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
Special Treatment Unit at Avenel
Thirty six-year-old Anthony D., or “Dix”, has been behind bars since he was 22. Housed at the Special Treatment Unit Annex (STU) for almost a year, he spent the twelve years in prison after a conviction for two counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of attempted aggravated assault.
Over the phone Anthony doesn’t freely admit to guilt or innocence. Perhaps it is evasiveness, or simply survival—as his sentence is soon up for review. Or, perhaps the truth is complicated and ambiguous and doesn’t fall easily into neat boxes like guilty or innocent. The last version: In 2002 Anthony agreed to get drugs for a 15-year old and a 16-year old in exchange for sex, he says, and when he did not produce any drugs, the young women went to the police and reported being sexually assaulted. “I was initially offered 30 years. I was scared. I was 25 when I took this plea.” He took the deal because he was told, “If you go to trial, you could lose, you could get these sentences consecutively.” As young, African-American male who admits to agreeing to buy drugs and is subsequently accused by two young white females of sexual assault, in New Jersey in 2002, he thought his chances at trial were slim.
While in Avenel Prison, he says agreed to treatment and spent nine years in programs—classes with titles like “Deviant Arousal”, “Relapse Prevention,” and “Anger Management”—and he felt prepared to be released.
But on April 24, 2015, just a day before his scheduled release, he was assessed him for civil commitment. Because he pled guilty to attempted aggravated assault with a weapon (even though he says it was just an acceptance of a plea deal), his score on the Static 99r identified him as a possible risk.
His diagnosis? Other specified paraphelic disorder, other specified personality disorder and cannabis and alcohol disorder. Anthony admits he did drink a lot, but hasn’t in years, since before he was locked up.
The STU, he reports, is “like a prison.” It’s located next to Rahway State Prison, a grim-looking panopticon-style building used as a backdrop for movies like Malcolm X and Ocean’s Eleven. The civil commitment facility used to be the administrative segregation (akin to solitary confinement) building there. The Marshall Project reports that 428 people are confined to the STU and since its inception, approximately 15% of the total number of 579 people have been released. Residents are “locked down” on a consistent basis. His unit, he states, has decent officers but most of the time the officers “look at us like we are scum; we don’t need to be treated like humans.”
Lucielle, Anthony’s mother, believes her son is innocent and was framed by the police. Anthony was a “bright kid,” says Lucielle, who found a job after high school, and went to school to be a computer programmer. She is retiring this year, after 28 years working for the Department of Health, and she tries to visit him often. She is raising one of his two sons, who is now 14 years old. She didn’t know that Anthony could be civilly committed and was surprised when he ended up in the STU. She did scrape up funds to get Anthony a private attorney, but she said that this didn’t seem to help.
He is appealing his civil commitment, in part because if he does not he believes that he will be locked up for at least another ten years. The treatment at STU, he states, is forcing him to start over, and asking him to “forget everything I learned at Avenel.”
Anthony is 36 and has spent almost his entire adulthood behind bars. If released, is he likely to harm women?