Aug. 26, 2003 — -- 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.
Walker cited "a culture of looking the other way in prison." Toure, co-director of the American Friends Service Committee's Criminal Justice Program in Cambridge, Mass., said he, too, was suspicious.
"For this guy who is in prison for killing a gay person … he's seeing Geoghan every day, so this stuff has got to be coming up inside of him," Toure said. "We're spending all this money [on high-tech prisons], and the guy got killed, and they want to blame it on the crazy guy? Who's running this?"
Michael Shively, a former Massachusetts corrections official, said even though Geoghan was in protective custody, it was impossible to completely guarantee his safety given that the other inmates who require protection are drawn from a difficult and dangerous population.
"To put together a group of people where it looks like no offender is a threat to another offender is almost impossible when you're drawing from that pool," Shively said.
The pool of prisoners in protective custody can vary from state to state, and does not automatically include all child molesters and informants, officials and aid workers said.
California prison officials described a good deal of racial and gang affiliation among that state's prison population and a crime-based hierarchy among inmates — with certain murderers at the top of the heap.
Ironically, they said killing someone either at the top or the bottom of the totem pole will garner respect for the killer among fellow inmates — so child molesters and high-profile killers both tend to be given protective custody unless they're deemed tough or discreet enough to get along in the general population.
But things are different in other parts of the country, said Ed Ramsey, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Corrections, and a former corrections officer at a maximum-security prison in the state.
Ramsey does not see a clearly defined "hierarchy of crimes" among Connecticut inmates, nor large amounts of self-segregation along gang and racial lines. Therefore, he said, the state evaluates candidates for protective custody on a case-by-case basis — considering those who legitimately feel endangered, or who the institution sees as potential targets and therefore threats to maintaining order. Such targets might include inmates in high-profile cases or jailed former law enforcement officers.
In a further effort to maintain order, Connecticut officials do segregate suspected members of certain gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood, within the prison system, Ramsey said.
Toure said although Massachusetts inmates may mock or scorn pedophiles, he does not see a strict hierarchy of crimes in the state's prisons that would lead to violence.
"I left Walpole [a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts] in '87 and there wasn't a P.C. [protective custody] unit anymore … because that stuff wasn't happening anymore, because people weren't killing other people because of sex offenders or anything like that," he said. "It had died down."
But Toure said hate can fuel violence if it festers, and as prison services for inmates are cut due to budget constraints, inmates with personal issues can lash out at others who personify their problems. He said the Geoghan killing might be a case in point.
"They don't give [Druce] any counseling or any programs to help him deal with any problems that brought him in prison," Toure claimed. "Then, they put him in protective custody … with John Geoghan, who's in jail for child molestation."
ABCNEWS' Dan Harris contributed to this report.