Corrections officers at federal prisons are not permitted to carry weapons in cell blocks. But that would change if President Obama signs the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act.
The legislation would allow guards in medium, high and maximum security federal prisons, including five in Pennsylvania, to carry pepper spray to subdue inmates when necessary.
The killing of a guard at the prison in Waymart, Pa. led to the proposed change in policy.
In 2013, officer Eric Williams was stabbed and beaten to death at the U.S. Penitentiary, Canaan by an inmate serving a life sentence.
After the murder of Williams, a pilot program was introduced allowing correctional officers at certain federal penitentiaries to carry pepper spray while on duty. The program was extended to other medium and high security penitentiaries.
“The murder of Eric really started to bring light to the situation. It was something we’ve been advocating for years, to arm all our staff with pepper spray, due to the fact that the situations they get put into,” said Darrell Palmer, northeast regional vice president for the Council of Prison Locals Chapter 33.
According to Palmer, Williams’ parents and senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) have been working to get the legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“This is just one of the tools in the toolbox of many that we are fighting for our staff,” said Palmer. “Just like the stab-resistant vest that we currently have now for all our staff. The more tools that a correctional officer has in general make it a safer place for everyone, not just the staff, but the inmates also.”
Under the bill, the Bureau of Prisons will require annual training for officers who are armed with pepper spray. There’s a policy already in place for pepper spray to be used as a last resort.
“If you feel threatened, to a point where an inmate is about to strike you or assault you, then at that time you’re able to use your pepper spray to defend yourself,” Palmer said. “It’s also deployed if two inmates are fighting and it could be a life or death matter and you’re unable to break them up. The pepper spray would be deployed to save an inmate’s life.”
One day after Williams’ death, a correctional officer in Puerto Rico was gunned down on his way home from work.
“We currently have a bill out there, S.368 The Correctional Officer Self-Protection Act, so we can carry our own personal firearms to and from work,” said Palmer.
Another piece of legislation called The Thin Blue Line Act, if passed, would introduce the death penalty when an officer is murdered on duty.
A spokesman for the Canaan prison, where Williams was killed, declined comment for this story.