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Cardoza calls for congressional hearing on Atwater prison

Congressman Dennis Cardoza called Wednesday for a congressional hearing on the management decisions and working conditions at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater, which has had a dozen inmate stabbings this past week.

"Clearly, there's a problem," Cardoza said in a phone interview. "It's not their facility. It's our facility. It's time for them to answer questions."

Cardoza, D-Merced, said that repeated requests to talk with Warden Dennis Smith have failed and he's ready to hold the prison's managers accountable.

He asked Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, to hold a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting about what's happened at the Atwater prison. "I believe Congress must provide greater oversight of federal prisons to ensure that our correctional officers have the tools they need to safely and efficiently do their jobs," Cardoza wrote.

He noted that the prison is 15 percent understaffed and has 25 percent more inmates that it should. There have been a dozen inmates assaulted in the past week.

By comparison, he writes, the prison reported that seven inmates were critically injured.

USP Atwater correctional officer Jose Rivera was killed June 20 when two inmates stabbed him with handmade shanks.

Rivera, following Bureau of Prison protocol, did not have a stab-resistent vest or any weapons to defend himself.

"This tragic event," Cardoza wrote, "and the alarming level of inmate-on-inmate violence that has since occurred, has rocked our community to the core and has shed additional light on the systemic problems regarding the safety of USP Atwater and our federal prisons."

USP Atwater spent three months on lockdown before ending it Sept. 9. It's since reported four assaults that sent five inmates to the hospital.

Tuesday's assault, which left seven inmates with puncture wounds, sent the prison back on lockdown.

Cardoza said he's exhausted every approach to improving the conditions at the prison and believes Congress must act.

He successfully lobbied the Bureau of Prison to give stab-resistent vests to correctional officers, though the union has criticized the choice because the protective layer doesn't include metal mesh.

Many Atwater prison employees have approached Cardoza with their concerns, which they said they tried to share with prison management.

"Had the warden listened to his own staff, he'd learn there were deficiencies," Cardoza noted. "We're clearly dealing with folks who have a tin ear to what's going on at their facility."

Cardoza hopes the subcommittee can meet this year, though it may be difficult because it the end of the congressional term and nearing the elections.

Friends and Family of Correctional Officers, a local group supporting vests and nonlethal weapons for the staff, issued a statement applauding Cardoza's request. It notes that some of its members will head to Washington, D.C., if a hearing is scheduled.

"Working conditions are not acceptable for correctional officers," according to the statement. "Sadly, it appears Congress will have to do the job the leadership at the Bureau of Prisons has failed to do."

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