Tamara Menteer on Civil Commitment

Notes from Dan Tsang's interview with Tamara Menteer on KUCI's Subversity Show, March 15, 2002

A RealAudio file of the interview is available at: Audio

Menteer had worked for Department of Corrections for 14 years - no trust being built at predator facility, asked by judge to go in.

We had reached the nadir of sex offender management in Washington.

Sex offenses are a compulsion and addiction and a behavior that requires several levels of treatment. Paramount to any treatment for addiction issues is looking at social behaviors of the person and what's driving them, and self-esteem issues, and common respectful treatment.

Those core issues of human behavior were being ignored. I observed a lot of disrespectful treatment on part of staff toward to sex offenders. Put on top of that no policies, absolutely no policies, not even a grievance policy. There was no freedom of movement; they only go from their room to a little courtyard and back to their room, locked into the eating room, herded around like cattle. On top of that therapists were people who worked for Department of Corrections and had been reassigned and given a label of therapist.

Q: Are they just warehoused?

A. I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I thought there must be something I don't get about this. Then I'll understand why no one's going anywhere and the recipients are saying they're lied to. I was there almost 2 years - the longer I was there, the more I convinced I was we indeed were warehousing them.

Q. What are they in for?

A. When I was there from 1996-1997, it was a range of crimes, from mere assaults with sexual motivation to serial rapists and pedophiles. One individual had a series of assaults that had sexual motivation findings attached to them, not actual sex crimes. At time I was there, the program only had 50 residents, as Hendricks hadn't been heard. As soon as Hendricks ruling came down, the program grew rapidly.

Q. Very little sympathy for these people - why should anyone care how they're treated?

A. You cannot care. It doesn't matter to me if someone cares or not. But people do need to care about what we're doing with our constitutional [liberties]. We start bending our own civil rights to appease people's fears, then we do have something to be fearful about.

A man who at end of the sentence was expecting to be picked up next day by his parents and saw he was civilly committed on the TV news.

Q. How do they get committed?

A. End of sentence review board. Predominantly law-enforcement types. Goes through each sex offender file. Then to a review panel, then to a psychologist.

They are supposed to do a psychological exam, but most of the sex offenders refuse to be examined; this doesn't matter, so they just do a file review. Predominantly it's a file review of the criminal history and history in prison.

Q. Will it die? Under court challenge?

A. I just wrote an editorial piece for our area newspaper for the costs of the program. For 145 people in the program, we just put $52 million just this year. Costs are increasing exponentially each year. The civil commitment program in this state doesn't make any sense.

It costs $105,000 per year per resident in the predator treatment facility vs. $25,000 for a regular prison inmate. It costs $410,000 per year for community supervision of a SINGLE resident released from the civil commitment program. Yet, we have 15,000 registered sex offenders already living in our state who meet the same qualifications as sex predators that are being released from civil commitment.

I got a lot of compliments on the research and the validity of the arguments. Civil libertarians who complimented my piece said they believed that civil commitment was not a sound way to protect communities. It's not just limited to them. But there was not one public response to the article.

Is it going to die? I don't think so. They will keep dumping money into it until a judge forces it to close. We're getting closer to a judge closing it. It's really hard to predict, like the Catholic Church shifting paradigm.

Halfway houses. Civil commitment is so costly because you can't just create another prison. Ordered to do it a long time ago, upped the ante each year.

The state's facility is under an injunction which started in 1994, where the state, due to its own foot-dragging, had been found in contempt by the federal court. The state was ruled to be negligent in providing constitutionally adequate treatment, and even after 8 years under an injunction, it remains out of compliance with the court. So, the court ordered a year ago that as part of gaining compliance, the state needed to put halfway houses in place. And as of today no halfway houses have been created.

As a result, a month ago the judge said she didn't care what the state budget looked like, she cared about the Constitution and if they didn't get the halfway houses in place by time of her ruling in a month, they will get heavy fines. Just a matter of when the judge will say 'enough is enough'.

Q. Constitutional issues - these laws have been ruled OK?

A. [Talks about Kansas v. Hendricks] Being treated like prisoners, more like prisoners of war than prisoners, prisoners who are despicable. That's what raised red flags for me. It is not mental health.

The predator program touted itself from the start to be a civil statute to put sex offenders into mental health programs, but it was sold to the public as a way to keep sex offenders who were being released from prison off the streets indefinitely. To me, a prison is a prison is a prison.

The American Psychiatric Association has fought against it since its inception. It had different issues which it raised about using the mental health paradigm in this way. It raised a strong concern when laws were being drawn up in Washington. There is no data that reflects that treatment works on sex offender. It's such a new science there's not enough data to clearly show treatment is profoundly working. If that's the case, we should not be saying 'let's take away their liberties and treat them.' The APA says it is morally and ethically wrong. The program is built on a foundation of lies.

Q. I would think prisoners of war, with the exception of this war, have more rights. If it is forced to shut down, will be sentenced to life terms?

A. Ironic. In this state and your state there are strike laws that repeat sex offenders will not be released. Strike laws followed the SVP laws. Now we have a whole system of statutes that do put repeat sex offenders in criminal custody for life. So why are we also doing civil commits? There's a pocketful of sex offenders still incarcerated that will reach end of sentences and not have supervision. Department of Corrections is looking at this and saying 'wow.' The Department of Corrections is freaked out about it and wants a place to stick them. The civil commit program essentially gives the Department of Corrections the ability to put them away and avoid possible future tort claims.

Q. [U.S.] House [of Representatives] voted two strikes the other day. 18-year-old who had sex with 17-year-old could be sent away for life.

A. Washington already has a two-strike law. We have three strikes for non-sex crimes, two strikes for sex crimes. Irony is sex crimes are one of lowest recidivism rates of any crime.

Q. I was surprised to read that. A. That's what the propaganda has pushed. Since the onset of the war on crime mentality laws on sex offending, numerous politicians saying sex offenders have the highest recidivism rate of any criminal. When the task force put together to design the [Washington] civil commit statutes, numerous law professors, criminologists, etc. told the task force that serious violent crime was not on increase and that recidivism rates not indicate a need for draconian civil commitment, and their input was ignored.

Q. A popular law?

A. A very popular law. The coinage of "SVP" must have been created by a PR genius. You'll get any amount of money you need. People are seriously committed to wiping out SVPs. It's a term that doesn't mean anything. We've identified Bill Clinton as a predator.

Q. There's a law in California allowing them to inject the drug depo provera. Is that a law in Washington State?

A. No. A lot of concern re medical intervention being out into the hands of a judge.

Q. Makes people think of Nazi Germany. Very little opposition. No one put under that because no one released yet.

A. The drug castration approach is fraught with all sort of problems. A number of side effects. Extremely expensive drugs. On top of that sex offenders are required to participate in treatment and to pay for own supervision. Placed into communities which respond by vilifying them and eventually chasing them out. Left with few options as to where they can live and pay for the drugs and treatment. It's really a destructive system.

It's such an emotional, volatile type of crime. I have seen cases where it's so questionable who's culpable. Not that the victim is culpable, but we have all these societal pressures in the way when it comes to sexuality and sexual escapades. Sometimes what appears to be inappropriate conduct gets put into a criminal classification. What might be normal behavior in another culture is inappropriate here.

Q. Is the age of consent too high?

A. No. My experience working with offenders is what's been a good rule is the rule of two years. If a minor is with a minor and there's more than two years of separation, then the older one can be in a position of power. I don't think that's a bad rule. I don't think it's necessarily a law, but a rule of thumb that works. A 17 year old and 20 year old, it becomes blurred; I'll agree with you there.

Q. What about teenage pregnancies? In California at one point they were doing that. Some said it's a cultural thing, because in Mexico they marry very young. They went after the fathers for child support and put them in prison.

A. Systemically and one thing that's caught my attention is it seems to preclude larger state interests. We didn't have strike laws, but first the sex offender laws, then the strike laws. Policymakers look at sex offenders as a petri dish class. If we can get the public to buy a law as applied to this [sex] offender class than we can use it on the other offender classes. I've seen that happen several times.

There's something beyond criminality going on here. In some ways [you] can use criminal statutes to control populations in particular ways, ethnic cleansing and class cleansing.

I am really going to be watching how it plays out with the Catholic Church issue. A whole class of individuals who are white, well educated. I am listening as to how they are talking about offenders. They are making [the distinction] really clear between attraction to minors and pedophiles. They are cleaning up the language around it to make it more palatable.

Q. Pederasty and pedophilia. Newsweek said first is part of the human condition, not the latter. Trying to justify being attracted to teenagers, not to pre-teens. These people are not really pedophiles under psychiatric definition.

A. Now the offenders are more like you and I, upper class, educated, not a vilified individual, more like your neighbor, then the language around it starts shifting.

Q. Sexual psychopath laws, got abolished. Used to round up homosexuals in the 1950s, psychosurgery, injected with chemicals. It seems like we go in waves. There's a book re these experiments. It seems we haven't advanced very far.

A. We haven't. We have basically one new meta analysis by Dr. Karl Hanson that is saying after reviewing many, many, many research projects that treatment works. But he does say in a section re sex offenders who refused treatment and followed 10 years after, that their recidivism rates are the same as those who were treated. It's kind of the same as alcoholic. Who know what it is that finally flips the light switch and gets the person to know that the change comes from within.

Q. Tell us about the Whitestone Foundation.

A. I returned to Department of Corrections and worked there a year before starting the Foundation. Interest in group is to create healthy relationships between offenders, victims, and the community. Dialogue and education. Goal is to heal. Interest is to create a relationship. People change most effectively when they have social support. There's a huge social support for drug and alcohol abuse. There's a large missing link [here] for sex offenders. There's no language around recovery. The language is of safety and management. Until that changes, our approach to sex offenders is just doomed. We really need to look at how we look at treatment of the offenders and how we see ourselves as a society that how own culpability that promotes offending behavior to begin with. We talk about a war, with the sex offender the enemy [and the treatment people the good guys] and it's a really unhealthy way to look at it. It's a public health issue and how it encourages some people to act out. We have a very sexualized culture, we need to create a wholesome and spiritually alive way to manifest healthy relationships. This does not have anything to do with age limits but with respect for sexuality.

Q. Are families more supportive when he/she released? A. We have a system of support for family members. They end up being like the offender, scapegoated and vilified, guilt by association.

Q. Whole family gets kicked out under notification.

A. A local woman whose husband came home. Went through the notification process. Had owned home for 20 years, owned own business. He had been in prison for 6 years. A week after he got back, one day at mailbox she saw out of corner eye, a neighbor with shotgun pointed at them. If they didn't get back in house, he'd kill them. He had been stalking them since headland had come home; was waiting for opportunity to kill husband. She was with her son who looked like her husband; the neighbor thought it was him. Now he's in jail. Notification creates hysteria. Dr. Freeman Longo did national survey of ramifications of notification, descried in tragic detail a number of sex offenders who killed themselves. People put up picket signs. Person locally here in Washington returned home, he owned his own home, the neighbors burned his house down. Forces offenders underground.

Not effective at tracking. So costly to set up databases, it's ineffective.

Q. Lumps nonviolent with violent crime?

A. I don't know in California. In Washington it's at discretion of sheriff and based on level of offender as determined by prison. Graded from 1 to 3. [This process] started with sex offender but now use with all offenders. Based on risk assessment. Uses the offender's first crime and keeps a scoring system going. That creates the level. Nothing in your recovery process can mitigate this. You just never live beyond it.

Q. How did you get involved in it? Did you want to get involved?

A. No. Everything just came into place when I joined the sex offender program. Suddenly I'd found a raison d'été. Myself a victim of sexual assault. A long history of struggling with it and then coming out into my own survivorship and recovery.

Went to college and moved into criminal justice work. Thinking I could move up quickly. However I ended up in sex offender management because of my writing and reporting skills. I developed an increased sense of awareness and urgency about working with offenders and victims.

I had to work on sex offender's social history profile and then met the victims and then reported to the court about what had happened and what needed to happen to heal it. There's lives beyond the crimes and healing that goes on. Gives you an understanding that for a victim, it's not her or his fault, there are needs driving an offender that are beyond you. [You could be targeted because of] the color of your hair.

Then I heard tragic stories of the sex offenders in the program. 20 years of prison sentence and sex offender treatment in prison. Expecting return to community as recovered people, and frustrations that went with that and the demand for dignity that they're fighting for, is a very profound place for me to have been. So much that that can be done.

These notes were taken by a listener, to whom we are grateful.