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Law and order

9-24-2003 Pennsylvania:

Ten inmates at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility recently spoke to The Reporter for two stories on prison life. Six inmates agreed to be identified by their first names. Four convicted sex
offenders are being identified by nicknames to protect their identities.

NORRISTOWN – It took inmates at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility about two weeks to learn by reading the newspaper that a fellow inmate was a sex offender.

“They asked me if it was me‚” said the inmate‚ who goes by the nickname “Merck.”

Merck said he initially denied that he was the person identified in the news accounts. But the inmates were not convinced. They questioned how he could have harmed the victim‚ then teased him and called him names.

But he was not attacked or abused by the inmates.

It was a different story for a 22-year-old inmate nicknamed “Mole‚” who said he was jumped by several inmates when they learned of his crime.

Mole is now in protective custody at the county prison‚ serving time for having sex with two underage girls. Mole claims the girls lied about their ages‚ dressed and looked older‚ and showed fake IDs that enabled them to get into a bar.

Inmates have a certain “code of honor” they follow inside the walls of a prison.

“You show respect‚ you carry yourself proper and you don’t have any money‚” said Sarkis‚ an inmate at the county prison‚ who knows the code.

He has served time in state and county prisons for drug offenses‚ aggravated assault and terroristic threats charges.

According to Sarkis‚ inmates look out for each other and treat each other as they would want to be treated. But all bets are off for inmates convicted of certain crimes‚ such as child molestation and pedophilia.

“You get some pretty hard core criminals that won’t put up with that kind of carrying on‚” said Montgomery County prison Warden Lawrence V. Roth Jr. “If they can get the chance‚ they’ll do something about that inmate.”

Prison administrators‚ attorneys and experts nationwide have spoken publicly about the inmate pecking order since defrocked Massachusetts priest John Geoghan died in prison‚ allegedly after being strangled by another inmate. Geoghan‚ who was in protective custody‚ was serving time in prison for molesting a 10-year-old boy.

But little has been written about how the inmates feel about this so-called ranking system.

Mole said he believes hard-core predators should be locked up.

For a 55-year-old inmate who goes by the nickname “Casper” serving time for downloading child pornography is not as bad as someone who enters Internet chat rooms in search of under-aged girls to meet for sex.

Casper‚ who claims he never was attacked in prison‚ said he would most fear sharing a prison cell with a homicidal rapist.

Merck said he’d have no problem sharing a prison cell with a sex offender unless that person “got physical with me or made advances on me.”

Mole‚ who is prohibited from having a cellmate at the present time‚ said he would most fear sharing a prison cell with a murderer.

A 63-year-old sex offender known by the nickname “Chief‚” said no matter who was his cellmate‚ he’d always keep “one eye open and one eye shut.”

Chief said he is serving 5 to 59 months in prison for “pinching a girl who pinched me.”

Sarkis said he cannot tolerate being around sex offenders.

“I have no respect for people who commit crimes against people who cannot defend themselves‚” he said. “It’s worse than murder.”

Bryan‚ who is serving time in the county prison on charges of drunken driving and aggravated assault by vehicle‚ said he believes sex offenders should be housed with the general population.

“If they get their head smashed with a weight‚ they get it smashed‚” he said.

Joseph‚ a drug offender who is married and has a young daughter‚ said although they may not like the punishment‚ inmates have accepted the risk that their terms could be extended if they harmed another inmate‚ particularly a known sex offender.

“I want to protect my family‚” Joseph said. “I have a daughter and I don’t want to let one of those predators out into the community where they could harm her.”

Another inmate named Brian‚ Joseph and Sarkis said they believe teaching a sex offender a lesson would be worth the risk.

“I would do it with my head held high‚” Sarkis said.

Brian said he’d do it with “no remorse.”

Joseph said sex crimes “are a sign of weakness compared to other crimes‚” particularly due to their devastating effects on victims‚ their families and the relationships they destroy.

Part of the inmates’ ire with sex offenders is that sex offenders often receive less prison time than other offenses‚ such as retail theft‚ according to Joseph.

“It infuriates inmates that sex offenders don’t get the same amount of prison time or more‚” Sarkis said.

Sarkis was ordered to serve three to six years in state prison the first time he was convicted of a drug crime.

Sarkis and Charles suggested mandatory sentences for child molesters.

“I think they should get a mandatory of 15 to 30 years‚” Sarkis said. “They need to change the charges or the laws because it’s not fair to other people.”

At the Montgomery County prison‚ Roth said accused and convicted sex offenders make up less than 1 percent of the inmate population.

And those inmates who feel they are at risk for being harmed by other inmates can request to be placed in protective custody. The requests also can come from the inmate’s attorney or from prison officials who observe a potential problem.

“An inmate in protective custody is not allowed in with the general population or the maximum security mix‚” Roth said. “They are either in protective custody because of the crime they committed or someone is out to get them.”

Inmates in protective custody are housed in a separate unit and no one is supposed to be able to get them‚ Roth said.

But according to Sarkis‚ inmates‚ particularly in state prisons‚ will find a way to get at sex offenders.

“Protective custody doesn’t really mean anything‚” he said. “It just may take a little longer to get to him.”

Sarkis said he remembers a time when a convicted sex offender accompanied him from a county courthouse to state prison.

Once there‚ Sarkis said he “made sure he got what he deserved” by telling other inmates what the man had done.

Brian‚ who has been in and out of the state and county prison system for various drug offenses‚ said sex offenders get worse treatment when they try to hide their crime from other inmates.

“Basically‚ if someone asks‚ we will say an accident happened to him‚ that he fell‚ or you might say ‘I didn’t hear or see nothing‚’” Brian said.

Sarkis said inmates have beat up sex offenders‚ chased them off the cell block‚ forced them to go into protective custody‚ made their commissary orders disappear and subjected them to other forms of abuse.

As a prison administrator‚ Roth said officials must ensure that all inmates‚ particularly sex offenders‚ are safe‚ and not abused.

“You’ve got to make sure nothing happens to them‚ and you have to afford them the same opportunities as everyone else‚” Roth said.

Prison administrators also are concerned about sex offenders preying on other inmates‚ Roth said.

The warden said he remembers a sex offender who raped several youths at a juvenile detention facility and then moved on to rape three county inmates and two state prisoners.

“That’s the kind of inmate our tax dollars should not be wasted on‚” Roth said. ..more.. by BETH COHEN

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