The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 12, 2003


Another perspective on the Geoghan case

The events leading up to and facilitating the murder of John J. Geoghan while in so-called protective custody are as shocking and dismaying as the murder itself. Having volunteered in three different correctional institutions over the past four decades, I would like to add another perspective to what we might infer from the accounts in the press.

I am no expert. Currently I spend about two hours every Wednesday evening orchestrating a book discussion group at MCI Concord, a medium-security prison. The population of the group may change each week because of the vicissitudes of prison life: a visit, parole, solitary confinement, etc. Prisoners receive no official credit for participating in the group, no "good time." Attendance is wholly voluntary. There is usually a waiting list because we keep the group at about a dozen to facilitate discussion. I promise that our meetings will not be like school in that there is no close accountability for doing the reading, no quizzes, no grades. We do insist that the ticket of admission each week is their having the material with them. They comply.

Our basic objective is to learn and practice "discussion," the science and/or art of focusing, analyzing, evaluating, listening, and articulating. Some participants probably cannot read, at least not English. Almost all are apparently brighter than average. Most are not deeply schooled, although some are college graduates. Learning discussion is a new and different experience for them, often not easy. They learn quickly.

The point of this course description is to confess that, without consistent support from prison personnel, my endeavor would have ended years ago. Following the Goeghan case, it is easy to paint all corrections officers and administrators with the same brush. But that is simply not the case. Having spent a career in public institutions, and having been the administration in some, I know how mindless, impersonal, and insensitive they can be and often are. Add to that the security issues in a prison and we may have a monument of concrete and steel that stands at best oblivious of, at worst menacing to, its inhabitants.

Week after week I work with sensitive, caring, and effective corrections officers, men and women who call the inmates by name, exchange casual talk with them, even inquire about the family, and perform such small favors as the loan of a newspaper that the prisoners readily recognize and applaud. Like the inmates, some of the guards count the days until (in their case) retirement. They put in their time in a place so routine and often boring that the days seem much longer than their eight-hour shifts.

I do not mean to exaggerate or misrepresent. I just wanted to add another perspective, to remind ourselves that every story has at least two sides. Geoghan deserved far better than he apparently got, but not everyone entrusted with his security gave what he got or deserves condemnation.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito