Jose V. Rivera, a 22 year old Navy veteran with two tours of duty in Iraq under his belt, was murdered by two inmates at the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California, on June 20, 2008. Rivera, a rookie correctional officer with only 10 months under his belt, he hadn't even finished his probationary year.
According to the records, Rivera was assaulted with an icepick type weapon by an inmate named Joseph Cabrera-Sablan while inmate James Leon Guerrero held him down. Staff intervened within minutes and Officer Rivera was taken to the local hospital where he was pronounced dead from puncture wounds to his heart. He didn't stand a chance.
Both inmates were already serving life sentences. Sablan was convicted of murder and attempted murder and Guerrero was serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery. Both inmates had histories of assault on staff.
Anyone who knows anything about real prison knows that staff walk around inside with inmates like this on a daily basis. It's a part of the job. Contrary to popular belief the inmates aren't locked in their cells 24 hours a day. They are out and about,working, studying, relaxing and sometimes planning the murder of another inmate or a staff member.
There are currently ongoing negotiations (and pleas) between the union and the federal government to increase staffing in all federal prisons. Budget cuts have allowed the inmate population to increase while the staffing has stayed the same or been reduced - thus putting staff in more and more danger every day. But that's a topic for another day.
Fast forward to this past week. The Justice Department has accepted a plea deal from inmate Guerrero that will allow him to be given another life sentence instead of facing a trial and the death penalty. That's not so unusual in today's justice system. Plea deals happen all the time. But this case is different and I'll tell you why.
When an inmate kills a prison staff member it affects the entire agency. Staff members get a quick and painful reminder of what they're really up against. Prison workers are a band of brothers and sisters just like police officers, fire fighters, and the military. They put their lives on the line every day to protect each other, the inmates, and the public. When one falls the rest feel it.
In 1994, the President signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the largest crime bill in United States history. In it was 60 new death penalty offenses, one of which was murder of a federal law enforcement officer. It was written, in part, for situations like this. Sablan and Guerrero should be the poster boys for the federal death penalty. Yet the DOJ instead decided to make a deal.
Inmate Guerrero will now be housed at the Administrative Maximum facility in Florence, Colorado. He'll be there with some other inmates who have killed staff and either didn't get the death penalty or have yet to stand trial for the murder(s). Millions of dollars will be spent keeping the man alive, healthy, well fed and entertained throughout his life.
Politicians in Washington are currently trying to reduce the number of inmates who are kept in what is called "Special Housing" - a form of isolation from the inmates in general population. Inmates are placed in Special Housing when they misbehave and are disruptive to the orderly running of the institution. An inmate can go to Special Housing for acts such as fighting, using intoxicants, assault, refusing to obey an order, oh.... and murder. In most cases they stay for a while, sometimes even years, then are released back to population.
Inmates who kill staff area a special breed. They cannot be released back to population because they are a constant threat to other staff members. As long as they're alive the possibility exists that they will kill again. That's why they are kept in Special Housing permanently. But given the direction our government is going that may one day change.
Inmate Guerrero has no good reason not to kill again if he so desires. He basically got away with the murder of Jose Rivera because he was already serving a life sentence. Now he's serving two. Big deal. Of course they can tell him that if he ever does it again he'll get the death penalty. But that's not a guarantee. And another staff member would be dead.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Sablan. I'm sure his attorney is working on a plea deal for him as well. Maybe he'll get two life sentences because he was the one who used the weapon. That'll take care of him.
My heart goes out to the family of Jose Rivera once again. They visit Jose's grave on a regular basis while the two men who killed him have't seen much change in their lives. And Guerrero won't be seeing any changes anytime soon.
The Justice Department blew it with this one. Some people are against the death penalty but one thing is certain - it would prevent an inmate like Guerrero from ever killing another person. And if fear of the death penalty isn't a deterrent for an inmate to prevent him from killing - an additional life sentence certainly isn't either.
Rest in peace, Jose. We won't forget.