Protective custody is a term describing the status of being housed in a secure location away from other prisoners in an effort to provide protection from other prisoners.
Many new to the prison experience ponder simply going into protective custody rather than risking the potential conflicts inherent with placement in general population. Generally speaking this is a bad idea, at least as an initial prison placement.
Unlike the theory of protective custody being a place where prisoners are protected from harm, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has their own take on the matter. Those who request protective custody aren’t placed at a non-violent prison or special program, but thrown in the Special Housing Unit. They are subjected to virtually the same conditions as those confined due to disciplinary infractions. In fact, they are technically on administrative detention status, the status assigned to those pending disciplinary hearings. Protective custody inmates are afforded the same privileges as those awaiting such prison disciplinary proceedings.
The life of the protective custody inmate is not pleasant. It consists of 23-hour-a-day lockdown in a one- or two-man cell, phone calls one to three times a month, five hours a week of recreation, and limited commissary privileges. As such, this should be a final resort, nothing shy of it.
While the Federal Bureau of Prisons does have a Witness Security (WITSEC) program, this is not the same thing as protective custody. Only the U.S. Attorney’s Office can recommend inmates for federal WITSEC placement, and this is only provided for informants who have substantially helped the government in such a manner as to risk their lives. Aside from this the Bureau does have softer yards. These primarily consist of lower security levels and prisons that have the Sex Offender Management Program (SOMP) designation. These are easier due to the fact that they house many sex offenders, who tend to be a less violent population.
The choice of whether or not to seek protective custody is up to the individual, but in general if you are worried about being maimed or killed then this may be the option to consider. This doesn’t mean a simple fight (as the fear of which is worse than the damage, and the mental damage of protective custody is much worse than the physical harm), but in the circumstances in which you believe that someone is planning on stabbing, stomping, or otherwise causing you serious physical harm.
Those at camps and low-security federal prisons don’t require this type of placement. At the medium- and high-security levels protective custody may become more of a concern, albeit certainly not an absolute.
Being a sex offender or an informant at a high-security federal prison should give such prisoners pause as United States Penitentiaries can be very violent prisons. This can also be the case at more violent medium-security federal prisons.
Before requesting protective custody, we recommend trying to walk the yard, but being prepared to have to go if a problem is evident. Much of the time if there is such a problem, the shot caller (head prisoner for the race or regional group) will approach “unacceptable” new arrivals and tell them to leave. If this is a sex offender or informant type of issue, they usually give the new arrival two weeks to produce their Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSR/PSI) or other paperwork to determine what they are in prison for. If it’s one of these issues, then the new arrival will need to go before the time is up or risk violent actions against them.
If you request protection and prison officials attempt to get you to debrief or tell on others you should never agree to it. This is a certain way to be marked as an informant, which will follow you virtually wherever you go. If you need to “check in,” simply refuse to answer such questions and respond that you fear for your safety. If you testified against others or are a sex offender, then you can use this as your basis for “going up top.”
If you’re in protective custody and want to get out, all you need to do is advise the SHU lieutenant that you no longer believe that you need protection and would like to return to general population.