August 28, 2003

Prisoners of Hate

As with so many of the bad things that happen in prison, it is hard to ascertain from the outside everything that led up to the murder of John J. Geoghan.

The defrocked priest, convicted of one count of molestation and awaiting trial on others, had complained of harassment at the first prison he was sent to, a medium-security facility. According to prisoners’ lawyers, guards taunted him, his food was contaminated and excrement was placed on his bed. Yet because of his “poor institutional adjustment” at the medium-security prison, according to a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, he was moved to a tougher prison for more violent criminals.

It was there, despite being placed in protective custody, that the 68-year-old Mr. Geoghan was beaten and strangled to death, the authorities say. They say he was killed by Joseph L. Druce, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of a man who he said tried to molest him.

Victimizers become vulnerable in prison, none perhaps so much as child molesters. In the hyper-macho world of a maximum-security prison, “baby rapers,” as they’re called, are a common target of violence and frequently seek the sanctuary of protective custody.

And it’s not just the inmates who are after them. Guards, too, tend to abhor child molesters. I had thought this animus was just another sort of prison exotica until I learned that a prisoner I supervised on my floor at Sing Sing had committed sodomy on a minor. (I wasn’t supposed to know, but in prison you tend to find out.) My revulsion was immediate, visceral and stronger than I would have expected; I had never knowingly met a child molester before, and had only recently become a parent. After learning what he had done, I actually had trouble speaking to the inmate, a mild-mannered, middle-aged former accountant. Yet I had conversations every day with a variety of murderers.

In prison or on the outside, people feel this abhorrence toward this particular, pathetic kind of criminal – even knowing how often these criminals themselves were victims of abuse. And few tears are probably being shed for John Geoghan, who may have molested nearly 150 young people while still a priest.

The difference, of course, is that too often prisoners and guards are allowed to act on this hostility. Mr. Geoghan’s murder robs his other victims of their day in court, but it should also offend every citizen’s sense of justice: we do not leave it for prisoners to pass sentences and carry them out. A court had given Mr. Geoghan a 9-to-10 year sentence, not the death penalty.

Especially perplexing is why Mr. Geoghan was placed in such proximity to his murderer. Prison officials spend a great deal of time ensuring that enemies are kept away from each other; prisoners are constantly being transferred, from one cell block to another or from one prison to another, on the basis of perceived antipathies. Mr. Geoghan’s celebrity – he was the priest whose malfeasance ignited the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church – should have made prison officials all the more careful about his placement.

“Short Eyes” is the title of a famous play written at Sing Sing by the prisoner Miguel Piñero about a group of inmates that discovers a child molester in its midst. What I remember most vividly is how their guard turns his back when the moment arrives to rape and murder the man.

Massachusetts officials can profess to be shocked at what has happened; Governor Mitt Romney has formed a special panel to investigate the death of Mr. Geoghan, while prison officials have pledged to “get to the bottom of this.” Yet anyone who has worked in a prison can’t help but wonder how similar the murder of John Geoghan, surely one of the most despised men in Massachusetts, might have been to the one in the play.