Soapbox

Life sentence is no deterrent to prison lifers

Terry Rivera, the mother of slain Atwater correctional officer Jose Rivera, holds on to her grandson Matthew Contreras as he touches the memorial where Rivera’s name is engraved in May 2012.
Terry Rivera, the mother of slain Atwater correctional officer Jose Rivera, holds on to her grandson Matthew Contreras as he touches the memorial where Rivera’s name is engraved in May 2012. Merced Sun-Star file

Seven years ago, Joseph Cabrera Sablan murdered correctional Officer Jose Rivera in cold blood at the federal prison in Atwater. While fellow inmate James Guerrero pinned Rivera to the ground, Sablan climbed on top of the 22-year old Iraq war veteran and stabbed him 22 times with a homemade weapon.

Thanks to a plea deal announced last month, Sablan will face no additional punishment for murdering Rivera. Guerrero also took a similar plea deal last year.

Rather than face the death penalty for their grisly act, both have instead been offered a life sentence. The problem is, both are already serving life sentences for murder, meaning they will face absolutely zero consequences for murdering Rivera.

Another life sentence for two men already condemned to life in prison is not punishment. It is an insult to Rivera’s grieving family and a disgrace to the justice system. How can there be justice without consequences for killing the brave officers who put their lives on the line to defend it?

That’s why we are supporting H.R. 814, the Thin Blue Line Act, in Congress. Introduced by Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican, the bill would make killing a correctional worker, a firefighter or other first responder an aggravating factor in death penalty determinations. It restores the key deterrent for lifers looking to make a name for themselves by killing our brave officers.

Though it is too late to save Rivera, this legislation will save an untold number of correctional workers lives.

The death penalty is a deterrent for inmates to think twice if they harm our federal correctional workers. Correctional workers don’t carry guns, Tasers or clubs. Due to tight budgets, many don’t even have stab-resistant vests. Even though these officers are surrounded by some of the most violent prisoners in the world every day, they have little more than a set of keys and a radio to protect themselves.

By denying the death penalty in the Rivera case, the justice system just dropped the last line of defense. We are showing inmates across the country, quite literally, that they can get away with murder.

The plea deals for Sablan and Guererro are even more sickening when you consider the cases of federal inmates Wesley Paul Coonce Jr. and Charles Michael Hall, who were both sentenced to death after killing a fellow inmate in Missouri. The prisoner was targeted for trying to protect a correctional worker from attack.

Why is it that killing another inmate warrants the death penalty, but killing a correctional worker does not? Do our lives not matter as well?

The Council of Prison Locals will do everything we can to ensure that justice is served in Rivera’s case and that no family ever has to suffer the indignity of watching their son’s murderers walk free.

Eric Young is president of the American Federation of Government Employee Council of Prison Locals, which represents more than 39,000 workers at federal prisons.

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