Courts rebuke detention centers for arbitrary and pretextual practices

The case of the killer paint brush

When the government filed a petition seeking to civilly commit M.F. for sex crimes he might commit in the future, the elderly artist decided to go quietly. He gave up his right to a trial, in exchange for a legal order that he be allowed to do his art in his remaining years.

But officials at Missouri's detention center resisted being told how to operate. M.F.'s security level was changed from green (low risk) to red (high risk), and his art supplies were taken away. When he challenged this in court, a government psychologist testified that the art supplies posed a threat to the institution's security: Another patient could use them to hurt someone, or they might even block an evacuation route in the event of an emergency.

Calling the invocation of security "pretextual,"* a judge ordered the institution to return the paint brushes.

No soap unless we say so

In detention sites across the United States, objects far more innocuous than paint brushes are being wielded as weapons against captive sex offenders who -- like M.F. -- decline to enroll in proffered treatment.

In New Jersey, "A.J.," a sex offender who declined treatment (insisting he is innocent) was denied basic hygiene items such as toilet paper, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream and laundry detergent unless he could pay for them. The items were given free as prizes to sex offenders who enrolled in treatment. After a 3-day hearing, a judge ruled that the jailers were being "arbitrary and capricious":

"Like food and clothing, personal hygiene items are central and core requirements of civilized existence. The refusal of the department of corrections to provide personal hygiene items to inmates at regular intervals is unreasonable. I also find that in this particular case the department of corrections sometimes observes its own rule and sometimes it doesn't. So it's capriciously applied as well."

Tip of the iceberg

Arbitrary, vindictive, petty and sometimes just plain silly practices like these are not rare. Rather, they are commonplace experiences in the state hospitals where thousands of U.S. sex offenders are detained indefinitely based on future risk, after having finished their prison sentences.

The organizational culture is a setup for petty tyranny to run amok.

Unlike in a real hospital, there is an inherent tension between detainees and staff. Under the civil commitment laws, detention sites are supposed to provide treatment to reduce the sex offenders' future risk. But most of the residents decline to engage in treatment. They are resentful about being detained, and see the generic group therapy as a humiliating sham. For staff, in turn, the impossibility of their task lowers morale and can spawn resentment of offenders.

It is hard not to feel morally superior to the offenders. Many are not sympathetic characters. They have assaulted their way through life, leaving behind a swath of psychic destruction, mainly to children and women. Thus, their mistreatment is easy to justify as deserved, or in service to the greater good of public safety.

Australian journalist's photo of U.S. soldier and detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq

Add to this incendiary mix the few bad apples in any organizational barrel. Literary trickster Carlos Castaneda called them little petty tyrants, who persecute and inflict misery without causing death. If you have ever worked in a prison or mental hospital, you know that such environments provide fertile soil for pinches tiranitos.

As we saw at Abu Ghraib, a frustrated work force with unfettered power over a maligned and powerless population is a recipe for abuse. Indigent prisoners don't exactly have a voice to complain about abuses of authority. This is especially true for sex offenders. No one wants to hear a victimizer whining about being a victim.

Alienation and despair

When Brad Seligman played mind games on dogs, giving punishments arbitrarily and not allowing escape, the dogs became apathetic and depressed. "Learned helplessness" resulted from their absolute lack of control or agency. The same thing happens with humans.

The arbitrary and capricious treatment that sex offenders are subjected to creates a vicious cycle. It ramps up alienation, despair, and bitterness. And this mindset is not exactly conducive to the types of prosocial change that we want to see in offenders.

Conditions are so unbearable in these facilities ostensibly designed for care and treatment that three offenders are using a "necessity" defense for an attempted escape. The three tried to escape from Minnesota's Moose Lake facility, which was the subject of an ACLU complaint over alleged violations of patients' rights.

Last week, the would-be escapers unsuccessfully pleaded with a judge to let them stay in the county jail rather than returning them to the hospital, where they said conditions were intolerable:

Minnesota Sex Offender Program, Moose Lake

"Please don't subject me to any more mental and physical abuse without recourse. Please don't send me back. I'd rather be euthanized."

The judge nonetheless ordered the man sent back:

"I don't have the jurisdiction to address the conditions [at the detention site] or the circumstances of your placement there."

And therein lies the rub. Legislatures enact civil detention laws and set their parameters. But once the massive and costly facilities are up and running, it is easy for administrators and staff to forget that they are just functionaries, beholden to higher authorities for guidance. When this happens, the courts should step up. They hold ultimate responsibility for making sure that government operations are legal and fair.

A.J. and M.F. were lucky to have tenacious lawyers protecting their rights. Even then, their victories were tiny -- the right to soap and paint brushes. More typically, detainees are out of sight and out of mind. No one is watching, and no one cares.

Back in the day, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky mused that the degree of civilization in a society could be judged by entering its prisons. I wonder what his verdict would be if he could travel through time and visit a modern civil detention facility.

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