Slain CO's family fears staff cuts will force officers to work alone

Ever since CO Eric Williams was killed by an inmate five years ago, the federal prison he worked at mandated two officers be assigned to inmate housing units

By Bob Kalinowski
The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

NANTICOKE, Pa. — Ever since Correctional Officer Eric Williams was slaughtered by an inmate five years ago, the federal prison he worked at mandated two officers be assigned to inmate housing units.

He was alone when he was ambushed and brutalized.

Officer Eric Williams was alone when he was ambushed and brutalized by an inmate at the United States Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County. (Photo/Federal Bureau of Prisons)
Officer Eric Williams was alone when he was ambushed and brutalized by an inmate at the United States Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County. (Photo/Federal Bureau of Prisons)

Williams’ family fears sweeping reductions proposed for federal prison staff might force correctional officers to again walk the beat solo.

“We were able to initially get the second officer in the housing units and hopefully, because of all of this, it’s not going to go away,” Don Williams, Eric’s father, said Monday.

Sunday marked five years since Eric Williams’ murder at the United States Penitentiary at Canaan in Wayne County, historically one of the nation’s most violent federal prisons. The family attended a Mass dedicated to Eric Williams at their church in Nanticoke. They also visited the cemetery, where fellow correctional officers held a grave-side memorial service for their fallen colleague.

Since his son’s murder, Don Williams has been a vocal advocate for federal prison safety through his group Voices of JOE — an acronym honoring the last three prison workers killed in the line of duty, Jose Rivera, Osvaldo Albarati and Eric Williams.

Williams said he his taken the fight to Washington, D.C. for five years, but feels he only gets assistance and answers from the region’s members of Congress. Others either say prisons are as safe as they can be or they’ll get back to him, but don’t.

“I’m tired of the lip service,” Williams said.

Progress has been made — the second officer and allowing staff to be armed with pepper spray — but that will mean little if staffing gets cut to dangerous levels, Williams said.

“From what I am hearing, Canaan will be staffed less than when Eric was killed,” Williams said.

A recent USA Today investigation found hundreds of secretaries, teachers, counselors, cooks and medical staffers were tapped last year to fill corrections guard posts because of officer shortages and overtime limits.

The Bureau of Prisons last week responded to requests for comment about the issue by asking for questions to be sent by email because “questions may require more than one subject matter expert to consult before getting back to you with a response.” The bureau did not immediately respond to emails sent Monday.

Williams, 34, of Nanticoke, was working alone in a unit housing of about 130 inmates and was preparing to lock them into their cells for a nightly head-count when he was attacked on Feb. 25, 2013. The inmate, Jessie Con-ui, knocked him down a staircase, then stabbed him more than 200 times and stomped his head. Con-ui, a gang assassin already serving 25 years to life, was convicted at trial last year, but spared from the death penalty when a jury deadlocked 11-1 in the penalty phase. He’s now serving life.

Union leaders from federal prisons at Canaan, Schuylkill, Allenwood and Lewisburg recent co-authored a letter to the editor to address the staffing woes, claiming 6,100 positions have been cut the past year nationwide due to a hiring freeze.

Canaan’s union president, Correction Officer Mike Moran, said the prison is operating at 88 percent of its required staffing level after losing 54 positions.

“They are saying 88 percent is the new 100 percent,” Moran said.

Because Canaan is “the most violent penitentiary in the country,” support staff are not being asked to serve as correctional officers like at other facilities, but Moran said it seems inevitable.

“If they continue these reductions, it’s going to be the case,” Moran said.

Darrell Palmer, a Northeast regional vice president for the union, said the bureau is justifying the cuts by claiming the inmate population is going down. He noted many inmates are being moved to private, for-profit prisons that only take low maintenance inmates with no history of prison misconduct.

“The private prisons only take the ‘good’ inmates,” Palmer said. “The government feels it’s cheaper.”

The senators who represent Pennsylvania in Congress, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, both said they are concerned about the cuts. Both have pushed legislation in Eric Williams’ name.

“Senator Toomey has long, actively supported the safety and well-being of federal corrections officers,” spokesman Steve Kelly said. “Senator Toomey is concerned about the staffing levels of federal prisons, including in Pennsylvania, and he and his staff will continue to work with both corrections officers and the Bureau of Prisons on the issue.”

Casey said he is “extremely concerned with the job cuts happening at federal prisons in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”

“For an Administration that promised job growth, this seems like another broken promise for the people of Pennsylvania — not to mention a serious safety hazard for the men and women who put themselves at risk every day to keep us safe,” Casey said in a statement. “It’s now five years after Eric Williams was tragically killed on the job at USP Canaan, and we can’t start taking a step back on safety.”

©2018 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved.