United States Penitentiary, Atwater

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US Penitentiary, Atwater
USP Atwater (thumb).jpg
LocationMerced County, California
Coordinates37°23′10″N 120°33′30″W / 37.38611°N 120.55833°W / 37.38611; -120.55833
Security classHigh-security (with minimum-security satellite camp)
Population1,020 [916 at the USP, 104 in prison camp] (April 2022)
Managed byFederal Bureau of Prisons
WardenB. M. Trate

The United States Penitentiary, Atwater (USP Atwater) is a high-security United States federal prison for male inmates in unincorporated Merced County, California.[1] 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.[2]

Facility and programs[edit]

Aerial view of United States Penitentiary, Atwater (2021)

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.[3]

Notable incidents[edit]

Murder of Correction Officer Jose Rivera[edit]

On June 20, 2008, as Federal 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 self-made knife or shank. Outnumbered, Officer Rivera attempted to seek assistance, but was knocked backwards by Sablan 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 and Guerrero were indicted for the murder of Officer Rivera on August 14, 2008.[4][5][6][7]

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.[8]

On September 29, 2015, Sablan was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.[9]

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.[10][11] Ferguson's sentence was overturned on appeal and he was resentenced to 96 months in prison in 2011.[12] Ferguson served his sentence at Florence ADX, the federal supermax prison in Colorado, and was released in 2018.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

Inmate Name Register Number Status Details
Jerry Whitworth 78095-011 Serving a 365-year sentence; eligible for release on March 15, 2196.†[16] 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.[17]
Bobby Banks 20110-009 Now at FCI Forrest City 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.[18]
Agustin Huneeus 25453-111 Released March 17, 2020; served over five months. Charged with connection to the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal.[19]
Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari 42771-177 Now at USP Pollock Saudi Arabian national convicted in 2012 of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction by a US federal court.
Demario Atwater 24520-057 Serving a life sentence Pled guilty to charges of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, armed robbery, possession of a firearm by a felon and possession of a weapon of mass destruction, all related to the murder of Eve Carson.
Darren Berg 17950-086 Escaped on December 6, 2017[20] Sentenced to 18 years in February 2012 for financial crimes.[21] Had been in the minimum-security camp.[20]
Mozzy 68556-509 Currently incarcerated American rapper convicted of federal gun charges, currently serving a one-year sentence. Expected to be released in July 2023.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "2020 CENSUS - CENSUS BLOCK MAP: Merced County, CA" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. p. 11 (PDF p. 12/57). Retrieved 2022-08-15. United States Penitentiary Atwater
  2. ^ "BOP: USP Atwater". Bop.gov. Retrieved September 26, 2012.
  3. ^ "USP ATWATER INMATE ADMISSIONS & ORIENTATION HANDBOOK" (PDF). Federal Bureau of Prisons. US Department of Justice. January 1, 2014. Retrieved 18 October 2015.
  4. ^ "Jose V. Rivera" (PDF). Federal Bureau of Prisons.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "UPDATE: FBI enters investigation of fatal stabbing of correctional officer". Ksee24.com. June 24, 2008.
  7. ^ Patton, Victor A. (June 21, 2008). "Correctional officer killed in stabbing at Atwater prison". Merced Sun-Star.
  8. ^ "Federal Inmate Sentenced to Life in Prison for the Murder of a U.S. Correctional Officer".
  9. ^ "Federal Inmate Sentenced to Life in Prison for the Murder of a U.S. Correctional Officer". 29 September 2015.
  10. ^ Jason, Scott (October 12, 2009). "Atwater inmate gets life sentence for killing his cellmate". Merced Sun-Star (CA). Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  11. ^ "Federal Prisoner Sentenced to Life for Killing Cell Mate". Federal Bureau of Investigation. October 9, 2009. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  12. ^ "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.
  13. ^ "Inmate Locator: Register # 97034-011". Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  14. ^ Patton, Victor (July 11, 2011). "Safety concerns remain an issue at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater". Merced Sun-Star (CA). Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  15. ^ "History of The Federal Parole System". US Department of Justice. Archived from the original on 2013-03-13. Retrieved 2013-03-16.
  16. ^ Biesecker, Michael (August 29, 2014). "Former U.S. sailor who spied for Soviets dies in prison". Portland Press Herald. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ "Local Gang Leader Sentenced to 55 Years in Prison" (PDF). Justice.gov. Retrieved 2013-10-30.
  19. ^ "Inmate Locator".
  20. ^ a b Carter, Mike (December 14, 2017). "Prison escape of Darren Berg, Washington's 'Mini Madoff,' is like 'Shawshank Redemption,' official says". The Seattle Times. Retrieved March 13, 2022.
  21. ^ Pulkkinen, Levi (February 8, 2012). "After spending spree, a reckoning for man behind state's biggest Ponzi scheme". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved March 13, 2022.

External links[edit]