that such information would probably be attained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Allen Rexford, another AFGE official, explains it another way. “If someone on the street came up to you and threw something at you that would be assault,” but it’s not the same in the prison he says.

Definitions for “Inmate Discipline and Special Housing Units” were most recently updated in January 2003, regarding the unauthorized use of mail and telephones by inmates.

Colorado Confidential intends to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the BOP regarding the issue.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.