This article appears to be the start of them just locking up all those who commit a sex crime!
By John Wilkens
The state’s worst sex offenders are kept at Coalinga, where Gardner could have lived
COALINGA — When most people think about locking up violent sex offenders, maybe forever, the state mental hospital here isn’t what they envision.
Inside, it feels a bit like a boarding school. A spacious central mall features a store, a cafeteria, a barbershop, a library and a gymnasium. Windows look out onto small gardens.
The residents here — 800 child molesters and rapists deemed too dangerous to release when their prison sentences ended — live in brightly colored dormitories named after California landmarks: Catalina, Fisherman’s Wharf, Newport Beach.
John Albert Gardner III could have ended up here indefinitely after his first prison term. Instead, he went on to murder North County teenagers Amber Dubois and Chelsea King, and was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole.
It’s one of the many paths not taken for Gardner that afflict his victims’ families and motivate policymakers eyeing reforms.
Legislators and state auditors already are examining practices that even the state’s Sex Offender Management Board admits are dysfunctional — costly, convoluted and too often unable to recognize and control the most lethal predators.
Gardner, 31, spent five years in state prison for molesting and beating a Rancho Bernardo girl in 2000, and like many violent offenders, he was evaluated before his release for possible mental-health commitment. According to multiple sources, evaluators disagreed about whether he posed a danger to the public; under the law, that split decision meant he was paroled instead of hospitalized.
Had Gardner been committed, he probably would have started at a different state hospital. But some criminals from his class of offenders have been transferred here. There’s certainly room for them. The facility has a capacity of 1,500 beds, and about 600 of them are unused.
The empty beds are among the things being examined in the wake of the murders Gardner committed. Although the passage of Jessica’s Law (PDF) in 2006 brought a tenfold increase in the number of offenders referred for possible hospitalization, commitments have gone down, according to data analysis by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Nancy Kincaid, assistant director of the Department of Mental Health, said that’s because most of the referrals don’t meet the stringent criteria for mental-health placement. Chris Johnson, a San Francisco attorney who has been critical of the system, said it’s being done largely to save money. A state audit examining the bottleneck was approved in early May.
“We have serious concerns that (the Department of Mental Health) is not fully executing its duty to protect the public from sex offenders,” said state Assemblymen Nathan Fletcher (Contact), R-San Diego, and Jim Nielsen (Contact), R-Gerber, who asked for the audit.
- They are both running for office, so like clockwork, out comes the sex offender issues. Not all sex offenders are dangerous, but Nathan seems to think otherwise.
Coalinga opened in August 2005, the first state hospital built in California in 50 years. It cost $388 million. It sits next to Pleasant Valley State Prison, about four miles west of Interstate 5 amid farmlands, oil wells and not much else — which was the whole idea. Nobody wants sex offenders nearby, especially not those known officially as “sexually violent predators,” which most of these men are.
Almost from the beginning, the facility has been an awkward hybrid, part prison and part hospital. The outside has high fences and razor wire, and the residents wear uniforms and have daily head counts. Inside, the focus is therapeutic, with clinicians talking about relapse prevention and addressing the patients as “Mr.”
- It's a prison. It has razor wire and they have to wear prison outfits, instead of their street clothes, so yeah, it's nothing more than a prison.
In its own way, this is a place of learning, and an expensive one — $185,000 a year per person. That’s almost four times as costly as prison. The annual tab to attend Stanford University is in the neighborhood of $50,000.
At least at Stanford, most of the students go to class. Here, two-thirds refuse to participate in the treatment designed to one day return them to society. They think Coalinga is a sham and spend their days watching TV, playing cards, lifting weights.
The end result: In 15 years of the civil-commitment program — first at other hospitals, now at Coalinga — 19 offenders have been released via treatment, roughly one a year.
“This place was never meant to do anything except ensnarl us in the system,” said _____, 53, a convicted child molester from San Diego. “They never really intended to let us out. The most viable release plan is through a body bag.”
To get here, the men were first screened by evaluators with the Department of Mental Health and found to have a disorder that makes them likely to re-offend. Then, through a court process in the county where they committed their crime, they were ruled predators and ordered locked up until they were well enough to be released.
Incarcerating people past the end of their prison terms for crimes they might commit is controversial, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s legal as long as the goal is treatment, not punishment. Nineteen other states have similar programs.
Most of the men are in their 50s. Several use wheelchairs. They don’t all look like the worst of the worst. Some display the same charms that got some of them close to their victims — deferential smiles, compliments, politeness.
But there’s also anger below the surface, and frustration. They know what society thinks of them. Every time a Gardner happens, it gets worse. But they also know they aren’t exactly doing hard time.
“If you have to be locked up, this is the place to do it,” said _____, 30, a convicted rapist from Humboldt County who edits The Ally, a newsletter for hospital detainees. He hopes legal appeals will free him, although he acknowledged that “most of these guys are never getting out, and they know it.”
To get out, they’re supposed to complete a five-phase, behavior-modification plan that includes group therapy and individual counseling. They’re expected to accept responsibility for their crimes — “owning what you’ve done,” in the words of psychologist Tricia Busby, one of the hospital’s clinicians. The patients also develop empathy for their victims and learn skills for recognizing and controlling deviant urges.
The final phase involves court-approved, conditional release into the community, with continued outpatient treatment and supervision, akin to parole, from a private contractor.
At several steps along the way, their progress is tested with polygraphs and penile plethysmographs, a gauge that measures arousal to pictures and videos. Completing the treatment program typically takes about six years, Kincaid said.
Busby said the ultimate goal is containment — no new offenses. Almost nobody thinks sex offenders can be cured. They’ll need to be in treatment the rest of their lives, no matter where they’re living, she said.
Of the 19 statewide who have been released via treatment since 1996, six had their conditional releases revoked for violations and returned to the hospital, Kincaid said. Four of the six were released again later. An additional 175 have been released unconditionally because of medical reasons, advanced age or legal rulings.
_____, 54, hopes soon to be among the freed. He’s in treatment, working his way through Phase III. He said his violence — he described himself as a convicted rapist from Oceanside who once attacked an elderly double amputee — has its roots in his upbringing.
“There was a seed planted in me, and I accept that now,” _____ said. “I’ve learned to know when that seed is coming out and to get help.”
But for others, a big obstacle to treatment is the requirement that they admit all their sex crimes, even those for which they were never arrested. What they say can be used against them in court.
That’s a big reason 67 percent refuse treatment. Others decline because they don’t think they did anything wrong, or because they dismiss treatment as ineffective, or because they find the process hypocritical: The same legal system that denied they were mentally ill at trial and denied them mental-health treatment in prison now incarcerates them indefinitely because of mental illness.
_____ is among those opting out. “What are they releasing, one a year? There’s no real exit strategy,” he said. “It’s pretty expensive for the taxpayers. You could release me and pay somebody to follow me around all the time and it would be cheaper. Where’s the bang for the buck?”
He spent 10 years in prison for luring boys to a house and molesting them. He has been in a state hospital — first Atascadero on the Central Coast, now Coalinga — for eight more. He believes he has gotten better and is no longer a threat, but he said he also understands the public’s reluctance to gamble on people like him.
Not now, he acknowledged. Not after John Gardner.