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Is prison justice on rise?

10-24-2005 Pennsylvania:

Calling this justice is an affront to our system of justice!

They are the "baby rapers," the "tree jumpers," "Chester the Molester."

Sex offenders - especially those who prey on children - occupy one of the lowest rungs of the prison hierarchy, just above snitches.

They are considered scum of the Earth, insiders say. When the other prisoners find out what they're in for, child molesters might as well have a bright red bull's-eye painted on their backs.

In recent weeks, two convicted sex offenders have complained in Bucks County Court that they were being harassed and beaten by other inmates.

Prison officials say that molesters' complaints are taken seriously, and every effort is made to keep them safe. But others say it's not uncommon for prison employees to "look the other way" when a molester is being roughed up by his cellmates.

"From what I hear, in the county prisons especially, it is horrific," said William Mascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a prisoner advocacy group based in Philadelphia. "Beatings are not supposed to happen, but we know they do because prisoners tell us."

Not true, said defense attorney Ronald Elgart. In more than 20 years of practice, Elgart said he has yet to hear a legitimate story about a child molester being attacked in prison.

"I think it's an honest fear people have about going to jail, but I have yet to find a case that I could document. Sure, they're ostracized by both the guards and the other inmates, but they're not being physically harmed."

Earlier this month, convicted sex offender Richard Frankenfield, 47, of Richland asked, and was granted, early house arrest after complaining that other inmates at the county prison's community corrections, or "rehab," had attacked him.

Frankenfield's story was backed up by his face, which the judge commented looked as if it had been "rearranged."

A week earlier, a lawyer for Keith Tiffany, a 45-year-old former youth minister being sentenced for photographing nude teenage boys in East Rockhill, that his client was being "assaulted and cajoled" by other inmates.

The harassment drove Tiffany to hide out in solitary confinement, witnesses testified, where he had limited access to visitors.

Harris Gubernick, the county's director of corrections, said he doubts both men's stories. He said that any inmate who is concerned about his safety can easily get protection. Corrections officers, counselors and the jail nurse are always available to hear complaints.

Also, sex offenders occupy a separate unit from the other prisoners, Gubernick said, and can request a move to the isolated restrictive housing unit if they are afraid. Officials will even move an inmate to another county jail in an effort to allay their fears.

"It's not an uncommon event for an inmate, and not just sex offenders, to ask for protection. The minute we hear about a problem, we take action," Gubernick said.

Julio Algarin, warden of the Montgomery County Prison, said similar measures are taken there. Although sex offenders do not have their own block like they do in Bucks, inmates with high-profile cases, or those that look like they'd be picked on by other prisoners, are offered protection.

"Some take it, some don't," Algarin said. "Some inmates simply prefer to be in the general population."

Algarin said verbal or physical attacks on any inmate are not tolerated.

"It does happen, but it's something we don't condone,'' he said. "Our staff does everything possible to prevent problems."

Others say that child molesters are often attacked, but that they don't tell for fear of further retribution.

A former Bucks County corrections officer, who now works in another county law enforcement job, spoke on the condition that his name not be published.

He said that inmates are extremely curious about what other prisoners are in for, and will ask to see a new inmate's "paperwork." Sharing legal documents shows that you can be trusted, the officer explained. When a new prisoner won't share, he's immediately suspect.

"Nobody wants to be known as a baby raper or tree jumper," he said, explaining that the term "tree jumper" comes from the image of men hiding behind trees and pouncing on children.

"Most of these guys have kids on the outside, and they hate baby rapers. If a guy beats up a baby raper, he gets points from the other guys on the block,'' he said.

High-profile stories of "prison justice" seem to back up the officer. The infamous 2003 slaying of defrocked priest John Geoghan, one of the most recognizable faces in the Catholic priest abuse scandal, at a Massachusetts correctional facility is one example.

After the 68-year-old Geoghan was stomped and strangled by lifer John Druce, 37, experts said Druce's status with the prison community was elevated. Many people wrote in to newspapers and Internet message boards praising Druce.

Although it was never substantiated, questions arose about whether guards were complicit in the slaying.

Mascio, the prisoner advocate, says he hears stories about guards "looking the other way" when a sex offender is targeted by other inmates.

"In facilities where this happens it tends to be a leadership problem. The sex offenders tend to be weak, and they get picked on, but nothing is done about it. Not in all prisons, but it does happen."

Not in Pennsylvania's state prisons, insists Sheila Moore, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Moore said the DOC's classification system, an in-depth study of each new prisoner's social, medical and emotional levels, means that the roughest and weakest inmates rarely mingle.

Child molesters are housed away from the other prisoners. This is important, since an estimated one out of every five incarcerated violent criminals reports being sexually abused as a child, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Moore said relations between prisoners are constantly monitored and evaluated. If an inmate complains that he has an "enemy," as a last resort he can request a move to solitary, where he's alone in his cell for 23 hours a day.

Elgart, who has defended numerous sex offenders in Bucks, said county inmates are of a similar mindset.

"Most of these guys just keep quiet, keep to themselves. The ones who are going to have problems with other inmates are the loudmouths, the guys who get involved in gambling. Sex offenders tend to shy away from that."

Gubernick agreed.

"Problems occur in all parts of the population, not just among sex offenders. The way they are treated by others is driven by the way they interact with others."

But with two child molesters getting attention in court by complaining about being roughed up, some worry that complaints - either real or made up - could be on the rise.

"It becomes a great excuse," Gubernick said. "People will try any way they can to manipulate the system." ..more.. by Laurie Mason

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