Lawmakers have passed legislation, named for a slain correctional officer, to enhance guard protection at federal penitentiaries.

 — Lawmakers have passed legislation, named for a slain correctional officer, to enhance guard protection at federal penitentiaries.

The Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act of 2014 authorizes all correctional officers in federal medium-security prisons and higher to carry pepper spray.

Williams, 34, was murdered by an inmate while on duty at the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan last year.

The former correctional officer was equipped only with handcuffs and a radio with a panic button when the inmate blindsided and repeatedly stabbed him with a handmade knife.

The pepper spray is a good tool to help protect the officers, who previously only carried keys and the radios, said Paul Gibson, public information officer at the Canaan facility.

He noted that lethal weapons, if carried by the officers, could be turned against them, adding that the prison believes pepper spray is a good weapon.

Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey introduced the legislation.

“Officer Eric Williams’ murder was horrific and shocking,” said Toomey. “To prevent future tragedies and to save lives, we need to expand the availability of pepper spray for correctional officers."

Congressman Tom Marino, PA-10, who represents parts of Wayne County, applauded the passage, noting his district is home to the largest number of corrections officers in the country.

Marino, a former U.S. attorney and prosecutor, said he has firsthand experience working closely with law enforcement and corrections officers across multiple bureaus, departments and municipalities.

"While I’ve gleaned several recurring themes which can increase the productivity and safety of their jobs, the one thing that tops the list is always the allowance of new measures to increase officer safety," Marino stated. "This provision increases officer safety and places reasonable reporting structures for the use of (pepper) spray in our prison facilities."

The congressman said correctional officers willingly put themselves in close proximity to the communities’ most dangerous individuals.

"Providing them with tools for safety, even if it’s via legislative reporting language, is vital to maintaining safe prisons," Marino said.

The lawmaker added that "we mustn’t forget just last year one of our own" was killed in the line of duty at USP Canaan by an inmate.

"If we can provide more tools for officers like Williams then chances of survival are far greater in tough and life-threatening prison environments," Marino said.

While some level of risk will always be present in a prison, Congress must do its part to protect correctional officers, according to Toomey.

Casey noted that guards face thousands of assaults every year, so it’s important they have the necessary tools to stay safe on the job."

“This legislation will lessen the risk of violence they face every day," said the senator.

Pennsylvania is home to seven federally operated prison facilities and thousands of federal corrections officers.