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
It’s February 2016, and Mark is worried about his movie collection being confiscated. Rocky Horror Picture Show is “definitely a no-no,” Woodstock, We’re the Millers, and The Witness will probably be taken, and Jupiter Rising is up in the air, because it “has a scene of a woman coming out of a pool that showed her backside.”
Like many other residents at Larned State Hospital in Kansas, Mark purchased these movies under the existing set of rules, and now these rules have changed. What is on the new list that must go? “Anything with any sexual innuendos, any nudity—no matter how brief—and all video games that are rated ‘Mature.’” Now acceptable: kid stuff, Disney movies. Possess contraband movies and a resident could likely lose the “levels” they’ve gained—the steps they’ve passed toward, ultimately, release.
A state with a bill recently under consideration that would recommend people convicted of sex offenses pay to be castrated after they have completed their prison sentence, Kansas enacted civil commitment for SVPs in 1994. Most SVPs are housed in Larned State Hospital, which currently holds 260 people and has only released a handful since the program started.
56-year-old Mark Sherfey identifies as a white, gay man and has been a resident at Larned since 2011. Mark has harmed people. In 1983, he was convicted of second-degree murder, and after release from prison in 1995 he was convicted of four counts of aggravated sodomy and one count of exploitation of a minor who was 14 at the time.
Two weeks before his scheduled release date Mark was notified that he would be evaluated for civil commitment. He didn’t have enough money for a lawyer and his court-appointed criminal attorney wasn’t well-trained in civil law.
Diagnosed with “anti-social personality disorder” and “pedophilia,” Mark believes material he disclosed during the 18-month long Sex Offender Treatment Program he participated in while in Hutchinson Correctional Center (1997-1999) was used against him during his hearing. In particular, Mark thinks that the administrators of Hutchinson’s SOTP didn’t believe that he only had one victim. To retain access to his privileges, such as the ability to have books in his cell, he believed he had to disclose multiple victims. He argues that this was used against him in the hearing and assessment phases.
The Larned treatment program, according to Mark, is primarily based on activities and classes, and “if you don’t get 100% attendance you can’t go to the next phase.” Not everything in the program is bad; his most useful class is “Dialectic Behavioral Training,” but he thinks that almost everything they teach could be taught in a year. Most of hospital staff, the “privates,” are “all cool,” he reports, but he identifies that the “higher-ups” who are running the program seem to act as though “their job is to ensure that none of us get out.”
The Larned treatment plan includes a total of seven phases in program, says Mark, and he is currently in phase three. He finds the use of polygraphs to be excessive and punitive. To move from phase three to four requires residents to take a “victim polygraph” and a “sexual behavior polygraph”; once in stage four, he has heard that residents must take a polygraph every six months as “maintenance.”
Mark knows that few people leave Larned, even when he counts the 8 to 10 people who have died since he arrived in 2011. “There are people in wheelchairs and in diapers that can’t take care of themselves. They can’t walk and they are still in this program. It is ridiculous.” The staff want to keep their jobs, Mark says, and therefore have a vested interest in keeping people at Larned, but he also suggests that the structure of the system is at fault.
The final re-integration or transition stage—the last stage before getting out—gets “bottlenecked.” Mark says that people want to stay in this last transition phase because they might have a job, a cellphone, and a lot of freedom but they are also somewhat protected from the intense public persecution and scrutiny they might experience if they did not live in Larned.
When asked about condom access, the answer is quick: “Hell no.” Any kind of sexual activity is prohibited. If two people were found to be engaging in any kind of activity that could be construed as sexual, Mark reports that “the two would be written up, lose privileges, and they would probably lose their phase” or be “rolled back” in treatment. Engaging in sexual activity could be automatic grounds to transfer someone to the Issac Ray Building, which he reports as the “supermax” or “punitive wing of the hospital.”
As for the high turnover rate in staff, Mark reports having “at least” nine therapists since 2011. He reports that the “post-docs” he has worked with are often advocates and knowledgeable—but they are only there for at most a year.
“No one body in the world can be as perfect as this place is trying to get us be,” says Mark. “The bar is set so high that Christ could not make it.” The treatment and staff and administrators, he states, “could not live up to this program. Not even the judges that are sending us here could live up to this program. That is what is frustrating.”
These facilities are big business.
Angela de Rocha of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, reports that for Larned the year-to-date expenditure contract staffing for the LSH campus (including Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, Larned Juvenile Correctional Mental Health Facility, Larned State Hospital) is $3.1 million. The 2016 A’viands food service contract for the LSH campus: $3.98 million.
The FY 2015 expenditures for Rushville, according to Marianne Manko of the Illinois Department of Human Services, include $808,080 for the services of seven evaluators and approximately $6.5 million dollars to Liberty Healthcare to operate its treatment and condition release programs. Another private company, Wexford Health, received $4,469,466 to provide additional medical care. The cost of offering polygraphs in 2015: $15,000 to Wright Investigative Services.
Ken August, with California’s Department of State Hospitals, reports that millions of dollars from California’s state budget goes to private companies that support the Coalinga with building upkeep, food and temporary worker needs.
While many reformists lauded Hillary Clinton’s promise to stop accepting campaign contributions from private prison companies, for-profit contractors that make money from locking people up is hardly the root of the problem. And, it’s not just corporations that benefit from a system that is by-and-large government-run.
Take state employee salaries. In California, average yearly salaries hover around $300,000 for psychiatrists working at facilities such as Coalinga. Husband-and-wife psychiatrists Joginder Singh and Mohinder Kaur have been among the highest earners. Their base salaries, not including benefits or overtime, totaled $3.32 million between 2010-2013, according to state records. The highest-paid worker in the entire Department of State Hospitals was a psychiatrist at Coalinga, earning a base salary of $519,485.
Even with some of the highest-paying jobs in the state, Coalinga still has trouble retaining mental health staff—an issue that people in civil commitment consistently flag as a complaint. As of February 2016, 60 percent of highly lucrative Senior Psychiatrist positions at Coalinga were vacant, according to Ken August.
With this in mind, one concept appears to be extra-salient: Mark at Lerned’s assessment, that administrators, staff, and private companies, have a “vested interest” in making sure people stay in treatment programs that may treat some, but most not at all, for as long as possible. If the system ever did have the goal of a safer world, and rehabilitation of its wards, it has strayed from that goal beyond any recognition, assuming another primary objective straight out of Orwell: self-preservation, even at a high human cost.