More reports of violence point to ailing federal prison system

(Photo/Todd Ehlers, Flickr)
(Photo/Todd Ehlers, Flickr)

Deadly assaults in federal penitentiaries are on the rise and they aren’t exclusive to Colorado. Following reports that an inmate was stabbed to death in August at the U.S. Penitentiary in the southern city of Florence, there is news from another federal lockup that a guard was assaulted and stabbed multiple times this month, lending credence to correctional workers’ claims that the entire system is an understaffed tinderbox.


The Bureau of Prisons, the agency overseeing the lockups, has confirmed that a correctional guard was stabbed by an inmate multiple times in the head and lower back at the U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky, sustaining injuries that required medical attention. Workers at the facility claim that the guard was stabbed with a makeshift “shank” weapon, but the bureau has not yet confirmed that detail.

Bureau officials state that the guard was released from hospital care on Oct. 21, the same day the assault happened. The prison has been on lockdown status since the incident, which means that inmates are generally confined to their cells and not allowed to visit with family members.

Bureau employees familiar with the situation, who commented on an anonymous basis, stated that the guard was “stabbed five times with the weapon” and sustained “3-inch stab wounds to the head area and three stab wounds to the lung and back area,” by an “inmate refusing to be restrained, due to being intoxicated” and that the “officer had blood streaming from the head wounds.”

So far, the bureau has not confirmed the workers’ claims.

The fact that the inmate was able to hide a weapon in the first place, coupled with the bellicose assault on a staff member, are indications that understaffing has created a dangerous environment for both guards and inmates in the federal prison.

In Colorado, at the high-security penitentiary in Florence, three inmates have died in less than four months. Two prisoners were killed by guard gunfire when a massive 200-person riot broke out on the recreation yard of the prison in April after inmates were again allegedly intoxicated on self-brewed alcohol. Another inmate was killed in August in what workers say was a stabbing by another inmate. The prison has been on lockdown since the most recent killing.

Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat, sent a letter to bureau head Harley Lappin in September demanding that the agency publicly disclose the results of an investigation into the riot. However, the bureau has not yet responded to the lawmaker.

It’s not the first letter that has been sent to the bureau, either.

In February Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., sent a brief memo to Lappin, commenting on increasing violence against correctional workers in the nation’s prisons:

I am concerned about reports of increasing violence in the Federal Prison System, including recent assaults and homicides at [U.S. Penitentiary] Hazelton, [U.S. Penitentiary] Beaumont and [Federal Correctional Institution ] Allenwood. Incidents such as these are particularly troubling given the funding limitations in the Bureau of Prisons in fiscal year 2008, and the impact such constraints may have on the Bureau’s ability to respond to violent threats and attacks.

The violence reached a pinnacle in June when José Rivera, a 22-year-old correctional worker, was stabbed to death by an inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults are also on the rise. According to federal data and media reports, 12 inmates in federal prisons lost their lives due to inmate-on-inmate violence in 2007, and the number has already reached at least 11 in 2008.

Correctional workers have been blowing whistles for years over what they claim are dangerously low staffing levels at government lockups. Employees claim that the low number of guards has made it increasingly difficult to spot contraband like alcohol and weapons.

In March 2005, the bureau implemented a directive called “mission critical,” that ordered all agency institutions to come up with staffing rosters that listed the bare-minimum needed to run each prison safely. Workers contend that the bureau isn’t even fulfilling obligations for the bare-minimum and is vacating units for hours at a time.

Clarification: Story edited to further distinguish claims made from the bureau and workers at the Big Sandy USP relating to statements about a makeshift “shank” weapon.

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

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