How safe is protective custody?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 25 2003 6:56 PM

How Protective Is Protective Custody?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Former priest John Geoghan, the convicted child molester accused of abusing more than a hundred kids, was murdered on Saturday at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts. The leading suspect is a fellow inmate in the center's protective custody unit. How much protection does the average protective custody unit offer its inhabitants?

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

It depends on whom the inmate needs protection from. A "PC unit" is any group of inmates segregated from the general prison population for their safety. Prisoners who feel physically threatened by other inmates can request protective custody at any time. Corrections officers typically keep the inmate in investigative lockup, unable to leave his cell—and therefore out of harm's way—until they rule on the request. (Some prisoners request protective custody for dubious reasons: to dodge a cell-block creditor or hurt an inmate already in the secure unit.) If officials rule that an inmate is truly at risk, he's taken into the PC unit.

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Ideally, inmates under protective custody are housed in a stand-alone unit, with their own eating facilities, shower areas, recreation yards, and visiting rooms. Doctors, teachers, and other staffers visit the unit so high-risk prisoners don't have to traverse the facility en route to distant offices. But some protective custody units are located within a general-population cell house; in these cases all of the regular inmates must typically be under lock and key before those in protective custody are ushered through to, say, the recreation yard.

These measures protect inmates from the general prison population but aren't very good at keeping inmates safe from others in the PC unit. A drug dealer who has turned state's witness and fears retribution from a former colleague also in the clink might breathe easier in protective custody. But a pedophile or rapist loathed by fellow prisoners because of the nature of his crime must fear everyone. John Geoghan was moved to Souza-Baranowski's PC unit from protective custody at the state prison in Concord, Mass., where, the Boston Globe reported, he believed his food "was being fouled before it reached him."

A protective custody unit can have anywhere from under 10 to more than 100 inmates. Close surveillance can help keep the peace, and ideally, PC units have numerous guards, clear sightlines from guard stations into the cells, and video cameras to help keep inmates in check. In a PC unit, the only way to further ensure a prisoner's safety is to keep him in permanent lockup, a solution that prisoners and guards alike find undesirable.

 

Explainer thanks Camille Camp of the Criminal Justice Institute and Craig Cowie of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

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