NANTICOKE - Hundreds of corrections officers from Pennsylvania and around the nation lined up Friday evening to pay respects to fallen corrections officer Eric Williams, a man many called “a fallen brother.”
The Greater Nanticoke Area School District provided its high school gymnasium for Williams’ viewing in expectation of a large turnout from the corrections and law enforcement communities; an expectation that was met.
“It’s incredible,” said Russ Reuthe, human resources manager for the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County, gesturing to the line that wound through the parking lot. “It’s true honor. It’s a sea of love.”
Reuthe, who hired Williams 18 months ago, remembered him as “a quiet guard,” but one with “a heart of gold” whose service to the prison will have “a lifetime effect.”
Though Williams’ time there was brief, said Reuthe, he distinguished himself. Reuthe was clearing paperwork from his desk earlier Friday when he came across an application that Williams had filed for another role within the prison. “He was actually selected for the position,” Reuthe said.
But Williams never got the chance at the promotion he had earned.
During his shift Monday, Williams, 34, of Nanticoke, was reportedly beaten and stabbed by an inmate at the prison near Waymart. Federal corrections officers are equipped with an alarm system on their bodies that they can trigger if they are in danger, but according to his father, Donald Williams, initial reports indicate Eric Williams did not trigger the alarm. It remains unclear why.
The FBI is investigating his homicide, which occurred on federal property.
Those who worked with him remembered Williams as a soft-spoken and easygoing coworker and friend.
“It’s absolutely a shame this has happened,” said corrections officer Jon Kojtek, of the Canaan penitentiary. “He was a great guy. He did his job; he did his job well … It’s something we’re going to be battling for a while, to get back to normal.”
“He was a very likeable person,” said Lt. Paul Granville, of the penitentiary. “He was the type, if you had a bad day, he would lighten up your spirit. He always made the best of the situation.”
Williams’ influence also extended outside the walls of the prison where he worked, said workers from other area institutions.
“It’s affected one of our own, said Sgt. Mike Rostkowski, one of a large contingent of corrections officers from the Luzerne County Correctional Facility attending the viewing. “One of our officers was godfather to his child.”
“Anything we can do for a fellow officer is the least we can do,” said Lt. Karl Ashley of the U.S. Penitentiary at McKeane, Bradford County, adding that Williams’ death was “a travesty that should have never happened.”
Corrections officers from as far afield as California, Oregon, Texas, Florida and Mississippi traveled to the viewing to pay respects and show solidarity.
“It’s obviously very tragic,” said Capt. Ned McCormick, of the Connecticut State Department of Corrections. “Our hearts go out to the family of Officer Williams and the whole federal corrections system, especially the officers at USP Canaan.”
Some who came from around the country were members of the Corrections Peace Officer Foundation, an officers’ benevolent organization akin to the Fraternal Order of Police, which sent a 13-member honor guard to perform “Amazing Grace” on horn during Williams’ viewing.
“It’s paying our respects to a fallen brother,” said Corp. Dan Weber, of the Oregon State Department of Corrections. “We’re a corrections family nationwide. The Corrections Peace Officer Foundation motto is ‘taking care of our own,’ so I do.”
Col. Steve Dizmon, a retired corrections officer from California’s Folsom State Prison, said he has attended 122 funerals of officers who died while on duty during his 25 years as a member of the organization. He said it’s important for corrections officers to show their support during such tragedies.
“The public sees (police and firefighters), but they don’t see the corrections officers because we work behind the wall,” Dizmon said.
But police and other emergency responders, including officers from area departments, U.S. Marshals, Pennsylvania state troopers and state police academy cadets did turn out Friday in large numbers.
Gov. Tom Corbett also extended the lowering of all Pennsylvania flags at the state capitol and at state facilities in Luzerne County to half-staff in honor of Williams through sunset today, the date of Williams’ funeral. Corbett first ordered the flag lowering Wednesday.
The American flag outside Greater Nanticoke Area High School remained at half-staff throughout the viewing.
A number of the area’s elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, attended the viewing.
“It’s not a part of my job that I relish,” Cartwright said. “This is a tragedy; a tragedy that could have been avoided.”
Cartwright called it “ironic” that he learned Friday, in the same week as Williams’ death, that the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons had expanded issuing of pepper spray to certain guards at all high-security federal prisons, a move Cartwright said he supports.
But the congressman also added that “the problem is not just what weapons guards use but that there’s not enough guards, (and) they’ve been on a pay freeze for two years.”
Cartwright also worried that the sequester could lead to more cuts to federal prison staffing, putting more officers in harm’s way.
“They’re talking about (a budget reduction of) 5 percent in 2013 across the board, and that’s going to affect personnel. We’ve got to put a stop to this sequester,” he said, “and that’s something I’m working on.”