Inattention to Detail

Ten years ago, in August 2003, sixty-eight year old defrocked priest John Geoghan met his end while in protective custody in a Massachusetts prison cell.   He had just finished lunch when convicted murderer Joseph Druce walked in and jammed the door closed. Druce tied Geoghan's hands behind his back with a sheet, gagged his mouth and strangled him with stretched out socks.  Then he stomped him to death while guards wrestled to pry open the cell door. 

Geoghan was in protective custody to shield him from assaults by other prisoners. So, how could this happen? Those who have spent any time behind bars know. Prison is a place where society's most vilified members are sent to live in close quarters with society's most violent members. It's a perverse formula for disaster.

Massachusetts, like most states, depends on a classification system to decide where to house prisoners. It’s supposed to keep them safe. But even the best system breaks down sometimes. Prison is governed by routine. Meals, prisoner counts, yard movements all happen by the clock. And routine breeds inattention to detail. And inattention to detail leads to risk. Druce killed Goeghan during mealtime when cell doors are opened.  Apparently, the guard on duty was busy doing other things.

This message was driven home soon after I hit general population at the New Hampshire State Prison. It was a sunny afternoon in late summer. I was on my way from the dining hall to my cell in the 480-man Hancock Building. Chow movement is a dangerous time. Prisoners from all the pods mix freely with each other and with those from other units. It's a time for collecting debts and settling scores. The strong take advantage of it to prey on the weak or the hated. Even in the presence of guards, the hardtop in front of the unit door can quickly become a gauntlet of taunting, jeering cons. Rats, gays, and sex offenders are common targets. I learned to walk quickly, look straight ahead, and never respond, no matter how outrageous the provocation. 

This day there was an unusually large group of prisoners milling around in front of the door of H Building. I scanned the crowd. There were no blue-shirts around. 

"What's happening?" I asked another inmate. 

"The screws are patting everybody down, looking for cookies." 

It's against the rules to bring food back from the chow hall. This day we got cookies for dessert – a tempting item to smuggle out. The guards were letting prisoners into the building one at a time to search for contraband.

“Straining out flies and swallowing a camel,” I said. 

The back-up in front of the locked door quickly grew. I heard angry voices. 

"This is not good," I thought, "not good at all.''

I hung back. You learn to smell danger at a distance in here. I heard the clanging of chain-link fence. From halfway up the twelve-foot fence an inmate leaped onto another. His state-issue boots caught the other's jaw, sending him reeling to the ground. The downed man was immediately surrounded by cursing, kicking thugs. He didn't have a chance. The whole thing was over in thirty seconds. The attackers melted into the crowd, leaving their victim unconscious and bleeding on the tarmac. Someone alerted the guards by pounding on the metal door.

"What happened?" the corporal demanded.

We all looked away. None of us saw anything. None wanted to volunteer for the next beating.

Later, from the cell window, my cell mate and I watched paramedics take the unconscious body away. 

"Whew! This ain't no kiddie camp," my cellie observed in his thick Bronx accent.

“Yeah,” I said, but thought that could easily have been me.