WHAT IS SEX OFFENDER TREATMENT LIKE IN PRISON?
By Dale Chappell
Author of Worse Than a Murderer: Doing Time as a Sex Offender
While sex offender treatment in prison has proven to be effective in reducing the risk of reoffending, there are some valid concerns about doing sex offender treatment while in prison. Let’s go into some of them so you and your lawyer can make an informed decision on whether you should opt for treatment in prison. (The following information is based on personal observation and verified sources.)
SEX OFFENDER TREATMENT IN PRISON IS VOLUNTARY
Sex offender treatment in prison is completely voluntary. There are no sanctions if you decline to participate in treatment. While some state prisons impose sanctions (punishments) for refusing to take sex offender treatment in prison, and some (like Vermont) even prohibit the opportunity for parole if treatment is refused, the feds don’t do any of this.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will not coerce you to take sex offender treatment, and they won’t pester you if you refuse. At your “intake” interview with psychology staff when you get to your designated prison, you’ll be asked if you want treatment. You can accept or decline — and you can always change your mind later. It almost seems like the BOP doesn’t care much about their sex offender treatment programs, and that’s unfortunate. Those who have completed these treatment programs have told me they got a lot out of them.
SOMP IS NOT SOTP
A common misconception is that if you’re under the BOP’s Sex Offender Management Program (SOMP), then you’re in sex offender treatment. This is a huge misunderstanding. Every sex offender, and anyone with a public safety factor (PSF) of “sex offender,” is placed under SOMP. It`s automatic. SOMP is about the “management” of sex offenders and has nothing to with “treatment.”
SOMP’s purpose is to ensure that sex offenders are properly monitored at a facility that understands the unique issues with federal sex offense cases. This includes having sex-offender treatment staff on hand who can handle sex offender issues, such as when someone breaks one of the SOMP rules. For example, possession of adult pornography by a sex offender under SOMP rules would be handled much differently than a prisoner who is not a sex offender under SOMP.
The Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), however, is the BOP’s voluntary treatment program for sex offenders. It is NOT automatic and you have to sign an agreement to be in the program. So, a sex offender in the BOP under SOMP is not necessarily in the SOTP, but every sex offender in the SOTP is also under SOMP. Confusing? Even the people in these programs don’t understand the difference sometimes. They think that because they refused the SOTP that they don’t fall under SOMP. That’s a big mistake, as the stricter SOMP rules still do apply to them. I go over all the differences between these programs in my book, “Worse Than a Murderer: Doing Time as a Sex Offender.”
DIFFERENT TYPES OF SEX OFFENDER PROGRAMS
The BOP offers two different sex offender treatment programs: residential and non-residential. Both generally follow the same treatment modality, which is the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) model. This means the program focuses on the thinking patterns that led up to the offense so you can intervene when you recognize these patterns come up and not commit another sex offense (or any offense, since similar criminal thinking patterns apply to all crimes). It will help you to answer that Big Question: “Why did I commit a sex offense?”
THE BOP’S NON-RESIDENTIAL SEX OFFENDER TREATMENT PROGRAM
The BOP’s non-residential sex offender treatment program (SOTP-NR) is about nine months long and you’ll meet once or twice a week for about 2 hours each session. Outside of the hours you’re in treatment each week, you’ll be living in a regular housing unit and doing what other non-SOTP prisoners do. The benefit to this is that you can take a vocational class (like HVAC or a computer class) without it conflicting with your treatment schedule. The SOTP-NR is geared toward first-time offenders who don’t have a contact offense. Those types of offenders are already considered “low risk” and the program is designed to ensure they stay in that low risk category.
THE BOP’S RESIDENTIAL SEX OFFENDER TREATMENT PROGRAM
The BOP’s residential sex offender treatment program (SOTP-R) is much more intense. It’s designed for repeat offenders and those with a contact offense at some point in their past or current offenses. As the name implies, you’ll go to a SOMP facility that has a dedicated housing unit for the program. Currently, those facilities are in Marion, Illinois, (a medium security prison) and in Devens, Massachusetts, (a low security unit at a medical center). The benefit of a residential program is that you “live” the program and apply the things you’re learning within what the BOP calls a “modified therapeutic community.” The well-known Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) uses the same MTC model. The SOTP-R unit is rather structured with lots of rules. For example, you must be up and dressed by 7:30 a.m. If you’re someone who wants to sleep away your prison time, this isn’t the program for you!
The SOTP-R classes run from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., Monday to Friday. You get weekends and holidays off, plus afterhours is considered “down time.” There are approximately a dozen “clinicians” in the unit and you’ll be assigned to one who will work with you all the way through your entire program, which lasts about 18 to 24 months. The bonus is that you get your own treatment specialist who knows everything about you. The treatment program can be somewhat tailored to your needs, and you won’t be handed a cookie-cutter program designed to fit a wide range of people. I go over the good and bad of each program in my book, “Worse Than a Murderer: Doing Time as a Sex Offender.”
THERE’S A WAITING LIST
If you do elect to take the BOP’s residential or non-residential sex offender treatment program, you’ll likely have to wait: They tend to admit only people who have less than three years left on their sentence. If you’ve got a 15-year sentence, you’ll be waiting a while. They say the idea is that you can complete treatment in prison and then transition into “aftercare” treatment in the halfway house (almost all BOP prisoners get some halfway house time). This aftercare idea is adopted from the RDAP program, which makes sense in that program because RDAP completers must do 120 days of aftercare in order to complete RDAP. But SOTP completers will be in sex offender treatment for many months or years to come after release. The three-year wait is not a hard rule, though, and they do make exceptions.
THE RISK OF CIVIL COMMITMENT
There’s lots of rumors about the BOP’s sex offender treatment programs, some of them true but most of them false. One false rumor is that the BOP uses whatever you say in sex offender treatment to build a case against you in order to civilly commit you. The fact is that every sex offender in the BOP is screened for civil commitment. It’s required by law (see 18 U.S.C. 4248).
But consider this: What looks better to the panel screening someone for civil commitment? Someone who is in treatment and doing something to lower their risk of recidivism (their chance of committing another sex offense), or someone who’s not doing anything to address their chance of reoffending? The staff at the SOTP-R program in Devens say that nobody who has ever completed SOTP-R has been civilly committed. That’s actually true. What’s also true is that people who have failed treatment have been civilly committed. However, looking at the history of their numerous offenses and behavior in prison, it’s not a shock they were civilly committed.
The fact is that civil commitment in the BOP is extremely rare, and it’s almost always based on past conduct and a history of multiple offenses, not things said in treatment (according to court records of civil commitment cases I’ve studied). And think about this: The SOTP-R programs in Marion and Devens are hundreds of miles from the BOP’s civil commitment facility in Butner, North Carolina. I think it would make more sense that if the BOP was using treatment to civilly commit people they would have the treatment programs near the civil commitment facility. They don’t.
For a detailed look at the history and use of civil commitment of sex offenders, see my book “Worse Than a Murderer: Doing Time as a Sex Offender.”