United States Penitentiary, Atwater

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US Penitentiary, Atwater
USP Atwater (thumb).jpg
Location Merced County, California
Coordinates 37°23′10″N 120°33′30″W / 37.38611°N 120.55833°W / 37.38611; -120.55833
Status Operational
Security class High-security (with minimum-security satellite camp)
Population 1,492 (139 in prison camp)
Opened 2001
Managed by Federal Bureau of Prisons
Warden John Bell

The United States Penitentiary, Atwater (USP Atwater) is a high-security United States federal prison for male inmates in California. The institution also includes a minimum-security satellite camp. It is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the United States Department of Justice.

USP Atwater is located on land formerly part of Castle Air Force Base. It is near the city of Atwater in Merced County, California, 130 miles from San Francisco.[1]

Facility and Programs[edit]

USP Atwater offers various educational programs, including mandatory GED classes for inmates without high school diplomas, occupational and vocational training with apprenticeships, Adult Continuing Education, parenting classes and leisure programs.[2]

Notable Incidents[edit]

Murder of Correction Officer Jose Rivera[edit]

On June 20, 2008, as Correction Officer Jose Rivera (22-year old Navy veteran) was conducting his daily count on the second floor, Inmate Joseph Cabrera Sablan attacked Officer Rivera with an eight-inch homemade knife or shank. Outnumbered, Officer Rivera attempted to seek assistance, but was knocked backwards by Sabian and tackled by Inmate James Ninete Leon Guerrero. Both inmates had been previously convicted of murder and were serving life sentences. As Officer Rivera was seeking assistance from the first floor, he tripped on the stairs and was held down by Guerrero as Sablan stabbed him in excess of 20 times. Despite his injuries, Officer Rivera was able to restrain both inmates until additional officers arrived. Officer Rivera was transported to a local hospital, but died shortly afterward.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the incident and Sablan along with Guerrero were indicted for the murder of Officer Rivera on August 14, 2008.[3][4][5][6]

On May 30, 2014, Guerrero was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. Guerrero was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Phillip Pro of the District of Nevada.[7]

On September 29, 2015, Sabian was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.[8]

Inmate Murder[edit]

On August 2, 2006, Juwan Ferguson and the victim, Domosanies Slaughter, were cellmates in the Special Housing Unit at USP Atwater. Ferguson, a repeat felon with a lengthy criminal history, told several correctional officers at different times during that day that he wanted Slaughter removed from his cell. After he repeated this request to another officer, Slaughter hit Ferguson in the face. Ferguson responded by beating Slaughter into unconsciousness and then continuing to beat him even after he was unconscious. Correctional officers observed Ferguson drag Slaughter out from underneath one of the beds in the cell. Ignoring orders to stop, Ferguson continued to strike Slaughter's head against the concrete floor and kick the back of his head until he was restrained. Slaughter was transported to an area hospital, where he died on August 8, 2006.

In July 2009, Ferguson was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison.[9][10] Ferguson's sentence was overturned on appeal and he was resentenced to 96 months in prison in 2011.[11] Ferguson is currently being held at Florence ADX, the federal supermax prison in Colorado, and is scheduled for release in 2018.[12]

John Balazs, the attorney who defended Ferguson, argued that the Federal Bureau of Prisons was partially at fault for Slaughter's death, mainly because Slaughter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and USP Atwater was not properly equipped to address Slaughter's condition. In addition, Ferguson had asked corrections officials to move Slaughter out of his cell and Ferguson did not start the fight.[13]

Notable Inmates (current and former)[edit]

†The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 eliminated parole for federal inmates. However, inmates sentenced for offenses committed prior to 1987 are eligible for parole consideration.[14]

Inmate Name Register Number Status Details
Jerry Whitworth 78095-011 Serving a 365-year sentence; eligible for parole in 2048.†[15] Former Senior Chief Petty Officer for the US Navy; convicted in 1986 of espionage for selling highly classified US Navy documents to the Soviet Union for $332,000; co-conspirator and former US Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker testified against him.[16]
Bobby Banks 20110-009 Serving a 55-year sentence; scheduled for release in 2055. Leader of the Crips street gang in Little Rock, Arkansas; convicted in 2006 of conspiracy and drug trafficking for directing a large-scale crack-cocaine distribution operation; appeared in the 1993 HBO documentary Gang War: Bangin' In Little Rock.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "BOP: USP Atwater". Bop.gov. Retrieved September 26, 2012. 
  2. ^ "USP ATWATER INMATE ADMISSIONS & ORIENTATION HANDBOOK" (PDF). Federal Bureau of Prisons. US Department of Justice. January 1, 2014. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  3. ^ "Jose V. Rivera" (PDF). Federal Bureau of Prisons. 
  4. ^ Maldonado, Jr., G. "Board of Inquiry Report: June 20, 2008 Homicide of Correctional Officer Jose Rivera - United States Penitentiary, Atwater, California" (PDF). Federal Bureau of Prisons. 
  5. ^ "UPDATE: FBI enters investigation of fatal stabbing of correctional officer". Ksee24.com. June 24, 2008. 
  6. ^ Patton, Victor A. (June 21, 2008). "Correctional officer killed in stabbing at Atwater prison". Merced Sun-Star. 
  7. ^ "Federal Inmate Sentenced to Life in Prison for the Murder of a U.S. Correctional Officer". 
  8. ^ "Federal Inmate Sentenced to Life in Prison for the Murder of a U.S. Correctional Officer". 
  9. ^ Jason, Scott (October 12, 2009). "Atwater inmate gets life sentence for killing his cellmate". Merced Sun-Star (CA). Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  10. ^ "Federal Prisoner Sentenced to Life for Killing Cell Mate". Federal Bureau of Investigation. October 9, 2009. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  11. ^ "Juwan Tonay Ferguson, Docket Number: 1:08CR00116-001 LJO, Recommended Conditions of Supervised Release/Order of Approval" (PDF). US District Court - Eastern District of California. June 30, 2011. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  12. ^ "Inmate Locator: Register # 97034-011". Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  13. ^ Patton, Victor (July 11, 2011). "Safety concerns remain an issue at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater". Merced Sun-Star (CA). Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  14. ^ "History of The Federal Parole System". US Department of Justice. 
  15. ^ Biesecker, Michael (August 29, 2014). "Former U.S. sailor who spied for Soviets dies in prison". Portland Press Herald. Retrieved 24 August 2015. 
  16. ^ Morain, Dan (December 10, 1988). "Whitworth Given 365-Year Sentence : Castigated by Judge, Spy Also Is Fined $410,000; Penalty Harshest Since '53 - Los Angeles Times". Articles.latimes.com. 
  17. ^ "Local Gang Leader Sentenced to 55 Years in Prison" (PDF). Justice.gov. Retrieved 2013-10-30. 

External links[edit]