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Protective custody units often see volatile inmate mixes
By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff, 8/27/2003
They are supposed to be sanctuaries for the Department of Correction's most vulnerable inmates.
But in reality, the state's two special protective custody units house a sometimes dangerous mix of criminals, from jailhouse snitches to former gang members to mentally ill inmates convicted of notorious crimes.
Defense lawyers said yesterday that inmates in protective custody all too often are targeted for attack by violent inmates also in the protected unit.
Defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, a convicted child molester who was elderly and frail, was murdered while in the protective custody unit at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Authorities say Geoghan was targeted and killed by a fellow inmate with a known violent hatred for homosexuals.
"It's pretty standardless," Andrew Good, vice president of the state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said of the process through which inmates end up in the protective unit. "There's no hard bright lines that the DOC uses to say who qualifies. . . . Sometimes they will use it as a punitive area. Rather than confine all the potential victims, you confine the victimizer, then you wind up with a mix -- an unhealthy, dangerous unit with a combination of victimizer and victims."
Kelly Nantel, a Department of Correction spokeswoman, said that the department tries hard to manage the difficult mix of inmates that end up there by examining the threat levels of each inmate on a case-by-case basis.
"Obviously it is a challenge to try to manage that type of a population," she said. "Through the classification process and through our review, we have steps in place to take a look at inmates, to ensure that they have no enemy situation when they are placed in that unit."
Nantel also said that the department is mandated by law to provide as "normal" a prison experience as possible for those in protective custody, since a 1978 Supreme Judicial Court ruling in favor of inmates who sued for the right to socialize with other protected prisoners.
Until this February, the medium-security protective unit at MCI-Concord was the only specially built unit in the state system for vulnerable prisoners, although most prisons have areas to segregate inmates. Largely a home for pedophiles whose names have become household words, the MCI-Concord cell block is home to Christopher Reardon, the Middleton youth group leader convicted of preying on dozens of boys, Charles Jaynes, the man who murdered 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley, and Ronald Paquin, a defrocked priest convicted in connection with the sex abuse scandal, according to a relative of one of the inmates. Department of Correction records confirm those inmates are housed at MCI-Concord, but do not specify whether they are in the protective custody unit.
Geoghan once lived there, too, and was allowed to mingle with other protected inmates for the majority of the day. But like others on that unit, he feared his food was being contaminated. That's a common complaint from those in the PC unit at Concord, who occupy the bottom rung of the prison social hierarchy and eat as a group in a cafeteria line staffed by other prisoners.
"The day you walk in there, you are marked," said Joseph Balliro, a criminal defense attorney who has had several clients assigned to the unit.
Earlier this year, numerous disciplinary complaints prompted Geoghan's transfer to the newly built, maximum-security protective custody unit at Souza-Baranowski, the state's newest prison, which opened on the grounds of MCI-Shirley. A relative of a Concord inmate who served with Geoghan said the priest was transferred because a guard at MCI-Concord disliked him and gave him a large number of "tickets," or disciplinary reports, as a form of harassment.
There, Geoghan shared a common area three hours per day with about two-dozen inmates, including a former police officer and Joseph L. Druce, the man who was serving a life sentence for killing a man he believed to be homosexual. Those men seldom see members of the general prison population, except when they are transported to court in DOC vans.
Unlike the protective custody units in New Hampshire, where only three or four inmates are allowed to mingle at a time, all the cell doors in Geoghan's new unit open at the same time so that all the unit's inmates can talk to one another while returning their lunch trays.
Several lawyers said yesterday that Geoghan's slaying at the hands of a fellow inmate demonstrates that Massachusetts should reinstate a policy of segregation of serial sex offenders in the treatment center at Bridgewater State Hospital. From 1954 to 1990, nearly all such inmates were sent there, but that practice ended more than a decade ago when a special commission concluded that the treatment didn't work, said John Swomley, a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in representing sex offenders.
Balliro agreed, saying he had gotten numerous complaints from clients about being abused by other inmates in protective custody.
"They are exposed oftentimes, just as Geoghan was, to the more violent inmates," he said. "There's enough contact to make the whole thing very dangerous."
For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to http://www.boston.com/globe/abuse