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Correctional Officers Suit Up in Stab-Resistant Vests
By Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter
Published: 02/02/2004

Last month, two correctional officers were taken hostage by inmates at an Arizona prison.  As officials there examine the security flaws that allowed such an incident to take place, a clear picture of the everyday dangers correctional officers face has been painted for the rest of the country.  While the profession is, indeed, dangerous, there are some precautions correctional officers can take to improve their personal safety.  For one, they can wear stab-resistant vests.

The federal government demonstrated its commitment to law enforcement and personal body armor in 1998 when Congress passed the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Act to help state and local law enforcement departments purchase bulletproof vests.  In 2000, Congress passed a second act to clarify the way in which grants would be awarded to agencies.  That year also marked the first time law enforcement and corrections departments could purchase stab-resistant vests under the partnership, as the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) issued a standard for that type of body armor in September 2000.

Because the majority of correctional officers are at far greater risk of being stabbed than shot, the inclusion of stab-resistant vests under the umbrella of the Bulletproof Vest Partnership was particularly important for corrections agencies.

National Compliance

In order for corrections agencies to buy stab-resistant vests under the Bulletproof Vest Partnership, however, the body armor must comply with national standards, which have been created by NIJ in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC).

"We all work together to run the compliance testing program," said Alex Sundstrom, Testing Coordinator for NLECTC. 

According to Sundstrom, manufacturers send their vest models to NLECTC, which inspects the vests to make sure that they meet certain labeling and workmanship requirements.  The vests are then shipped to a NIJ-approved lab, where the actual testing takes place.

"Once the lab completes the testing, they send the test report to us," Sundstrom said.  "We double-check the construction of the vest."

If the vests are compliant, said Sundstrom, the manufacturer will receive a letter that they can present to agencies as proof that their products are NIJ-approved.

The finished vests, according to Sundstrom, differ from bulletproof vests by the material they are made of and the way that material is weaved. 

"Most of [the stab-resistant vests] are trying to stop that small spike," said Sundstrom. "The material is the thing that makes the difference," he added.  And, typically, stab-resistant vests require a tighter weave, he said.

While not all state corrections departments provide their officers with this type of body armor, some, like New Jersey, have been spurred to action by tragedy and now require all correctional staff to wear stab-resistant vests.

Agency-Wide Protection

The New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) first mandated its employees to wear stab-resistant vests in 1997, after correctional officer Fred Baker was stabbed and killed by an inmate at Bayside State Prison.

"[The mandate] was something that really didn't exist until right at that moment that we lost Officer Baker," said Mark Salaga, Director of Custody Operations for the N.J. DOC.  "We have a policy [now] that an officer wears [a vest] on duty, no matter what [the] assignment." 

According to Salaga, the mandate was established in July 1997 and, two months later, the DOC began issuing every officer a vest.

"It was very thin," Salaga said about the over-the-shirt vest model the DOC originally chose for its correctional officers.  "It didn't have any ballistic capabilities, but it had anti-shank capabilities."

Those first vests had a five-year warranty from the manufacturer, which was due to expire in 2002.  In addition, the vests were purchased prior to 2000, when NIJ issued a standard for stab-resistant vests.

"When we bought our first stab-resistant vests, there was no national standard to judge them by.  It was something brand new," Salaga said.  "Our original vests would not have met [NIJ's] requirements."

Because the warranty was almost up and the vests did not meet NIJ's standards, the department put together a committee in 2001 charged with choosing what body armor the DOC would purchase to protect officers in coming years.  The committee decided that the next generation of vests should not only be stab-resistant, but also bulletproof.

"When we originally issued the stab-resistant vests, we had some issues with our transport officers," said Salaga.  "In New Jersey we are all sworn law enforcement officers, so we have arrest powers," he added.  "Most of the state is an urban environment and [DOC transport officers] wound up driving through the cities in marked vehicles."

Because transport officers faced an increased threat of being shot on the street, they were issued bulletproof vests back in 1997.  Now, all N.J. correctional officers enjoy protection from both sharp objects and bullets.  The new vests, which officers began to receive in April 2003, are both Level 3 (high protection) stab-resistant and Type IIA (protection against 9mm bullets and 40 S&W) in terms of ballistic capabilities.

"It's an under-the-shirt vest.  It's a little bit thicker than our old vests, but it weighs less," said Salaga.  "It breathes a little bit better.  It's more comfortable to wear than our old vest."

The vests, which were purchased through grant funding from the Bulletproof Vest Partnership, cost about $650 each and the department ordered around 6,500 of them for its officers.

"It's a big cost, but I think, in the long run, it's well worth [it]," said Salaga.  "It [shows] the department's commitment to officer safety both on and off the streets."

Tactical Unit Gear

Aside from New Jersey, other states, like Illinois, have demonstrated their commitment to officer safety through the purchase of body armor.  Although not all correctional officers are required to wear stab-resistant vests there, the DOC does provide them to members of tactical units.

"[The vests are worn] any time a calculated use of force is going to be used," said Lieutenant Rod Brady, Northern Tactical Commander for the Illinois DOC.  "It's an outer-worn vest; it's not concealed."

The vests that the state's tactical unit officers wear, which cost nearly $700 each, are not bulletproof, but they are Level 2 (medium protection) stab-resistant.

The vests do not offer the highest level of protection (Level 3) because of financial constraints, according to Brady.

"Money is everybody's problem right now," said Brady.  "You still get good safety, [though], with [Level] 2."

Regardless, the vests are designed to keep officers safe when they are called to break up inmate disturbances.

"We're not jeopardizing our staff's safety," said Brady.  "I would rather put them in something like that than nothing at all."

While different state DOC's require different levels of personal body armor protection for their officers, stab-resistant vests do provide an added comfort for correctional officers who deal with inmate populations each day.

Because of correctional officers' personal safety is sometimes threatened on the job, NIJ and other federal agencies have set their focus on developing standards to ensure that stab-resistant vests provide a high level of protection for the people who work in prisons and jails.  This type of protection will hopefully save corrections agencies from having the mourn the loss of one of their officers, like the N.J. DOC did six years ago when one of their own died at the hands of an inmate.

Resources:

To learn more about the Bulletproof Vest Partnership, go to https://vests.ojp.gov/index.jsp

To contact Alex Sundstrom, call (800) 248-2742

To contact the New Jersey DOC, call (609) 292-9340

To contact the Illinois DOC, call (217) 522-2666



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