The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Group assails Geoghan guards

Says prison culture fosters harassment

By Farah Stockman and Anne Barnard, Globe Staff, 8/29/2003

Prisoners' legal advocates yesterday called for a "zero tolerance policy" against abuse of inmates as they offered new details about prison guards' alleged harassment of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, which they said helped prompt his transfer to the maximum-security prison where he was killed Saturday.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, a nonprofit group that represents prisoners, said Geoghan's slaying opens a window on a world of widespread prison abuse.

". . .The current prison culture, which not only tolerates but promotes and encourages physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the correctional staff and other prisoners, must change," Walker said at a news conference yesterday. "Based on over 30 years of experience, MCLS is convinced that substantial reforms are necessary to ensure the operations in the Department of Correction do not return to business as usual."

On the day Geoghan was buried in Brookline, lawyers with the group provided a detailed accounting of his alleged abuse in the protective custody unit at MCI-Concord, suggesting that while fellow inmates harassed him, the vast majority of his complaints involved abuse by prison guards.

Geoghan, 68, was "suffering daily" at the hands of correctional officers at MCI-Concord, reporting that they defecated in his cell, slammed into him, and routinely called him "Lucifer" and "Satan" to his face, the lawyers said.

Two inmates, as well as Geoghan, reported that a guard defecated in his cell, said James Pingeon, a lawyer with the legal services organization. In separate interviews, a relative of another inmate in the unit and another lawyer close to Geoghan said they, too, had heard of the incident.

A spokesman for the prison guards' union declined to address the allegations.

"I'm not going to respond to unsubstantiated charges made by the attorneys of unnamed inmates," said Stephen Crawford, of the 5,000-member Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union.

The lawyers said Geoghan told them the officers put up a newspaper clipping about his crime in the cell block, taunted him in front of other inmates, and body-checked him -- like a hockey player -- on his way back from the visiting room. An inmate's relative said the inmate had corroborated the body-check.

When Geoghan complained about the incident, he was disciplined for lying, according to two lawyers familiar with the case. He was also disciplined for telephoning his sister when he was not supposed to, and for looking back at a guard who was going through his legal papers when he was told to look at the wall, Pingeon said.

"I think we know Geoghan well enough to know that he was not a wildly out of control management problem," said Peter Costanza, another lawyer with the organization. "He was an indignant old man who couldn't believe what was happening to him."

Geoghan was disciplined so harshly, his lawyers said, that he was reclassified as a disciplinary problem. He subsequently was sent to the protective unit at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, where authorities say convicted murderer Joseph L. Druce, who has said he harbored anger against child molesters, killed him.

"Rather than focusing the attention on the prison staff who was abusing Mr. Geoghan, the superintendent chose to transfer Geoghan to get rid of the problem," Pingeon said.

Geoghan's lawyers have said they wanted to get Geoghan out of the Concord prison, but did not believe he belonged in a maximum-security facility.

Kelly Nantel, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, has said Geoghan was reclassified as a maximum-security risk because of serious offenses at Concord that included lying, insolence, and tampering with a hot pot.

MCI-Concord's superintendent received verbal and written complaints about Geoghan's treatment, from the MCLS lawyers and from his two criminal attorneys, Geoffrey Packard and Peter Onek, the advocates said.

State officials yesterday said they would investigate the allegations. "These are very serious charges, and they will be investigated," said David Shaw, spokesman for Public Safety Secretary Edward A. Flynn. "The relationship of guards to inmates is part of it. . . . We are determined to get to the bottom of these issues."

A panel appointed by Flynn to conduct an investigation met in Boston yesterday. The panel includes Major Mark Delaney of the State Police; Mark Reilly, the Department of Correction chief of investigations; and George Camp, a consultant who has provided services to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and for the corrections departments of several states.

John Reinstein, legal director of the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the panel should be independent of both prisons and the Department of Correction.

"The critical issue is that they have full and unrestricted access [to] all the information -- that includes not only the records, but the people, including the prisoners -- and that the prisoners are able to speak freely," he said.

The lawyers' group called on the state to establish a uniform system of classifying prisoners to avoid mixing vulnerable and dangerous inmates, and to open more protective custody units. Costanza said there are two official units with roughly 60 cells each, neither of which is full, but "several hundred" prisoners need protective custody, he contends. "They are not really using the capacity they have," he said.

The prisoners' advocates stressed that most prison guards are trying hard to do a difficult job. They praised the guards who tried to open Geoghan's cell after Druce allegedly barricaded the two men inside, saying one injured his arm trying to get in and was horrified as he watched Geoghan being attacked.

Data on the number of inmate complaints about abuse by prison guards are hard to come by. Nantel said officials could not immediately respond to the Globe's written requests for statistics on the number of complaints brought by inmates or on results of investigations into those allegations.

She said prison superintendents do not receive complaints daily, but they tend to get more than one a week. The complaints, which may come from inmates, their families, or lawyers, are handled separately by the superintendents of the state's 18 prisons and correctional facilities, rather than being processed in a central office, she said.

"It's not clear that those are collected in any one place or that the department has a substantial interest in collecting them," Reinstein said. "What you do see is that officers are disciplined from time to time, but certainly not in any number that's proportional to the number of complaints received. You have the department policing itself. I don't think there is an inclination on the part of senior officials in the [department] to send down a strong message that the use of force is not appropriate."

Even the legal services group could not quantify the scope of the abuse the lawyers say is widespread. Because of understaffing, MCLS does not keep a database of credible complaints and takes only a tiny fraction of legitimate cases to trial, focusing on cases in segregation units and maximum-security prisons, Pingeon said.

Many other complaints are vague, unsubstantiated, or even made up by disgruntled prisoners, corrections officials and advocates said.

"There's no way to scientifically prove how often this kind of thing happens," he said. "What I can say is not a week goes by when we don't hear from people on protective custody complaining about abuse from guards."

Massachusetts is one of only a few states that have legal aid offices specifically for prisoners, Costanza said. And the office was nearly shut down earlier this year when a proposed budget cut its funding, Costanza said. It was later restored.

Sean P. Murphy and John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to