Throw away the key

The state's treatment of sex offenders poses dangers for us all.

I am about to tell you what I believe to be among the more peculiar job stories ever told: the story of what happened when I was sent to work in the state of Washington's Special Commitment Center (SCC). I am moved in large part to tell this story by the recent re-arrest and incarceration of Mary Kay LeTourneau, whose treatment by the state has had tragic consequences for both her and her "victim." Similar tragedies, moved forward under the guise of "treatment," are playing out in this state every day.

The SCC is the place where chronic sex offenders are sent, under the auspices of providing them necessary treatment, and held indefinitely after their prison sentences are up. It was created by the passage in 1990 of the Sexual Predator Law, which was part of an effort to address the hysteria following the Earl Shriner case, in which Shriner, a sexual offender who had served his sentence, went on to sexually mutilate a Tacoma boy. Under the direction of King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, a community task force came up with the idea that sex offenders, rather than being released following the end of their prison terms, could be civilly committed after the courts determined that they were "mentally abnormal." There currently are 58 "residents"—as the center's inmates are called—incarcerated at the SCC, and all but one of them are male.

In 1995, Judge John C. Coughenour, in Federal District Court, invalidated the Washington State Sexually Violent Predator Law (RCW 71.09) that led to creation of the center. The state immediately appealed. Before further examination, the higher courts awaited the decision of another case, involving a Kansas law modeled after Washington's. In June 1997, the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that Kansas' program was constitutional. Last week, Coughenour acquiesced to the Supreme Court, ruling that Washington's law also is constitutional.

In the Kansas ruling, the Supreme Court was examining a case in which a patient was diagnosed with mental illness and confined in a hospital where he received treatment. In the case before Coughenour, the litigant was sent to the SCC, which is housed in an underground chamber in the state's maximum-security prison near Monroe. This resident spent two years at the facility, receiving neither treatment nor even exercise-yard time, before he finally sued.

Meanwhile, on March 28, 1994, a jury in federal Judge William L. Dwyer's court found that the Special Commitment Center did not provide constitutionally adequate mental-health treatment to the involuntarily committed patients there. According to the ruling, "State officials must provide a civilly committed person access to mental health treatment which gives him a realistic opportunity to be cured or to improve the mental condition for which he was confined."

A settlement trial to determine damages is scheduled for this summer, with some observers predicting payouts in excess of $50,000 per inmate.

SCC residents have often served upward of 25 years in confinement, and have committed no overt acts that would justify reconviction. Most were transferred directly from their former prison cells during the last week of their sentences, without formal notice. One resident learned of his civil commitment from the television news program he was watching from inside his cell two nights before his release. Another resident reported being arrested without warning in the parking lot of the prison in the presence of his wife of more than 30 years. Having waited 20 years for her husband's release, the wife fainted when told that he was now facing civil commitment.

Dwyer's court slapped an injunction on the facility and ordered it to provide real treatment. Deciding that an ombudsman was needed to improve trust and rapport between patients and staff in order to make treatment possible, Dwyer ordered that one be appointed. Between February 1996 and September 1997, I was that ombudsman.

I arrived the first day to discover that I had an office with a computer and a phone. I spent a good deal of time searching around for manuals, RCWs, WACs, and other items I needed. I found that many of the documents I was looking for had been torn from their books; in other cases, the books themselves were missing.

I was asked to attend some initial meetings where I was introduced by name and little else. I didn't find out until months later that the staff didn't know that I had many years of experience working in corrections and specializing in sex-offender issues. They knew little about the injunction, little about who I was, and virtually nothing about what to expect from my role.

I soon discovered that there was no "plan" in this place. So not knowing what else to do, I started interviewing the residents one by one. This seemed eminently logical, since they had initiated the claims leading to the injunction and my appointment; but in a matter of weeks, staff members were complaining to their attorney that I was biased and should be thrown out.

To make matters worse, my interviews won me no points with the residents: They were calling their attorneys and saying I was biased in favor of the staff.

I can't say that I blame the residents. I soon learned that everything a resident says and does—including what he or she says in therapy (should any of them actually get therapy)—is logged and regularly forwarded to the prosecuting attorney. There is no hearing process or investigative process allowing input from residents that is not used against them. I found that no resident had ever received an annual dental or medical exam. I heard of the use of cell isolation for 72 hours or more as a means to punish residents for such transgressions as speaking belligerently, swearing, picking up an item from the floor, not responding to a staff member's remarks, or getting upset about a situation and venting to staff.

After several months of getting nowhere (except, perhaps, to begin understanding that this was a prison rather than a treatment center), I wrote to Judge Dwyer and asked for guidance. Dwyer scheduled a special hearing, and I was officially declared to be an observer, a reporter, and someone to make recommendations to administration that would help build trust and rapport. I was directed to mediate resident-staff disputes and attend meetings whenever invited by a staff member or resident. I was told to teach relationship building, to resolve complaints, even to play games.

I was also told to remain neutral—which proved to be all but impossible.

Whenever I recommended action or resolved a complaint, the disputants said that I violated neutrality. If I wrote that staff needed to redefine their lockdown practices, I was called biased by the administration. If I ruled that the staff therapy plan, called the Behavioral Modification Plan, was appropriate, I was deemed biased by the residents. Just as before, both sides were clamoring at their attorneys to have me removed.

Once I reviewed a BMP that forced a resident to eat in his cell for months. I wrote that forcing someone to take all his meals for five months seated on his bed facing his toilet, and ordering that he be isolated from other residents and his family, seemed punitive rather than therapeutic—particularly since his "violation" was swearing in front of his therapist. For this, I was called to a "Clinical Meeting," at which I was grilled on my position of neutrality. I reminded my inquisitors that I was instructed by the court to make recommendations. They asked if I believed in the Sexual Predator Law, and suggested that I meet some victims.

Now it happens that I have firsthand experience as a victim, having been raped. My story resembles that of many of those testifying against SCC residents. So I have no interest in sugar-coating the crimes of sexual predators. But these residents had already served their time, and now were being subjected to the nation's first "coercive treatment" program. It seemed important to me to pay attention to how such a program works or doesn't work.

The staff divided the residents into two categories: litigants and non-litigants. In order to keep the two groups from intermingling, the SCC developed an elaborate scheme of resident movement. A resident could go to his or her room, the eating area, or a program room as long as a class or group wasn't being held there. A resident could go out to a patio to smoke or to a small yard to feel fresh air as long as he or she was accompanied by staff and as long as no residents from the other group were there.

Fluorescent lights, steel railings, glass walls, intercoms, blaring buzzers and bells give the SCC environment a compressed, submarine quality. (Certain corrections department colleagues and I wryly refer to it as Das Boot.) Even the air seems compressed. In the winter, the residents wear coats and hats inside, and when I asked why they didn't complain, they said they preferred the cold to breeding flu viruses in the warm, artificial air. This depressing physical environment is one component in the weave of restrictive qualities creating a blanket of shame that covers the place.

Because the SCC is equipped with cameras, intercoms in every hall and room, glass walls, and windows in every door, staff can thoroughly monitor residents without ever dealing with them directly. I noticed that many staff took advantage of the opportunity to keep their distance, often as a means to protect themselves emotionally.

My mistake was to connect with the residents in an authentic way. Staff have words for those who get too close: "violating boundaries," "projecting," "Stockholm Syndrome," "transference," "professional drift."

By being generally in proximity and available to residents, I got to know them as real people, with human complexities. I took in their frustration, shame, relief, fear, joy, and despair, and inevitably saw something of myself in all of them. I fell prey to the conviction the staff strove to avoid: that these "monsters" were human beings.

These unfortunate humans were subjected constantly to degradation and neglect. Many of their "therapists" were therapists in title only. Consider, for example, two who left during my tenure: One, who had come up with the BMP confining the inmate to his cell during meals, was famed for having called an African-American inmate a "nigger" in her previous job at the prison adjoining the SCC; the other was accused by a resident of saying, "You might as well shove a 10-inch dildo up my ass." The superintendent looked into the accusation and decided the therapist had done nothing out of line.

Everything about the routine seems designed to be demoralizing. Breakfast is served around 7am. When I arrived, the eating area—called the dayroom—had doors that were locked at every meal. Residents crowded into this room, which was furnished with bolted-down tables and chairs, and were required to stay until everyone had eaten and the plastic silverware counted. If a single utensil was missing, residents could be subjected to a strip search until it was found. If a resident had a late-night job or medicine that invited morning sleep, he or she would miss the meal.

Not that that was necessarily bad. Food is prepared by convicts in a kitchen at the adjoining prison. Convicts don't like sex offenders. Sometimes residents find garbage or globs of mucus in their food.

After considerable research, comparative studies, and interviewing, I submitted a proposal to open the dayroom doors during mealtime. The superintendent said that the doors had to be kept locked because of the danger of rioting. I pointed out that no one at the SCC has ever rioted—in fact, the residents were so orderly that they had been known to turn in keys lost by staff. Historically, sex offenders commit few infractions. Even so, any suggestion that might generate a sense of expansion rather than contraction was invariably nixed over the all-purpose "safety" issue.

I found myself keeping track of abusive treatment of the residents. Some examples:

An all-unit search is conducted after first sounding the fire alarm. It is mid-winter. Forty people are herded outdoors and locked into 15- by 15-foot spaces, where they wait for approximately half an hour. The female resident is locked out with the male residents. Many, straight from bed, are half-dressed. The fire alarm was false, set off for the sole purpose of getting residents out of their rooms without warning.

A resident suffering from terminal cardiomyopathy takes morphine as prescribed by his private cardiologist. The SCC doctor reduces the amount of morphine. The resident's requests for a second opinion are ignored for months as his pain increases until he is weeping, waking in spasms at night, spitting up blood, and vomiting. Finally, he is granted a trip to his private cardiologist, who prescribes a higher dose. The SCC doctor orders further reduction.

A resident's sister dies, and he is denied a family call.

A resident is stripped in front of females and placed in a padded cell, where he remains nude for several hours. After he is allowed to dress, he remains on lock-down indefinitely. Although staff justified the act by claiming that he might have weapons, my investigation revealed that his primary violation was the amorphous catchall "belligerence."

Ever since the Supreme Court upheld the Kansas law, there has been widespread talk of suicide. Residents plead for help, asking that outside crisis-intervention specialists be hired temporarily, since the residents and current therapists are embroiled in lawsuits and there is no doctor-patient confidentiality. The clinical director tells the residents to attend the already-established Peer Groups and meet with their assigned therapists if they want to discuss their emotional states.

I finally succeeded in getting the dayroom doors open. It was a huge victory—although it most likely was attributable to the fact that Judge Dwyer was holding another hearing to check on SCC's progress under his injunction. The court is the only motivational force that seems to move the SCC to action. Every time a hearing is scheduled, the very air of the place begins to buzz. Policies are handed out to residents for input, plans forwarded to staff for review. Then it all dissolves after the hearing is over.

The constant connection between the courts and the SCC reminds me of Bertrand Russell's observation that fanaticism prohibits the practice of argument to settle disputes. Fanatics always go to war. For the SCC, the battleground of choice is the courtroom—it used to be common for staff to respond to a resident's complaint with a curt "Sue me if you don't like it."

SCC line staff worked previously either with the developmentally disabled or as prison guards. One former prison guard was promoted from line staff to therapist. (I believe he has a degree in physical education.) Another was promoted to supervisor.

But then, you wonder if the quality of therapy matters—given the apparent mandate in this place. The SCC has vehemently opposed the release of any resident from the program, on the grounds that all residents are likely to re-offend no matter how much treatment they get.

Can chronic sex offenders be treated? You bet. There are all kinds of sex-offender success stories we never hear about. But if we don't believe that people who do bad things can change, then the issue of treatment is really moot. And if we rely only upon the "expert" testimony of a handful of specialists who base expected treatment outcomes on what the professional treatment community admits is relatively little data on the subject, aren't we essentially putting the power of the people into the questionable hands of a few? An attorney friend of mine aptly defined "mental abnormality" as "a legal construct that allows the experts to provide all sorts of baloney testimony."

The December 1995 Washington State Bar News reprinted an article by C.S. Lewis shortly after Judge Coughenour's first decision on this law. Titled "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," it suggested that citizens must be wary of any concept in criminal justice that promotes healing efforts as opposed to punishment for crime. If we focus only on what will deter or cure a criminal, he becomes a "patient" rather than a citizen with rights. The change in status allows us to mete out indefinite sentences to people we deem unpalatable. Simply put, we end up with criminal justice without the justice.

As my frustrations mounted, I began generating increasingly adamant memos and recommendations. I did have some small successes—I managed to implement a new Grievance Policy, Abuse Policy, and the creation of new Resident Advocate and Ombudsman positions—but these amounted to practically nothing in the face of what the residents needed.

When a new superintendent arrived in the autumn of 1997, he immediately hired a consultant to "improve trust and rapport between staff and residents." The newcomer began doing some things I'd already done—including infuriating the staff.

Seeing that my days were numbered, I decided to write a report to Judge Dwyer. Administration was no longer responding to my memos or recommendations, and I was being denied access to meetings. I filed my report at the end of 1997, and my position as court-appointed ombudsman was eliminated shortly thereafter, to be replaced by an SCC ombudsman who spent 10 hours per week on the job, and a "resident advocate" who spent 20 hours per week among the residents. The court ruled that I should be seriously considered for both positions, but I wasn't invited to apply for either one. The people now filling the jobs have temporary contracts, with the unspoken understanding that the positions will be eliminated when the injunction is lifted.

In short, my tenure ended with a system still in place that can incarcerate citizens indefinitely, on the theory that they are diseased. And by ensuring that they are not provided the means to a cure, we can ensure that they stay imprisoned for life. If we care about our community, if we care about our fellow humans, if we care about ourselves, this insidious practice must cease.

Currently, the Department of Social and Health Services is planning to move the SCC to the McNeil Island penitentiary and the lone female resident back to the segregation unit of the Washington Women's Center—the women's prison at Purdy. The plan, in other words, is to bury these people so deep in the corrections system that they will be forgotten entirely. Whether this will work remains to be seen; Judge Dwyer's injunction remains in place, and the residents currently are being deposed about their treatment for this summer's damages hearing.

I am not necessarily advocating that the program be closed—although that would probably be the most cost-efficient and least burdensome solution. Failing that, the SCC's sole purpose should be to direct its energies toward the safe and positive recovery of these people—all of whom are victims in their own right. At the very least, the state should provide adequate, confidential treatment outside the purview of prosecutors. And the SCC should be subjected to juridical review every six months as a check against the instincts and cynicism of prison-system bureaucrats who cannot be made to believe in the possibility of rehabilitation. Every resident should be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate progress. Legislators should be working on laws that shape and direct these residents' return to the community in a safe and healthy way for both communities and residents. The state must provide treatment with a possible end in sight instead of punishment without end, as it now does.

Related Links:

Article on Minnesota's "psychopathic personalities" law


The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers

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