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Protective Custody Challenges in Corrections
By Michelle Gaseau, Managing Editor
Published: 09/29/2003

Protective 05 In a perfect world, an inmate whose life is being threatened should be able to transfer to a protective area of the prison and no longer have to look over his shoulder. But the world of prisons and jails is not perfect and it can be a complicated process to screen and separate predatory inmates from vulnerable ones.

Recently this issue came to light nationally when a Massachusetts priest, serving time for molesting children, was murdered while in protective custody, where he should have been safe. The case is under investigation by a panel of corrections and public safety experts appointed by the governor, but in the interim it has raised questions about how safe a protective custody unit really is.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in 10 state prison inmates has been injured in an assault or fight. This leads some to question how effective corrections facilities really are at keeping inmates safe.

"The problem is most systems don't have enough protective custody cells and don't put enough care into classification. There are glitches. Folks who, even if they don't need protective custody, end up there," said Jamie Fellner, Director of the U.S. Program for Human Rights Watch.

Fellner said these problems can arise from overcrowding and budget cuts. If there is a shortage of staff in an overcrowded institution, then staff aren't able to get to know the inmate population as well as they might otherwise. In addition, when programming is cut for inmates, the population has more idle time, putting vulnerable inmates more at risk.

"They [corrections agencies] need to look at the bigger picture," said Fellner.

While the ability to properly screen and house at-risk inmates can be affected by these outside forces - staffing and finance - there are several agencies that have taken the issue seriously and are working hard to do what they can to protect inmates.

The California Department of Corrections, for example, has a formal, graduated system of protective custody available in several institutions throughout the state and a policy of immediate protection and investigation for any inmate who says their life is being threatened. In addition, those in protective custody are not housed in a lock-down situation, but rather one that mirrors the general population's activities and freedoms.

In addition to this, many agencies know that the key to protecting inmates adequately is understanding which ones are most vulnerable and ensuring that they are housed where they won't be harmed.

Screening the Vulnerable

Many corrections agencies have in place a policy that requires staff, who are approached by an inmate who is in fear for his life, to immediately remove the inmate from his current housing unit. But the next step is the most important one because it involves a determination about the actuality of an inmate's claim.

In California, an inmate who requests protective custody status is automatically placed in an administrative segregation area and within 10 days his case will have been investigated and reviewed by a special committee. 

According to Nate Dill, Captain of the Facility 4A SHU at California's Corcoran State Prison, the reasons why inmates request protection vary dramatically.

Dill said some high-profile inmates request protective custody immediately upon entering the system - and they get it. The highest level protective custody unit in the CDC houses inmates such as Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and other notorious inmates. Others in this unit are high-level gang members who are part of a witness protection program or have a "green light" on them, which means they should be "killed on sight," Dill said.
In these cases, a Director's review panel looks into their needs for protective custody.

For these inmates, protective custody is critical and they will probably never leave the unit during their incarceration. 

"The crimes are of such high notoriety that if they were placed in another unit they would be killed just for another inmate to be famous and say they did it," said Dill.

But typically, other inmates who feel threatened will not only have their claims investigated but will also have to either give up information - such as when a gang member denounces his membership - or say who is trying to hurt them and why.

In some cases, inmates also try to manipulate the system to ensure their protection for a short time. 

"Sometimes it is because they owe money, then family sends them $1,000 and their security needs are all over by the time they get to the review panel. You also have inmates who are manipulative and just want a change of scenery, but we err on the side of caution either way," said Dill.

New Hampshire officials, who manage a much smaller system in a rural setting, have a different volume of protective claims, but still review protection requests carefully.

According to Kim Lacasse, Administrator of Classification for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, the reception area is the first place that inmates register their security concerns. And, each time the department must interview the inmate about their concerns and determine whether they are valid.

"In the reception area, we have people who contact us within hours of their incarceration.
They [often] need to be reassured that once they get to another housing unit they will be fine and once they adjust they will be fine," said Lacasse.

In reception, Lacasse said they often see first-timers who have the jitters or others who have been threatened in the reception area. The DOC keeps this in mind when classifying inmates to a specific housing unit and leaves the door open for those same inmates to request protective status if the threats continue in their actual housing unit.

For those who follow up with life threatening claims, the DOC requires a written statement and will immediately remove the offender from their unit and place them in a special area of the state's main prison.

"They have to give names and some tangible information, then they are placed on Three East [a separate housing unit] in pending administrative review status until they can be looked at," said Lacasse. She said that a three-member panel, consisting of a unit manager, counselor and a lieutenant from the main facility are usually on the panel.

"They typically have testified against other inmates, have an inmate who is the brother or father of a victim or they are inmates who have created their own problems and have gambling debts or are involved in gang activity," she said.

She said if an offender comes in with a sex offense, that does not automatically qualify him for protective status, even though other inmates often frown upon such a crime.

Lacasse said that the DOC's internal classification tool automatically considers whether the inmate coming in the door would be considered a predator, prey or suitable for general population. The score that each inmate receives from this tool is then reviewed at the unit level in conjunction with an interview of the offender to ensure that they are housed in the correct place in the general population. 

Lacasse said this doesn't necessarily mean that all prey offenders, such as those convicted of sex offenses, are housed together, but it does reduce the likelihood that vulnerable inmates would be attacked inside the facility.

If an offender has a legitimate security concern, then they will be housed in a 20-bed area known as Three East. If the DOC has more inmates who need to be protected than space in the unit, then they are considered for placement at two other DOC facilities in Northern N.H., placement at a county jail facility or placement in another state's correctional system.

Lacasse estimates that the DOC has to place between 20 and 30 inmates out of state each year, but a large percentage of those, she said, are not for protective reasons.

For larger systems with more gang activity and a larger volume of inmates, such as California, the protective custody issue must be handled on a greater scale.

Options for Housing Vulnerable Inmates in California

In recent years, the California Department of Corrections has determined that many inmates requesting protective custody can live safely in special units that mirror a general population unit in its activities and operation, but consist only of offenders who are seeking a higher level of protection and cannot currently live in a general unit.

These units, which are located in four facilities across the states, are called sensitive needs units. 

"It's a variety of inmates. What will happen is an inmate housed in one of the mainline population units for some reason cannot function safely on that yard anymore. They might owe drug debts or be considered a snitch or it could be his crime. If it's a sexual crime - especially Hispanic and white inmates - they don't look at that inmate with favor. Normally the inmate will approach an officer, but sometimes they won't and there will be an assault," said Lt. Gary Stratton, Administrative Assistant and Public Information Officer for California's Calipatria State Prison.

Stratton explained that upon requesting protection, the inmate is placed in administrative segregation for a short time until his case can be reviewed. A panel will weigh the case factors, including whether the inmate could survive on the "mainline."

Stratton said, an assault may also prompt the panel to examine the safety of an offender who does not want to leave general population. Nevertheless, the panel may still decide that the inmate requires a sensitive needs unit for his own protection.

This is more common with a gang member who is reluctant to leave the general population and his colleagues.

"With the hard-core gang members, they think they are still okay, and then they get stabbed three or four times," said Stratton.

In fact, many of the offenders housed on the sensitive needs yard are former gang members who have opted to drop out of the gangs. Without the sensitive needs housing after the debriefing process, they will be targeted for violence of even death.

Stratton said that the path to the sensitive needs unit often starts when gang members are identified and housed in SHU units, which are locked down most of the day. Many of the gang members come to see that they would rather do their time in a housing unit that is more open and choose to renounce their gang membership. They are then transferred to a sensitive needs unit after completing the debriefing process.

These units also house inmates who are targeted because of their crime, those who have made bad drug deals, some first-time offenders who don't have the sophistication to live among the general population and a few high notoriety inmates.

After eight years in existence, the sensitive needs unit at Calipatria almost polices itself, Stratton said, because the inmates know the alternatives for them if it doesn't work out are much worse - back to a SHU or administrative segregation. 

"The warden will talk to them [before they enter the sensitive needs unit], especially with the gangs and say, 'You will be on the yard with your enemies or You may be around inmates who have raped a child and Can you function there?," he said. "The inmates [in sensitive needs] are all in the same boat and know what they are there for."

Stratton said it is not uncommon for the inmates on the unit to notify officers when there is an inmate who is planning to harm another or is causing trouble. In those cases, the identified inmate is questioned and his case may be re-reviewed for a different placement.

"They don't want to have an assault happen. You also have a lot of older inmates who know how to do their time," Stratton added.

The same type of self-policing also takes place in the high-level protective custody unit at Corcoran. Staff at the facility and in that unit, which is much smaller at 35 - 40 inmates, take great pains to ensure that any new entrant into that unit will get along with the others who are there.

According to Dill, during the first week in the protective custody unit at Corcoran the new inmate is confined to his cell for most of the time while the other inmates get to know him.

"Then we bring [the inmate] back to committee and see if there are any issues. The other inmates will run to staff to tell them if won't work. If one inmate inside doesn't like [the new prisoner] we may instead move that inmate or make other provisions for him. We may try to look at sensitive needs or indeterminate SHU," said Dill.

The reason for the heavy screening is that these protective custody inmates will likely spend the rest of their time with each other until their release. In addition, they share a day room, program together and chow together, so they must get along.

This is a model and philosophy that other agencies, such as the NH DOC, share about how protective custody ought to be handled.

In fact, the NH DOC abandoned the term "Protective Custody" a few years ago because, as it was originally formed, it placed more restrictions on victim-inmates.

"The philosophy was that we were limiting the movement of people who were being victimized instead of taking care of those who were doing the victimizing," said Lacasse. 

Trends show that the old attitudes about protective custody are changing, which should please many inmate advocates and improve conditions for vulnerable inmates as a whole.

"Your staring point is there is a human rights obligation to ensure safe conditions of confinement," said Fellner. But, she added, that does not mean that inmates who need protective custody status should be treated as if they violated the rules. For those agencies that have adopted this less-restrictive philosophy, Fellner applauds them.


Human Rights Watch -

For information about the California Department of Corrections' protective custody programs, contact Terry Thornton at 916-445-4950

To reach the N.H. Department of Corrections, contact Jeffrey Lyons at 603-271-5602


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