Here's What It's Really Like To Enter The Witness Protection Program

A highly-secretive program, the United States Federal Witness Protection Program protects witnesses before, during, and after a criminal trial. Also called the Witness Security Program (WITSEC), the program is a joint venture of the US Department of Justice and the United States Marshals Service. In movies and TV shows, it seems like people enter this program all the time. However, in real life, WITSEC is incredibly selective. Since anonymity is the goal, agents may also tailor protection procedures to be less conspicuous, meaning witnesses likely won't have full a protection detail at all times because it makes them stand out.

Interestingly enough, even some infamous criminals have gone through witness protection. For example, Henry Hill, the inspiration behind Goodfellas and My Blue Heaven, participated in WITSEC. But what is witness protection like? Surprisingly, Hollywood paints a pretty accurate picture, but there are some differences, and a handful of rules participant must follow.

  • Immediate Family Members Must Disappear

    After accepting someone into WITSEC, professionals move the person to a secret location or safe house. Agents also relocate the person's immediate family members to avoid potentially dangerous situations or retaliation. This includes spouses, children, and sometimes extramarital partners.

    Everyone in the group must attend an orientation to learn about the program. The ability to follow the rules is essential to the group's survival. 

  • All Previous Debts Must Be Paid

    Everyone that enters the program must resolve their legal debts. This is imperative so that banks and collection agencies won't attempt to track them down. In addition to paying debts, WITSEC participants may also be required to submit to psychiatric evaluations, a criminal background check, and a resolute commitment to providing testimony. 

    Once the agency has calculated the risk, it may decide that the group requires life-long protection.

  • Of All The Rules, Two Are Absolutely Crucial For Safety

    While WITSEC has a slew of rules, two are absolutely crucial for safety. Participants cannot contact family members or friends outside of the program. They also cannot ever return to their former communities. 

  • Participants Receive New Identities

    WITSEC participants start over with new identities. They receive new identifying documents, including driver's licenses, passports, birth certificates, and even school records to validate the new identities. Agents typically encourage individuals to choose the same first name, or at least an option with the same first initial of their former names.

    It's easier to remember to answer to a name that sounds familiar.

  • Relocation Is Mandatory

    Those in WITSEC are required to move far from their original locations. Participants don't ultimately get to choose the new destination, but they are at least allowed to narrow down the options based on pre-approved locales. 

    To help further secure the relocation, only a few government agents know the final decision.

  • Participants Receive A Temporary Stipend

    The agents in charge of WITSEC provide participants with a stipend; the money helps those in the program achieve stability and secure work. Participants receive a living wage based on their previous location and sometimes even vouchers for living expenses.

    None of the money depends on the person's testimony or value to the legal system.