Pa. senator seeks hearing on pepper spray bill

Pennsylvania’s senior senator is seeking a hearing for a bill inspired by the murder of a correctional officer from Nanticoke that would uniformly equip federal correctional officers with pepper spray

By James Halpin
The Citizens' Voice

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s senior senator is seeking a hearing for a bill inspired by the murder of a correctional officer from Nanticoke that would uniformly equip federal correctional officers with pepper spray.

In a letter exclusively obtained by The Citizens’ Voice, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey urges the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vermont, and ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to hold a hearing examining the use of pepper spray and federal correctional worker safety.

Read the letter

Casey, who along with Sen. Pat Toomey in May introduced the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act of 2014, is seeking to have the committee examine the proposed act as well as other proposals that would improve correctional officer safety. The act would allow all federal correctional workers who might face an inmate confrontation at medium or high security facilities to carry pepper spray after being properly trained.

“While some level of risk will always be present in a prison, Congress can do more to equip our correctional officers to respond to dangerous situations,” Casey wrote. “Expanding the Bureau of Prisons’ pepper spray program is a common-sense proposal that would help to protect the men and women who serve in our federal correctional institutions.”

Williams, 34, was murdered at the United States Penitentiary in Canaan in February 2013. Federal prosecutors have charged Jessie Con-Ui, a 37-year-old Arizona gang assassin already serving 25 years to life for a 2002 murder, in Williams’ death.

Prosecutors said Con-Ui was angry over a shakedown of his cell Williams ordered a day earlier. The attack began with Con-Ui charging at Williams, knocking him down a staircase and stabbing him more than 200 times and stomping his head, according to prosecutors.

Williams had been working alone in a unit housing about 130 inmates and was preparing to lock them into their cells for a nightly head-count when he was attacked. He was equipped with only keys, handcuffs and a radio with a panic button.

Before Williams could call for help, Con-Ui grabbed his radio and threw it across the cell block, prosecutors said. After the murder, Con-Ui returned to his cell, where he was later found, prosecutors said.

“I had to do what I had to do. It was a disrespect issue,” Con-Ui said while being led away from his cell, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Con-Ui, who is jailed at the nation’s super-maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado.

Casey’s letter notes that overcrowding is a major issue for the federal Bureau of Prisons. Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity, and that number is expected to exceed 45 percent by 2018, he said. Medium-security institutions alone are already about 51 percent over capacity, which “undermines the safety of both federal inmates and correctional officers,” the letter says.

Casey applauds the committee for passing the Smarter Sentencing Act, which seeks to address the overcrowding problem, and asks the leadership to consider his proposal as well.

Pepper spray, he says, is a proven effective tool for correctional officers, with the federal Bureau of Prisons finding through a pilot program that its use reduced the time to contain incidents between staff and inmates from 4.34 minutes without spray to 2.73 minutes with it. The bureau found the reduction of 1.61 minutes “statistically significant,” he said.

After Williams’ death, the bureau expanded its pilot program to include all high-security facilities — but it doesn’t provide pepper spray to all correctional workers who might be involved in an inmate confrontation, nor any employees at medium-security facilities, he said.

“I urge you to schedule a hearing to examine the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Safety Act and other proposals that would benefit correctional worker safety,” Casey wrote to the lawmakers.

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