Murder of Imprisoned Priest Raises Question of Inmate ‘Justice’

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Americans reacted “with little more than a shrug” when John Geoghan, the defrocked priest and accused molester of 147 children, was strangled last month by a fellow Massachusetts prison inmate, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

That reaction, prisoner advocates and ethicists argue, is dangerous because it tacitly accepts – even encourages – the ruthless system of inmate vigilante “justice” that may have motivated Geoghan’s killer. It is also, they say, one of the main reasons such abuses are allowed to continue behind locked doors.

The Monitor reports that tens of thousands of inmates in state and federal custody are attacked every year. The exact number who die is difficult to determine.

According to the nonprofit Criminal Justice Institute, in 2000, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled, 55 inmates were murdered, 39 died “accidentally,” and 118 died for unknown reasons. The California nonprofit Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that 1 in 5 men is raped in custody. The group’s cause got unprecedented recognition last week when President Bush signed into law national legislation supporting study of the issue.

Prison rape victims fit no single profile. But Human Rights Watch International, which examined the phenomenon in a 2001 report, found that “physical weakness; being white, gay, or a first offender; … being unassertive, unaggressive, shy, intellectual, not street-smart, or ‘passive’; or having been convicted of a sexual offense against a minor” all increase an inmate’s vulnerability. Many attacks are a means to extort money or assert power. But corrections officers and prisoner advocates agree a different dynamic is at work in the victimization of pedophiles: There’s a merciless pecking order inside, they say, and pedophiles are at the bottom.


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