Seeking Protection in Prison

By · Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Protective custody, known as PC in prison parlance, is a choice that can have severe consequences for any prisoner. In minimum-security camps, it is not a valid concern as these types of institutions are no more volatile than a corporate office park. Yet in higher security prisons, where there are gang influences and threatening prisoners, some men fear for their safety. In an effort to avoid altercations with others, some choose to serve their time in protective custody.

Protective custody is simply the Special Housing Unit (SHU), otherwise known as “the hole.” It is a locked cell that is stripped of all liberties. Inmates who serve time in PC do not enjoy free access to telephones, recreation, or the library. They spend all of their time locked in a tiny cell, usually with another PC inmate. It is a difficult way to serve time, even though the PC inmate is separated from the general population of the prison.

I’ve served time in prisons of every security level. For the past five years I’ve been held within the boundaries of various minimum-security camps. Prior to 2003, however, I was held inside secure prisons. Those fences contained considerable amounts of predatory offenders, and violence was an ordinary and unremarkable aspect of every day. The higher the security level, the more prevalence was bloodshed. Some inmates sought protection from the violence by going into protective custody.

Inmates who approach an officer and ask for protection will meet with a lieutenant and explain the reasons why he feels threatened. Sometimes the inmate will provide the lieutenant with the names of prisoners who are threatening him, but other times the inmate will feel threatened by entire groups of inmates and will not be able to specify a single individual. The lieutenant will make a decision of whether to admit the prisoner into protective custody.

Rumors spread in the prison as quickly as a gasoline fire. Guards talk to inmates. Besides that, the SHU has a daily turnover, with some prisoners going in and other prisoners returning to the general population. In a specific wing of the SHU, word spreads from one cell to another about who is locked inside the cells. News spreads through the SHU, and those released back into the general population then carry that news with them.

Despite serving time in prisons of every security level, I’ve never sought protection from staff members or from other inmates. Instead, I’ve found it best understand the dangers of my environment, and choose my activities and associates carefully. I adjusted in ways to ensure that I would reach my goals while simultaneously avoiding problems with others. I do not expect staff members to protect me. Although PC is an option that some inmates choose, it is not one that I would encourage because such a choice can bring retaliation from prisoners who consider PC inmates the same as snitches. It is better, my experience suggests, to adjust in ways that avoid problems.

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