BY Mike Powers

Here on the Hightower Unit, you can be a sex offender. But, only a resident that has completed the Sex Offender Rehabilitation Program can be what is known in the local vernacular as a “CERTIFIED sex offender.”

The phrase is used by those who have completed the program, not with any braggadocio about the nature of the crime, but rather with the recognition that a milestone of achievement has been reached in the man’s (or woman’s, on other units) life. Moreover, it is used with a restrained respect by those who are still slogging their way through the program, excitedly pursuing the certificate of completion like a high school senior grasping for that diploma.

Today, my friends, I became a “certified sex offender”, and there are few times in my life I have been so satisfied with an accomplishment. This is NOT because the requirements of the program are too taxing. To the contrary, the “cookies are placed on the bottom shelf” to the utmost degree. Rather it is because the environment surrounding the program - the attitude of security and administration, the zealous attachment to midnight wake-up calls, the unreasonable demands made to time- conspires against the success of any inmate IN the program. I’ve written before that, excepting the few weeks immediately following the commission of my crime and the subsequent arrest, this has been the most stress intensive period of my life. There is the constant threat that a minor, or even a non-infraction will be blown up into proportions that cost him a place in the program. There is the close proximity to 83 other residents in the same pressure-cooker environment. And, in our particular case, there is the immense, additional stress of a world plunged into chaos by pandemic and economic disaster. How can one near his exit date and NOT ask, “Will I still be able to find a job to feed and clothe myself? Will I be able to find ANY place that I can afford to live that isn’t near a park or school?” Of course, these questions have been asked by countless graduates over the years, but current circumstances make the inquiries all the more pressing.

I didn’t begin writing today, though, to tell you about the anxieties of near-entry into society. Instead, I wanted to take this space to tell you about something that has concerned me for some time. I’ve not shared the concern, because I felt it incumbent to complete the program before rendering a final judgement. There was always the idea that, sooner or later, the charade would be exposed, the villain unmasked. Alas, no.

You might say, “Such dramatics, Mr. Powers. What could possibly be so disconcerting?” Well, only this. As I’ve progressed through the program, I’ve watched over and over as men who have no business whatsoever leaving a penitentiary are herded through the treatment program and sent on their way out into unsuspecting communities. There were fourteen people in my exit interview today. Because I was near the end, I was able to hear virtually all of the interviews and the responses the participants were giving to the panel of case workers and therapists grading their performance. It might be instructive to know that not one of the fourteen men failed. But, since this might easily be misinterpreted as successful rehabilitation, I’d add that one of these was unable to complete his “layout” from memory. The layout is a short recitation of an admission to the nature of our crime and several short reasons we might have committed said crime. Think of it as the sex offender’s version of, “Hello. My name is Bob. I’m an alcoholic,” and only slightly more complicated. Another couldn’t identify one single “adaptive coping response” he would use if he fell into what is known as a deviant fantasy, a sexual thought that involves age-inappropriate or illegal behavior. This is the treatment program’s equivalent of, “I before E, except after C.” And yet, both of these gentlemen are coming to a neighborhood near you.

Readers, you know me as a passionate advocate for saner treatment of prisoners and wiser use of your tax dollars in the system. I’d also like you to understand that I’m all for keeping people dangerous to the community in prison, and just as passionate for releasing those people whose chance of reoffending is marginal or non-existent. As unpopular as my opinion might make me to my incarcerated peers, my highest loyalty is to a safer community, and since we all know that prisoners need to leave the system sooner or later, why on earth would they parole someone who hasn’t demonstrated even the menial effort needed to successfully complete this SOTP exit interview, while there are THOUSANDS in the system, already eligible for parole, who would take the opportunity at freedom deathly seriously and prove their desire to once again become productive members of our society?

I’ll grant you that a small number of men in this program were put into it against their will just because they were nearing the end of their sentence, but that situation doesn’t describe either of the examples I presented above, and is rare. Even those of us who HAVE been “held to the door” and are nearing the end of our sentence have looked forward to this program as an opportunity to change our lives, to obtain the tools we need to keep from breaking the law and living successfully and honorably* in our neighborhoods.

Sadly, I fear that from what I’ve seen, the system is playing roulette with your safety. There needs to be an objective and reasonable standard of demonstrated commitment to the program and completion of that program, before a prisoner is put back out on the streets. Instead, they are being put back in the community so that when one of us fourteen DOES reoffend, all the politicians can point and say, “See, we TOLD you there was no hope for them!”

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez