Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sex offenders: Hoping they realize the pain they caused

Daily Record
March 7, 2006

Behind the green gates, between the white-painted cinder-block walls, inside the chapel, the therapy rooms, the cells and the dorms, this is a world of rapists and child molesters.

This is where they shuttle back and forth to therapy and scurry to prison jobs in their khaki scrubs, watched by corrections officers.

This is where they gather in groups to recount traumas and counsel each other on their urges.
This is where, if all goes well, they leave their demons behind.

Men are sentenced to the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in the Avenel section of Woodbridge after being judged to be repetitive, compulsive sex offenders.

Their compulsions are supposed to change behind these walls.

"We're trying to prepare them, from the day they come in, for their eventual return to the community,"said William Plantier, a director of the operations division of the state Department of Corrections and a former administrator of the prison. "Everything is geared for that outcome."

Sex offenders join in group therapy and support groups for rapists and incestuous parents. Treatment includes educational activities intended to foster empathy for victims and awareness of the behaviors that made the offenders among the most feared people in society.

The nearly 700 men in the prison form a relatively docile population, officials and prisoners say, and the challenges have less to do with preventing violence than with avoiding emotional breakdowns among fragile inmates.

Treatment experts speak of restraining offenders' urges, not curing them. And they say most offenders can learn to control their impulses and avoid further offenses.

A 2003 study by three New Jersey sex treatment professionals found that 8.6 percent of men released from the treatment center had been convicted of new sex offenses within 10 years. Sex offenders who served time in the state's general prison system showed a higher rate of new convictions for sex offenses, 12.7 percent, according to the study, which reviewed the history of 460 convicts from Avenel and 250 former inmates from other state prisons.

Similar studies of sex offender recidivism from around the nation have been small and showed varying results, according to Jackson Tay Bosley, president of the New Jersey Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a nonprofit group that fosters professional education in the field.
There has been no widespread federal study that would determine the effectiveness of treatment. But a national study in Canada showed that prison treatment was found to work in that country, Bosley said.

Avenel has come under scrutiny in the past, particularly in 1994, when former inmate Jesse Timmendequas raped and killed his 7-year-old neighbor, Megan Kanka. The aftermath led to the Megan's Law notification system and brought calls to shut the treatment center, even end the release of sex offenders from prison.

Changes have been made since then. Two professionals instead of one now staff group therapy sessions on the premise that it will be harder for inmates to fool both staffers. And programs have become more sophisticated as new strides in research are made.

Like it or not, prison officials said, most of the sex offenders will be released someday.

The treatment process
By the time he got to prison, one particular sex offender was used to spinning stories in his head.
Like many sex offenders, he said, he had learned to justify his actions. He found ways to rationalize molesting his four children.

"So many people that come in here, we're so centered on ourselves, we just have problems understanding the impact of what we do," the inmate said, as he sat in a conference room at the treatment center, where he has been incarcerated for nine years. He agreed to speak on the condition his name not be used.

He said much has changed since he arrived.

In prison, he spoke for the first time about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child, how he learned to relate to people through sex. How he began to retreat from adult relationships when his marriage became troubled, and instead, turned on his children.

In prison, he said he realized the pain he caused.

"So many people have been devastated by what I did," the inmate said. "Realizing that, I think, is the most important thing I got out of that program."

The prison program is a four-level process designed to get at the root of what caused inmates' crimes and help them understand what behaviors will put them at risk of committing another offense.

$31,000 an inmate
It costs about $3,000 more per year to treat a prisoner at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center than at another state prison, or about $31,000 per inmate. The staff of 430 is mostly uniformed officers but it also includes one psychologist and clinical social worker for every 50 inmates, two on-staff psychiatrists and several substance-abuse counselors.

The men's rates of progress vary, and officials try to adapt each man's program to the length of his sentence; those can range from three years to 60 years.

Men typically begin with lessons in a workbook to help prepare them for treatment.

Much of the remaining treatment is centered on group therapy a method preferred for a number of reasons, said Nancy Graffin, clinician supervisor at the prison.

Many of the behaviors inmates describe are shameful and embarrassing, so it helps to see others who have experienced them. The therapy helps the inmates build empathy.

Another benefit of group therapy: "Sex offenders are much better at fooling therapists than each other," Graffin said.

In most cases, inmates spend 90 minutes per week in group therapy. But much of the work is continued out of group, with fellow prisoners on the basketball court, in the yard, or in the housing wings, current and former prisoners said. Men receive additional therapy through groups on issues they need particular work on anger management, for example, and victim empathy. Some inmates lead support groups.

For many inmates, coming to terms with their crimes represents a major point in therapy. But it can also become a stumbling block, Graffin said. To move on, they must find a way to accept themselves, to incorporate their crimes into their lives.

"We constantly work with them to say, 'Look, it's all you, it's still you,'" she said. "'How are you going to integrate that you could be a good friend and that you could rape a child?'"
It's challenging, the inmate said, but necessary.

"Therapy gets you honest," he said. "If you can't be honest with yourself, you're dangerous."

All walks of life
Nearly all prisoners at the treatment center participate in therapy. A recent count listed only 13 of nearly 700 prisoners who refused.

Those who participate range from men coasting through therapy and "saying the right thing," as one inmate put it, to those who earnestly want to change.

And they run the range of personalities and backgrounds. Demographically, the population is the opposite of the rest of the state corrections system, said Plantier, of the corrections department.
The treatment center more closely mirrors the mostly white, non-Hispanic population of New Jersey. About 56 percent of the center's inmates are white, while 63 percent of inmates in the general prison system are black, according to 2005 corrections records.

Prisoners include former attorneys and doctors, psychologists and community leaders, and once-successful businessmen.

Preparing for release
Grace Rogers, the prison's administrator, recalled her earliest days working at the center, before the inmates wore khaki uniforms. She told her boss it was frightening; it was hard to tell the staff from the prisoners.

Some inmates suffered extreme abuse as children, Graffin said; others have life stories that wouldn't seem suspicious until they committed the crimes that landed them here.

More than half the prisoners at the treatment center are serving time for crimes committed within families -- offenses that have the lowest recidivism rate, Graffin said.

The focus on life outside prison becomes particularly intense in the final stages before a man is released. Prisoners at the highest level of treatment live in a special wing, called the Therapeutic Community.

It includes more frequent therapy sessions, single cells, full-group activities and exercises such as one in which prisoners offer observations about each other's behavior.

The Therapeutic Community has a motto: "No more victims."


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