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Lowest of the Low

Most of us just don't give a damn about what's happening in our prisons.

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I have no idea whether John J. Geoghan, defrocked priest, child molester, and now murder victim, appreciated irony especially in the last moments of his hideous and tormented life. But as he was being strangled in jail, beaten and stomped on, it might have occurred to him that just as surely as he abused the trust others had placed in him, the Massachusetts prison system had abused the trust its citizens had placed in it.

It is no secret that child molesters are the lowest of the low in any prison population. That is particularly the case when the molester, as with Geoghan, is notorious. He was weak. He was old, 68, and he was such a target that in April he had been moved from one prison to another for his safety. Yet, somehow, another convict managed to get into his cell and kill him.

This might seem an aberration, but it is not. In 1997, the most recent year for which I could find data, 69 inmates in American prisons were killed by other inmates, according to Human Rights Watch.

Geoghan was always afraid for his life, which is why he was placed in protective custody. Ultimately, we will know more about how he died, but it now seems that only one guard was nearby when Joseph L. Druce, a convicted murderer and gay-basher, slipped into Geoghan's cell and strangled him.

Predictably and maybe truthfully the union for Massachusetts' prison guards blamed Geoghan's murder on staff shortages. Some state legislators noted that the prison budget has been cut in recent years. Still, this may simply be a case of negligence one man not doing his job. No amount of money can rectify that.

Whatever the case, we that's you and I are approximately doing what some of the Catholic hierarchy did about child molestation by priests: shrugging and looking away. We all know what's happening in prisons, and most of us just don't give a damn. The answer to the crime problem is to lock up more and more people. No doubt that has had an effect. Criminals who are behind bars cannot commit crimes, not on the outside anyway.

But the sheer size of America's prison population is stunning 2.1 million people, a good-sized city behind bars. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. About 17 percent of black men have been to prison or jail, many for drug-related offenses. Many of them return to jail because they have returned to drugs. We don't care. Drug rehabilitation programs have been cut back.

Years ago I faced the possibility of going to jail for refusing to reveal my sources to a federal judge in Baltimore. I was cocky (also a lot younger), but my confidence soon was replaced by terror when a federal official called to say he would try to have me placed in a safe jail but he could make no guarantees. In the end, the confrontation never took place, but I was scared boy, was I scared.

Back then I wondered why this country would tolerate prisons that were more lawless than the neighborhoods the criminals had come from. The answer, of course, is clear: Inmates don't vote. Neither do children who become wards of the state, nor the insane, nor the homeless. They are our responsibility, but we treat them like dirt. They lack a vote, a well-heeled lobby. Abandoned kids don't throw fund-raisers for politicians.

It's difficult, maybe impossible, to gin up much sympathy for Geoghan. But whatever he was compulsively sick or cheerfully evil he was our ward, sentenced to prison, not to die. Through inattention, parsimony, a casual disregard for people we don't quite consider people, we failed him, just as the Catholic Church failed the children he abused.

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