California.- Special California prisons intended to protect gang informants, disgraced cops and child molesters have become so violent, gang-riddled and crowded that officials are dismantling what’s become the United States’ largest protective custody program.
The inmates are gradually being integrated into the general prison population, where some advocacy groups fear they will be even worse off. California created the so-called Sensitive Needs Yards nearly two decades ago.
By 2015, their population ballooned to about a third of the state prison system’s 130,000 inmates, with all the problems of a mainline prison: nearly 100 gangs; smuggling of drugs like the Fentanyl that killed one inmate and sickened 12 this spring; and killings like that of 54-year-old Gregory Miley, who was serving time for assisting in the rape, torture and strangling of teenage boys.
Sex offenders in particular were disproportionately dying in the very units created to protect them. The state corrections department’s inspector general reported 10 of the 11 inmate homicides in the first six months of 2014 were in the protective housing units.
The Associated Press found eight of the 11 were sex offenders, and determined in a 2015 analysis that male sex offenders were being killed at a rate double their percentage in the prison population. The special prisons “became as dangerous if not more dangerous Don Specter Director of the nonprofit PLO than the general population yards,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which advocates for inmates and supports the recent changes.
Conditions were so bad by 2015 that the department’s inspector general called for a complete overhaul. Now, the department is integrating lower-security protective custody inmates into units that promise expanded privileges and rehabilitation programs, hoping an easier time in prison and the possibility of earlier parole will encourage good behavior.
“The department needs to continue moving in this direction if we’re ever going to have a system that is changing from the punitive, ‘Lock ‘em up and keep ‘em inside the wire until their incarceration’s done’ to a time when an inmate can avail themselves to the programs that we have and become rehabilitated and change,” Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan said.
The prison system’s main hospital and its mental health units also now are integrated, and the department plans to include protective custody inmates on firefighting teams and at minimum-security facilities that provide custodial and other services to more secure prisons. Some higher-security prisons that house sick or mentally ill protective custody inmates will eventually be integrated. But it is unlikely prison officials will be able to do away with Sensitive Needs Yards entirely, Kernan said.