Senate Says Federal Prison Guards Can Carry Pepper Spray

Legislation, which applies to employees at medium- and higher-security federal penitentiaries, honors officer killed by an inmate in 2013.

The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation that requires the Bureau of Prisons to provide pepper spray to employees in certain federal correctional facilities.

The 2015 Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act makes permanent a pilot program that equips prison guards and other BOP employees in all but minimum-security prisons with pepper spray for self-defense. The bill applies to any BOP correctional officer or other employee “who may respond to an emergency situation” in a non-low or minimum security prison. Oleoresin capsicum spray, better known as pepper spray, causes extreme eye inflammation and a strong burning sensation in people, disabling them temporarily.

BOP will have to train employees in using pepper spray before issuing it to them.

The bill is named for Officer Eric Williams who was beaten and stabbed to death in February 2013 by an inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in Waymart, Pa. At the time, Williams was working alone among 125 inmates and carried only a radio, handcuffs and keys.

“Prior to the pilot program, correctional officers had no means of self-defense as they discharge their duties on behalf of the American people supervising these inmates,” said Eric Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. “Our colleagues deserve to feel safe in their workplace, and we are thrilled that this passage permanently ensures a means of self-defense to all of our correctional staff working at medium or high-security prisons.” National AFGE President J. David Cox, Sr., said the union was “deeply grateful” that the Senate passed the bill “to provide our prison workers with the tools they need to protect themselves, before any more workers are seriously injured or killed in the line of duty.”

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, both of Pennsylvania, shepherded the bill. "It is shocking that Bureau of Prison policy previously allowed guards to be placed on duty completely unarmed or without any defensive gear--a policy that led to the death of Officer Eric Williams in Wayne County, Pa.,” Toomey said. "We have an obligation to keep safe the men and women who serve in our correctional facilities,” Casey added.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., introduced a companion bill in the House in February. That legislation is currently in subcommittee.