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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.