WILKES-BARRE — Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators are co-sponsoring legislation aimed at making the job of a federal correctional office safer.
Pat Toomey, R-Zionsville, and Bob Casey, D-Scranton, are expected to soon announce their bill called the Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act of 2014.
The legislation would, among many other things, authorize officers and employees of the Bureau of Prisons who are required to respond to emergency situations at medium and maximum security prisons to carry pepper spray. Minimum security prisons are not included in the bill.
Eric Williams, graduate of King’s College with a criminal justice degree, was serving as a federal corrections officer when he was ambushed and killed by an inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County on Feb. 25, 2013.
A federal grand jury handed up an indictment of first-degree murder against Jessie Con-ui, an inmate serving 25 years to life for the murder of a gang rival in Arizona in 2002.
Williams’ parents, Donald and Jean Williams of Nanticoke, have been working with several groups who are pushing for steps to be taken for prison safety.
“I believe this joint bill is a great step in the right direction,” Donald Williams said. “And I am very appreciative of the efforts of senators Casey and Toomey, and we are honored that they have named this bill in our son’s name.”
Williams said both senators have been dedicated to getting reforms in federal prisons.
“We have a good feeling about this, and we expect support from both Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “We are hopeful.”
Sources in both senators’ offices confirmed the bill will be announced possibly as early as today or Friday.
Casey began advocating for pepper spray for correctional officers in 2011. He introduced legislation that would create a pepper spray pilot program that he was able to get the administration to start via executive action after Williams’ death.
Some points of the legislation are:
• It allow the use of pepper spray in any situation in which an officer reasonably believes that an inmate poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to an officer, employee or other inmate.
• It would allow any worker who may be required to respond to an inmate emergency to carry pepper spray. Expanding the program to include these workers is a top priority.
• It does not require that Bureau of Prisons provide pepper spray or provide appropriations for the program, although the Bureau of Prisons has large stocks of pepper spray and providing it would not pose a significant financial burden to make it available.
• It requires officers and employees who carry pepper spray to go through annual training before being allowed to carry or use it.
• Officers and employees may use pepper spray to reduce acts of violence, including when: committed by prisoners against themselves, other prisoners, prison visitors, and officers and employees of Bureau of Prisons; or committed by prison visitors against themselves, prisoners, other visitors, and officers and employees of Bureau of Prisons.
• It requires a GAO report to study the effectiveness of issuing pepper spray to officers and employees; and an evaluation of issuing pepper spray to officers and employees of Bureau of Prisons that are in minimum security prisons.
Toomey recently said that Pennsylvania is home to seven Bureau of Prisons-operated facilities and thousands of federal corrections officers. He said that since he was elected to the Senate, he and his staff have worked with corrections officers “in an effort to lessen the inherent risk of their work environment.”
One year to the day after Williams was killed, King’s College unveiled new scholarships in honor of the 2003 graduate.
The indictment accused Con-ui of “repeatedly stabbing and striking ( Eric Williams ) with weapons and repeatedly kicking, stomping and slamming him about the head, face and torso.”
Con-ui pleaded not guilty on June 16. Jury selection for a trial was set for Sept. 16, 2013, but was postponed and has not been rescheduled. The docket since then has been a flurry of filings by Con-ui, most of them sealed by the judge at Con-ui’s request.
U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, recently toured the Canaan U.S. Penitentiary near Waymart and talked to officials and staff to determine what he can do to make the facility safer. Cartwright said he is looking into a variety of legislative ways to help the officers do their jobs in a safe manner.