Published June 13, 2005
SAN FRANCISCO – If the child molestation case against Michael Jackson (search) ends with a prison sentence, the pop star's likely new home would be almost as exclusive as his Neverland (search) ranch.
It's far from glamorous, but the protective housing unit within Corcoran State Prison is considered a highly desirable refuge for inmates who need extraordinary protection from other prisoners.
It's also home to a handful of California's most notorious criminals.
Occupants of its 8-by-12-foot cells include Charles Manson (search) and Juan Corona (search), who killed 25 migrant farmworkers in the 1970s. The unit housed Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, until he was moved to a harsher lockdown in 2003.
Because the unit is so secure, it's considered a virtual oasis in the 163,000-inmate state prison system. Some people who have been there describe it as strikingly calm.
"It's been real nice for me," one unidentified inmate says in a three-minute Corrections Department video released last year. "It's a peaceful environment. It's almost like being free on the street."
Only one violent incident has been reported, and the house rules allow more freedom than at most prisons.
"They know they're in a safe place and they don't want to ruin that," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton. "It's an exceptional placement."
It has a capacity of 47, but just 21 inmates live in the unit, located about 100 miles northeast of the gated estate where prosecutors charge Jackson molested a 13-year-old boy.
Jurors resume deliberations in Jackson's case Monday.
If he is convicted, Jackson could go to prison for many years and would be evaluated to see if Corcoran's protective housing unit were appropriate, Thornton said.
"Just like people are fascinated with famous people, inmates are people, too," Thornton said. "They would consider it a feather in their cap to hurt" a famous inmate.
Inmates must meet certain criteria, including "specific, verified enemies," "notoriety likely to result in great bodily harm," and no prison gang affiliation.
Officials are refusing all requests for reporters to visit the unit, but Thornton described it in detail.
Each cell has a concrete bed, sink, desk and toilet.
Televisions and radios are allowed, if the inmate can afford them. Night lights also are allowed.
Inmates wear denim jeans, blue shirts and brown boots, and are issued white T-shirts, white boxer shorts and a denim jacket.
Staff members, not inmates, prepare and serve food.
Inmates can use the day room to read, play chess or watch television. The exercise yard is available for about 5 1/2 hours a day. There's a basketball court and a bar for chin-ups, but no free weights.
Residents can shower daily. They have access to a law library and may receive weekend visitors for as long as five hours a day. They share one telephone and make calls during certain hours.
By 8:45 p.m., they must be back in their cells, but there's no official "lights out" time.
The only major incident was in 1999 when a guard left a door open and three inmates from an adjacent secure housing unit attacked Manson, Corona and a third unidentified man, Thornton said. Manson was unhurt, Corona was hit in the back and the third inmate was hit on the shoulder with Manson's guitar.
The protective housing unit sits within a sprawling complex in the southern San Joaquin Valley that's earned a reputation as one of California's most violent prisons. Eight guards were acquitted of civil rights violations in 2000 following charges they staged gladiator-style fights among inmates.
Last fall, jurors rejected a lawsuit by an 118-pound inmate who said he was repeatedly raped after guards intentionally housed him with a 220-pound aggressor known as the "Booty Bandit."
One lawyer who has been to the protective unit described it as a place of "extraordinary calm.
"But it's not a pleasant place," said Catherine Campbell, a Fresno attorney involved in the gladiator fights lawsuit. "It's dark. It's airless. It doesn't feel particularly clean," she said. "It's sort of like being buried alive with a lot of very strange people."