I watched Louis Theroux's documentary A Place for Paedophiles which was on BBC 2 the other day and would recommend everyone to check it out on BBC i-Player. Overall it was surprisingly not as involving as some of his other documentaries (possibly because he himself struggled with the subject matter and the men involved) but the subject itself is a very important one.
The place in question is the Coalinga State Hospital in the State of California. This is an institution built to house convicted sex offenders considered too dangerous to be released back into the community, particularly paedophiles, due to the high risk of them re-offending. There is a programme on offer which potentially offers the 'patients' a chance of release back into the community, however this is not a common occurrence, particularly since the majority of the patients (c.70%) refuse to participate in the programme - these men, barring successful legal appeals, are therefore contained in the Hospital for the remainder of their lives.
Louis identified a great deal of resentment amongst the patients who felt that their civil liberties and constitutional rights were being withheld from them. All of the patients had been convicted of sexual offences and had served prison sentences. Their move to the hospital came at the end of their sentences, when they would have expected that they would be released back into society, having 'served their time'. As their current holding (Louis referred to the hospital as a warehouse) is to prevent potential future crimes which they therefore have not yet committed, they feel that they are being doubly and unfairly punished - as one patient declared "If you are going to lock people up for crimes they haven't yet committed, you'll need to lock everyone up". And this seemed to be a view point shared by some of the therapeutic staff working with the patients.
At first glance it is certainly possible to identify the 'slippery slope' argument which is contained within their protestations. If the state starts to lock up people for crimes they have not yet committed, where will this end? Could it indeed be used to justify locking up anybody and everybody on the basis of some potential future crime?
This is an important point to bear in mind, however it also ignores the reality of the issue which is behind the holding of these men. Their hospitalisation is due to the deep-rooted psychological traits which underpinned the actions which led to their incarceration. The patients in Coalinga are men responsible for systematic and calculated abuse, the full extent of which in many cases has not yet come to light. These are not criminals who committed a crime of acquisition or opportunity, these are fundamentally psychologically deviant men with whom it is impossible (certainly prior to participation in the five phase programme Coalinga uses, and probably even after) to give even a vague assurance that they will not re-offend. For these men there is something 'wrong' with them which serving their time does not solve and which remains, essentially, a way of life which many of them do not consider to be wrong.
The issue draws back to what our prison service and penal code is for. There are three core reasons for imprisonment - rehabilitation, punishment and protection. Imprisoning a paedophile for his (or her) crimes demonstrates the punishment for the crime, society's way of saying we caught you so you must be punished for this. However, the punishment is invariably a short-term pointless term in prison which serves no purpose other than to act as a slap on the wrist. Certainly there is no chance for even a stab at rehabilitation. And this is fundamentally the crux of the matter for me - if there is no rehabilitation possible in the time available then more than just punishment is required. In this case the third purpose, protection, must come into force.
This protection is for society as a whole, as without a long term period of rehabilitation and therapeutic support systematic paedophiles present a very real and ongoing threat to the communities they live in. This sort of sexual dysfunction is therefore a continuing motivation and cause of danger - certainly with the pathetically inappropriate prison sentences, lack of rehabilitation in prison and scarcity of support outwith prison, it is naive in the extreme to believe that paedophiles will be able to self-regulate their behaviour completely on their own.
It is therefore wrong to see institutions such as Coalinga as punishments for crimes which are yet to be committed; rather they are institutions designed to protect both the patient and society from the urges and dysfunction which is beyond their control. This lack of control is not an excuse or justification for their actions - regardless of the dysfunctional psychological state they may possess, they are still responsible for making choices to offend. However, the lack of control is the basis for continuing to hold them away from society until a time when it can be demonstrated that their urges have been brought to a regulated level.
I don't agree with the logic behind laws such as Megan's Law or Sarah's Law where the presence of convicted paedophiles in the community must be made available (to the point, in the US, of addresses being available online). This leads to two dangers - vigilante behaviour and also, ironically, false sense of security which can create conditions for abuse. The majority of sex offenders are known to the person concerned, with many being parents or guardians - 'Stranger Danger' ignores this reality. In addition, many sex offenders are unknown to authorities due to not having been caught - they will therefore not appear on any registers or lists. However, the demand behind measures such as these do reflect a public perception that the current response to sex offenders is not working. The pointless and inappropriate prison terms coupled with the recognised lack of rehabilitation and support demonstrate to the public that this is an issue which is not be handled effectively by the state, with the danger being left for their communities and families - a situation which is always guaranteed to cause anger and reaction.
The existence of Coalinga is not a cheap one (it costs roughly $200,000 p.a. to house each patient) and it does raise controversy about civil liberties. However, it also serves to protect society from individuals who present a clear and lasting threat - in this case prevention may well be better than reaction. Certainly in the UK we need an in-depth review of all sentencing and support for sex offenders to ensure that imprisonment and monitoring following release meets all three of the reasons behind imprisonment. It is not enough to merely impose a short term sentence and then wash our hands of these offenders - our society and its vulnerable members deserve more from us. Maybe the UK has need of an institution like Coalinga in order to protect society from those whose dysfunction prevents a threat to it. We wouldn't release a sociopathic serial killer back into the community, whose psychological dysfunctions present a continuing risk to society - is it not time to realise that sexual offenders represent a similar threat?