Sexual Healing

An ambitious program tries to cut rapist recidivism.

Bradbury's free lecture E.J. Thomas Hall, 198 Hill Street in Akron, 330-972-7595. 8 p.m., Thursday, April 13
After 18 months of sex-offender rehabilitation, three inmates at the Lebanon Correctional Institution want to show their booklets. Frayed and scuffed from being opened and closed so many times, they contain handwritten confessions as varied, pain-filled, and unnerving as the offenders themselves.

One raped numerous women throughout his adult life. Another tried to rape a teenager. The third simply fears that someday he will rape.

Just as mortifying is the reality that two of the three will soon be released from prison. And all that stands between them and future victims is one unproven program run by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC).

"Everyone's getting out sometime," says program director Nancy Howard. "We've got to do something."

That "something" is under way at this razor-wire-encased prison just north of Cincinnati, though quietly. Sex offender rehabilitation programs tend to be a politically unpopular method of dealing with incarcerated sex offenders. Nationally, hard-line tactics, such as chemical castration and strict community notification laws, grab all the headlines and public support these days.

But experts fear that focusing on punishment takes funding and emphasis away from treatment, which many believe is a more effective method of dealing with sex offenders. Rehabilitation programs try to help perpetrators empathize with their victims, understand why they committed their crimes, and find ways to keep from committing more.

"The key to preventing sexual abuse is to shift paradigms," write Robert E. Freeman-Longo and Geral Blanchard in their 1998 book, Sex Abuse in America. "In addition to viewing sexual abuse as a criminal justice issue, we must also view it as a serious public health problem and preventable social problem."

Corrections workers like Howard have been implementing rehabilitation programs since the early 1980s, when the National Institute of Corrections first developed a sex offender treatment course. The program at Lebanon, touted by the ODRC as a model, is only three years old. No recidivism data have been kept, but studies conducted nationally over the past two decades suggest that treatment does reduce recidivism for some sex offenders.

About 9,100 sex offenders are behind bars in Ohio -- many more than can be accommodated in the 500-600 available treatment slots. But all sex offenders get some education when they enter the corrections system. They go through the Sex Offender Risk Reduction Center in Madison, where they are assessed in a 20-hour program and learn how their crimes have affected their victims.

Only six prisons have intensive rehabilitation programs, which last from 18 to 48 months. To get in one, an inmate must be within three years of a parole board hearing or release date. He or she must also request rehabilitation. Howard says long-term treatment isn't wasted on individuals who seem likely to drop out from the start.

Though frequently misinterpreted by a frustrated public as being soft on some of society's most heinous criminals, treatment in Ohio is tough, according to David Berenson, ODRC's director of sex offender services. "There are programs in the country that coddle," he allows. "This one doesn't."

The numbers at Lebanon suggest as much. Only 3 of the 16 inmates who started the voluntary program are still in Howard's biweekly regimen of soul-searching. The others dropped out because they were unwilling or unable to face up to their crimes, figure out why they committed them, and try to develop ways to keep from reverting to similar behavior in the future.

Interviews with the remaining three were granted with the understanding that no names or distinguishing characteristics would be used, since sex offenders frequently become targets for other inmates in prison. "They take a risk just coming into this program," Howard says, gesturing to the window, where everyone passing by can see them.

But here three of them sit, fingering their booklets and answering hard questions posed by counselors and a reporter.

"I don't care what people think," says the one who tried to rape a teen. "I need to find out why I did what I did."

Why do people commit sex crimes? Freeman-Longo and Blanchard cite a variety of possible causes, including witnessing sexual abuse at a young age, social isolation, sex addiction, and a biological predisposition to pedophilia. They also cite ample research suggesting that child victims of molestation often become sex abusers themselves.

Two of the three sex offenders in Howard's group say they recently realized they were sexually molested as children. The serial rapist, molested when he was nine, says, "I thought it was cool."

But neither he nor the other inmates uses that as an excuse for becoming a predator. The one who tried to rape a teen blames his crime on alcoholism. The inmate serving time for burglary says he constantly fought urges to sexually accost during his crimes. The serial rapist doesn't seem to know what caused his behavior.

"I wasn't drunk or on drugs. I felt like people were like this piece of paper," he says, ripping it to tatters.

He grew up in an environment, he says, where he regularly witnessed acts of violence against women. Howard doesn't expect he'll get out anytime soon -- his next parole board hearing isn't until 2014. She asked him to participate in the program for the safety of corrections employees who work with him.

Treatment may not be popular with the public, but it's in demand among sex offenders. One inmate, serial rapist Timothy Newell, sued the ODRC for denying him psychological treatment and anti-androgen therapy to lower his sex drive. Newell lost the lawsuit last year. But that hasn't quieted other notorious criminals like Ronnie Shelton, better-known as the "West Park Rapist."

"I haven't been rehabilitated, but I want to be," insists Shelton. Prison officials say they are not willing to expend rehabilitation resources on Shelton, who was convicted of raping 29 women, because he is unlikely to ever be paroled.

Completing a sex offender program is no guarantee that the parole board will let an inmate out early. But it should certainly make the public feel safer. Ultimately, the goal of treatment programs in Ohio is to make sex offenders realize they must change their behavior -- not just for their own benefit, but for society's.

"There's never any cure," admits one inmate in the Lebanon program. "You just need to go out there and take control of yourself and not make any more victims."

The department's sentiments exactly.

Jacqueline Marino can be reached at [email protected].

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