Beyond The Carceral Logic of Civil Commitment: PART 2

The Next System Project: Toshio Meronek and Erica R. Meiners; November 10, 2017

A key component of the current system is its reliance on imprisonment as a response to behaviors and populations which are understood as sources of actual or potential harm. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, this carceral response seems to multiply and perpetuate harm rather than reducing it.  As we envision a path towards a next system in which communities are able to flourish instead of being torn apart, it is imperative to tackle the question of harm, and dismantle the instincts that lead us too often to reinforce its logic through the very measures we take to respond to it. In this essay for The Next System Project, Erica Meiners and Toshio Meronek rise to this demand by challenging the way our current system, behind the walls of “civil commitment” facilities, perpetuates the carceral logic of harm in its response to the sexual abuse of children, and ask us to imagine what principles would truly underly a system in which “there are no more victims.”  As they write,  “While perhaps not intuitive, asking the hardest questions first—like what to do with society’s so-called ‘worst of the worst’—might be the best place to start building structures that achieve real justice rather than continue to inflict administrative violence.”

 —The Next System Project


In 1990 Washington State passed the first civil commitment law allowing the state to confine people whom they designated as “sexually dangerous predators” (SVPs) for an undetermined length of time. Under this scheme, a SVP is not undergoing “punishment,” per se, as they have already served their prison sentences. Instead, they are diagnosed with a medical condition for which they receive needed treatment are held in a hospital. Currently, approximately 5,400 people are being held in civil commitment hospitals across the US, a number that has doubled since the previous decade.

At almost quadruple the cost of incarcerating a person in a state prison, civil commitment is supposed to ensure access to treatment and prepare people for release. And yet, in the 26 years since its inception, there is no evidence to show that civil commitment “works.” Statistics do not point to a reduction in the number of sex offenses, or lower “recidivism rates,” which measure the chances that someone will end up back in the system, for people in Washington and the 19 other states that use civil commitment, as compared to the 30 states where there are no civil commitment laws.

If, like universities, the success of civil commitment centers were based on their graduation rate, the privately owned Liberty Healthcare Corporation deserves immediate de-accreditation for its operation of Illinois’ Rushville Treatment and Detention Center (TDC). As of May 2016, only 83 people have been released from the state’s civil commitment program out of hundreds, according to Marianne Manko, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Services, although these numbers are disputed by a local advocacy organization that is organizing to raise the visibility of civil commitment in Illinois.

Formerly a prison for juveniles, the Rushville TDC was renovated and expanded and opened in 2006; as of 2015, it held 545 of Illinois’s designated SVPs. All are classified by the state as men, 47% are between the ages of 46 and 60, and 61% of the population is white; 34% are African-American, and 3% (or 18 people) are identified as Hispanic.

Some, like Steve, age 56, refuse to comply with the five-stage treatment plan that is outlined in the Resident Handbook: 1. Assessment; 2. Accepting Responsibility; 3. Self Application; 4. Incorporation; 5. Transition. In 1999, Steve was convicted of criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse. After spending ten years in what he described as an effective treatment program for people convicted of sex offenses at Big Muddy Prison in Illinois, Steve had his pre-release evaluation, which is mandatory according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

During his interview, Steve admitted that he had come to terms with being gay, which had been a lifelong struggle in part because his religion, Christianity, espouses anti-gay views. Steve told the interviewer that because of this, he would not act on his “gay desires.” The evaluator concluded that this made Steve potentially more dangerous to the public, since he would have no outlet for his sexual desires if his religion wouldn’t “allow” him to have sex with other men. 

With an initial diagnosis of “hebephilia,” or an attraction to early adolescents, Steve was recommended for a civil commitment hearing. Steve’s lawyer challenged the diagnosis, which is a controversial category that as of yet is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the gold standard for classifying psychiatric disorders. (The term seems especially contestable given what constitutes “normal” in our society: where youths are most often sexually abused by family members who will never face consequences; there’s a preponderance of “Barely Legal” pornography; and the many websites, ostensibly created by and for adults, with clocks that count down the seconds till underage celebrities turn 18.)

When it came time for a “Frye Hearing,” one that explores the scientific validity of a diagnosis, the state shifted and said Steve did not suffer from hebephilia, but rather from anti-social personality disorder. Additionally, an Illinois court diagnosed him with another disorder that basically says he’s turned on by “non-consensual force,” a diagnosis only used in the SVP community that was recently successfully challenged in New York state court. Although the state concluded he didn’t force his victims into sex, the fact that they were underage meant they couldn’t consent. That was enough to keep him a ward of the state.

When Steve arrived at Rushville, he was told that his previous decade in treatment at Big Muddy Correctional Center didn’t count. Worse, according to Steve: The first step in the new treatment program at Rushville would be an “Aversion Test.” Steve would be shown “deviant porn.” If he attempted to use any mental intervention tricks to fight arousal, he would automatically fail. As Steve explained, he’d spent ten years at Big Muddy learning to intervene in his deviant thoughts, and he would not allow that to be undone for the sake of Rushville’s test. That would be, he analogized, like “forcing an alcoholic in recovery to drink.”

On principle, Steve is not opposed to treatment. “Treatment is like chemotherapy,” he says—not enjoyable, but potentially helpful. He just doesn’t want to have to start over from the beginning. And given the outcome of his earlier pre-release evaluation, he worries that if he consents to participate in treatment at Rushville, any disclosures he makes during treatment, or even the fact he even consents to treatment, could be used against him in a future hearing.

Approaching seven years in Rushville, Steve’s next civil commitment hearing may happen sometime in 2017, with representation by a public defender. Given the massive caseloads of most public defenders and the difficulty in finding lawyers who have specialized knowledge of the law around cases like Steve’s, along with the state’s dismal record of treating and releasing people, he may remain in Rushville for years to come.


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