In prison, fellow inmates derisively call pedophiles "chesters," "tree jumpers" and "short eyes."
Prison can be a menacing place for child molesters like the former Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan, who was killed in his cell Saturday — or for other alleged pedophile priests working their way through the criminal justice system.
"If you take out a sex offender like this former priest in Massachusetts, maybe the person who took him out thought he'd make a name of himself," said Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for California Department of Corrections. "Taking [a pedophile] out would gain [the killer] a lot more respect among the other inmates."
In fact, Goeghan's accused killer, Joseph Druce, "looked upon Father Geoghan as a prize," and plotted his killing for a month, John Conte, district attorney for Worcester County, Mass., told reporters Monday.
Though prison officials in some Northeastern states question the idea of an automatic social hierarchy among prisoners based solely upon their offenses, most agree that if there is one, child molesters and informants — derided as "snitches" — occupy the lowest rungs.
Such offenders, including Geoghan, often are placed into protective custody with other prisoners seen to be under a threat.
"Once their crime has become known, they usually don't make it" without protective custody, said Lt. Ken Lewis, a corrections officer and spokesman at California's Los Angeles County State Prison. "There's a lot of [pedophiles] that can successfully make it … as long as they don't brag about their offense."
If they do talk, "they'll get beat up," Lewis added. "In some places he may even get his throat cut."
That potentially could mean a lot of inmates at risk. At the end of 2001, about 83,000 state prison inmates, or about 6.8 percent, were male sex offenders who had committed a rape or sexual assault against a minor under age 18, according to Allen Beck, chief of corrections statistics for the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Just 56 state and federal prisoners out of a population of about 1.3 million were actually killed by other inmates during the yearlong period between July 1999 and June 2000, and it was unknown how many were pedophiles, Beck said.
But unpopular prisoners also can be harassed in other ways.
"[Child sex offenders] are at risk of being murdered, having their food taken, having their cells defecated and urinated in," said Leslie Walker, a prisoner's rights activist with the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Society. "Their life is truly a living hell."
Part of the reason pedophiles can be so reviled is that some inmates are parents, and many were themselves sexually abused as children, some say. Druce's father told The Boston Herald that Druce frequently had been molested.
Some reports have described Druce, 37, as a member of the neo-Nazi hate group Aryan Nation. In particular, Druce — who is serving a life sentence for killing a gay man who picked him up as a hitchhiker in 1988 — "has a long-standing phobia, it appears, towards homosexuals of any kind," Conte said.
With such a background, critics — including Walker and Kazi Toure, an ex-convict and prisoner support worker who still visits Massachusetts prisons — are asking how Druce could have been placed in protective custody so near to the frail, 68-year-old Geoghan at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Mass.