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
Former resident and now community-based advocate Frank Juarez describes California’s Coalinga State Hospital as a “Sex Offender College.” While Frank thinks that approximately half the SVP population at Coalinga doesn’t need to be there, he also stresses that many of the residents need a form of treatment and the best results are achieved when people do not challenge the system.
“Whether you like it or not—this is what the state designed—a horrible process—but this is it. This is their best attempt to try to figure this out,” he says, suggesting that some residents are too quick to blame the facility. Yes, staff turnover is disruptive and some of the staff do bad things—as an example Frank noted that a staff member at Coalinga had sex with a resident,“completely outrageous,” and faced no real repercussions. But according to Frank, blaming the institution—that’s an excuse. “Why not take staff turnover as an opportunity to demonstrate your competence? If you are in a course and they change professors do you drop the class? No! Don’t blame environment—the only person that sent you there was you.”
California established its SVP law in 1995, but Coalinga State Hospital didn’t open for business until 2005. At full capacity with approximately 1,200 residents, Coalinga houses three different populations: Sexually Violent Persons, Mentally Disordered Offenders (those with mental health problems who are serving their parole time in a mental state hospital), and Penal 2684 Commitments (people who are in the Department of Corrections that are transferred to hospitals because they need psychiatric treatment but will likely return to prison). Housing approximately 850 SVPs, Coalinga does release people. As of 2009 the state had released 96 of the 558 people who were civilly committed. The outflow of SVPs has increased due to a recent federal court decree to move people with mental health issues out of prisons and into state hospitals.
Frank, a 61-year old Fresno resident, served 10 years in prison for a sexual offense, and four years and a day at Coalinga. After his release, he got active in a restorative justice community process specifically for people with convictions for sex offenses, also known as a COSA: “circles of support and accountability.” Through working with the COSA he realized he had something to share. He figured out how to exit Coalinga and live on the outside, and he addressed his desires that could be harmful to others, “For example, if I see a person who meets my victim profile… I know how to stop. I know how to take that feeling and dissipate it. It is not controlling my life.”
Now working as a “community release liaison,” he supports twenty people at Coalinga preparing to be released. Connecting people to housing and treatment after release, Frank sees one of his biggest contributions as something less tangible: helping men to change their mindset. “I am not a sex offender: I committed a sex offense. We are calling them ‘registrants.’ I am not my crime.”
Hired by a public defender, he generally works with “civil detainees,” or people before they are officially committed, in the “window of opportunity” before their civil commitment trial, to support people before they interact with evaluators. His clients range in age from their late 30s to early 70s, and he helps them formulate a release plan and works with them to show the evaluator how they have applied the knowledge they have learned in their treatment.
Yet Frank is very careful to point out that he is not coaching the men he is working with at Coalinga to lie to evaluators, or to misrepresent what they have done. He clearly sees himself as a key part of a new accountability process that is working to reduce harm. “I want to make sure there are no more victims. That is my job.”