A revolution in protective custody is slowly breaking the stranglehold of gang-imposed rules on California state prison life, reports the Los Angeles Times. Until now, protective custody has been for prison’s pariahs – sex offenders, informants, homosexuals – who were locked in their cells most of the day. Gang members and other inmates viewed this as an unmanly and arduous way to do time. But in the last few years, California prisons have given inmates another choice by converting entire yards to protective custody. The result: Thousands of ex-gang members – serving time for murder, robbery and assault – have defected to these so-called sensitive-needs yards (SNYs), seeking a haven from gang life.
As on regular prison yards, SNY inmates live two to a cell and have the same exercise and meal routines. The only difference is that they live with other inmates whose lives, like theirs, would be in danger if they were in the general mix. Demand for SNY space is growing unrelentingly. Since 1998, when the practice of setting aside whole yards for protective custody began, the SNY population has grown from less than 1,000 to more than 13,000 – almost 9% of adult male inmates. Inmates requesting sensitive-needs yards must explain why they need protective custody, and their claims are investigated by prison staff. Though they don’t keep statistics or cost estimates by yard, prison officials say fights, stabbings and riots are less common on SNYs, making them safer and less expensive to operate.