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Prison's violence had been rising before guard's 2008 slaying

WASHINGTON -- Spit and unsavory liquids are weapons within the forbidding confines of U.S. Penitentiary Atwater.

So are fists, feces and food trays. And in the months preceding the June 2008 slaying of Atwater guard Jose Rivera, newly obtained records reveal inmates were improvising madly as they escalated their war with correctional officers.

The number of reported inmate assaults on Atwater staffers quadrupled between 2005 and 2007, Bureau of Prisons' records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show. When Rivera died on June 20, 2008, the high-security prison was on track to again exceed its previous year's assault record.

"These guys are clever," said Andy Krotik, spokesman for the Atwater-based Friends and Family of Correctional Officers. "They have all day to sit around and figure out how to make weapons."

Inmates assaulted Atwater staff 142 times between Jan. 1, 2005, and Sept. 4, 2008, the Bureau of Prisons records show. The number of reported assaults leaped from 13 in 2005 to 38 in 2006 and 57 in 2007.

Through the first eight months of 2008, the number of reported assaults reached 34.

Now under the stewardship of Hector Rios Jr., its fourth warden in the past eight years, the Atwater prison has by several accounts become a safer and more orderly place. Though up-to-date individual prison assault records weren't available, Krotik said Atwater conditions have "dramatically improved" since Rivera's murder.

"It's completely different now," said Krotik, a former Atwater city councilman.

A spokesman for the Atwater prison could not be reached to comment. But at the national level, Bureau of Prisons officials have identified at least some favorable trends. Nationally, the number of assaults on federal prison staff characterized as "serious" declined steadily from 128 in 2005 to 82 in 2008.

"We have not experienced an increase in the rate of serious assaults on staff over the past several years, but there is a sense that the assaults are more severe," Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley stated in an e-mail.

Krotik and Billingsley both credited tighter controls on inmate movements, beefed-up staffing and the transfer of what Billingsley called "problematic" inmates into more restrictive prisons. Under union and political pressure following Rivera's murder, the Bureau of Prisons also made protective vests available to staff.

"They have not adopted everything we wanted them to, but they have taken substantial steps," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Two former Atwater inmates already serving life sentences, 40-year-old Jose Cabrera Sablan and 42-year-old James Ninete Leon Guerrero, now face the death penalty if convicted of Rivera's killing. Prosecutors say Guerrero held Rivera while Sablan stabbed the 22-year-old Navy veteran with an eight-inch pick-type weapon.

Rivera was the first worker killed at the Atwater prison since it opened in 2001, but he was neither the first nor the last to be attacked.

The Bureau of Prisons reports are summaries that lack crucial context. On Oct. 21 2006, for instance, an Atwater inmate was simply reported to have been "aggressive toward staff." On another date, an inmate was reportedly "combative."

But often, the reports detail the myriad dangers prison guards confront. On Jan. 31, 2008, for instance, an Atwater corrections officer was reported to have cut his hand due to "razor blades taped to unit officer's door handle."

A week later, an inmate threw his food tray at a staffer, striking him in the chest. On separate occasions over the next several weeks, Atwater staffers reported being kicked, spat upon and punched.

During one representative week in November 2007, reports show that at different times unnamed Atwater inmates "threw food tray at staff," "swung elbow at staff," "spit on staff" and "(struck) staff with closed fists."

Spit, in particular, is plentiful. Seventeen of the Atwater assaults reported since January 2005 involved spitting. Spit can be disease-laden, but there are more revolting things.

Repeatedly, inmates throw urine and/or feces at the guards. Eight of the reported inmate-on-guard assaults at Atwater involved urine and/or feces, and 21 involved what was simply called "unknown liquid."

Half of the reported assaults have taken place in the prison's Special Housing Unit. This is where officials send inmates for added discipline; conditions are particularly spare, and inmates do not always respond well.