They work alongside violent inmates in kitchens, corridors and housing units. They face rampant hostility and physical attack. And they are often the first to respond when a correctional officer calls for help.
Yet, despite the promise of enhanced safety and the extensive training they received after a fatal assault at the United States Penitentiary at Canaan in February, thousands of workers at high-security federal prisons have been excluded from carrying pepper spray - an inexpensive tool union officials said has reduced violence and saved lives.
Darrell Palmer, the president of the union at Canaan, said this week he assumed the Bureau of Prisons would include all of the facility's employees when it expanded its pepper spray program just three days after prosecutors said inmate Jessie Con-ui ambushed and killed officer Eric Williams. Williams, a Nanticoke native, was working alone in a unit housing more than 100 inmates.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, unaware that certain workers were excluded from the program until a recent meeting with Williams' parents, sent a letter to Bureau of Prisons director Charles E. Samuels Jr. this week demanding an explanation for the limited pepper spray authorization.
"The majority of officers at U.S.P. Canaan have not been issued pepper spray," Casey wrote. "This omission is concerning as it leaves many correctional officers unprotected who regularly interact with inmates and respond to incidents as they arise."
Casey's press secretary, John Rizzo, said Friday that Senate hearings "may be necessary" to determine how the pepper spray program is being implemented. Casey, he said, "wants to better understand the rationale behind limiting this life-saving tool to select posts" and is "deeply troubled" by the limitations imposed by the Bureau of Prisons.
The bureau, in early March, trained all employees at Canaan on the proper use of pepper spray and, according to an operations memorandum on the program, advised them to use "force only as a last alternative after all other reasonable efforts to resolve a situation have failed." The bureau spent $4,999 for 500 pepper spray bottles and 97 holsters for officers at Canaan. Employees at the 19 other high-security facilities in the system were also included in the program and similar purchases followed.
"Then they decided only certain posts could have it, versus everyone should have it," Palmer said, referring to the top decision makers in the bureau, including Samuels. "It's fine that we have it, but not everyone can carry it because he's not allowing us to carry this. (Samuels) has the right to say, 'arm everyone with pepper spray.'"
Two months after the training sessions, and after discussions with the national union representing correctional workers, the bureau issued its operations memorandum on the pepper spray program.
In the seven-page document, the agency limited the roster of staff eligible to carry pepper spray canisters to: lieutenants working in operations and activities; correctional officers posted to housing units, corridors and inmate movement; and certain officers and lieutenants working in special housing units.
"No other posts will be authorized to carry (a pepper spray) dispenser," the memorandum said.
No unit secretaries, whose officers are located in the housing units and who often act as first responders when corrections officers are attacked.
No kitchen workers, like Canaan cook supervisor Andy Wisniewski, who required nine sutures after an inmate slashed him in the face last December.
No counselors, drug treatment specialists, chaplains or nurses, either.
E.O. Young, the national president of the Council of Prison Locals, said the union worked with the Bureau of Prisons to implement the expanded pepper spray program and decided to only include in the operations memorandum "staff who would be most likely beneficial."
Palmer, the local union president, questioned that rationale.
"I always say, 'How are you going to explain that to the family of a female staff member who gets raped?'" Palmer asked. "The first thing that comes up in my mind that the director has to answer is, 'did she have anything to defend herself, or himself?' I don't understand why he wouldn't give it to everybody."
The decision to create a dual-class structure of pepper spray haves and have nots appeared to run counter to Bureau of Prisons philosophy. The bureau considers all employees "correctional workers" and trains them in "basic correctional duties to secure the facility in the event of a disturbance and to provide inmate supervision," according to a report on prison overcrowding last year by the Government Accountability Office.
Young said he and his colleagues meet regularly with Bureau of Prisons officials to evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot program, which is scheduled to end next May. If the program is deemed effective, he said, the union and the bureau will discuss which facilities and which classes of employees should be included in a permanent program.
"I know for a fact it's working," Young said. "It's not only protecting staff, it's protecting others."
Last month at Canaan alone, correctional officers used pepper spray to suppress three separate inmate-on-inmate attacks, according to a series of incident reports kept by Young's organization, the Council of Prison Locals.
In each, it appeared the officers adhered to their training and Bureau of Prisons protocol, turning to the pepper spray as a last resort when inmates ignored their orders to stop fighting.
On Oct. 20, according to the reports, two inmates fighting in a Canaan housing unit "immediately stopped" and "lay down on the ground" after officers hit them with pepper spray.
A week later, officers at Canaan used pepper spray to aid them in subduing an inmate who repeatedly struck another inmate with a broom handle.
Pepper spray causes involuntary eye closure and can compromise an inmate's balance, leading to a pivotal "pause in combat," David Nance, the vice president of pepper spray supplier Security Equipment Corp., said after the expansion of the program in March.
Pepper spray, he said, enables correctional officers to temporarily distract and disable an armed inmate without the face-to-face confrontation and hand-to-hand combat that often leads to injury or death. In most situations, he said, a correctional officer can fire a jet of pepper spray at a threatening inmate from a "safe distance" of 10 to 15 feet away. The sprayed inmate will become distracted by his or her inability to see and stand straight, giving a correctional officer an opportunity to safely restrain the inmate, Nance said.
Young said he would advocate expanding the program - either through legislation or negotiations with the bureau - to provide pepper spray for all essential prison staff, including secretaries and unit managers.
"If a security guard at a mall can have it, I'm certain that the staff behind the prison walls and fences each day should very well be provided this essential piece of equipment which increases the chance and likelihood of them being able to go home to their families," Young said.
The Bureau of Prisons resisted arming any prison workers with pepper spray for nearly five years, despite repeated warnings and numerous grievance fights after a pair of inmates ambushed and killed correctional officer Jose Rivera in June 2008 at the United States Penitentiary at Atwater in California.
The Bureau of Prisons framed its argument against arming staff with pepper spray or other weapons, like batons, around the idea that those items could be seized by inmates and used against staff. Palmer said the bureau also fears misuse and potential liability - concerns he said should be mitigated by training and outweighed by the potential to save corrections workers and inmates from harm.
"If an inmate is just yelling at me and I take it out and spray him in the face with it, that's one thing," Palmer said. "If he becomes aggressive and starts a fight, then you do what you've got to do. It all boils down to common sense. If people are going to abuse something that's given to them, that's on them and they'll be punished for it. But, for people not to have it, I don't understand what the thinking is. Especially in a penitentiary."
A correctional officer at Canaan told The Citizens' Voice in March that the attack on the 34-year-old Williams happened so fast and so violently - an inmate stabbed him 129 times and crushed his skull - only additional staffing and another officer interceding would have saved him.
Rivera was also working alone when a pair of inmates attacked him, but he had enough time to trigger a body alarm and summon help. Had Rivera and those first responders been equipped with pepper spray, "there's no doubt in my mind Jose would have probably been able to fend off those inmates until some support arrived," Young said.