A SPECIAL PROGRAM IN MANITOBA SEEKS TO PUT SEX OFFENDERS BACK IN SOCIETY
In our sleep, they would rise from the dust of our terror and rape us a thousand times again — Though our bodies would heal, our souls had sustained a damage beyond compensation. —from Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel, distributed to sex offenders undergoing therapy in Manitoba
They stroll into the trailer, chatting and laughing like schoolboys between classes. Outside, the springtime sun peeks through the clouds and a chill wind blows across the Manitoba prairie. Carrying bright yellow folders and jumbo mugs of coffee, they drop into seats around a long table. One of the men carefully arranges two pens, a can of cola and a cup bearing the words “i love daddy.” He makes a move towards a box of doughnuts and another man shouts good-naturedly, “Hey, that’s for break!” The banter around the table reflects an intimacy bom of shared experience, which is true, in a nightmarish way. For all of these men have committed unspeakable crimes against either women or children. Now, they are participants in a promising—and controversial—treatment program that aims to put sex offenders on the street, and keep them there.
The experiment, an attempt within the federal prison system to minimize the risks posed by sex offenders released after serving their sentences, is being conducted at Rockwood Institution, a minimum security jail in Stony Mountain, Man. Instead of being segregated from other inmates, rapists and child molesters are placed in the general population—where other inmates know of their crime. Within the treatment group, they are compelled to confront their crimes and try to understand the long-term impact on their victims. And after they are released, offenders
must continue intensive treatment, most of them in a separate 18-month group program in Winnipeg. While recent studies of sex offenders show recidivism rates of at least 20 per cent, none of the 41 men who have completed the Winnipeg program have officially been in trouble since. “These people are not cured when they get out,” says Hugo Foss, the institutional psychologist who persuaded officials at Rockwood and Corrections Canada to pay for the prison program two years ago. “We kick off a lifelong process.” Many authorities have insisted for years that rapists and child molesters cannot be cured and should be given long—if not indefinite—sentences. “Some of these guys should never get out,” says Roger Holden, a clinical
psychologist who treats sex offenders at Alberta’s Bowden Institution, near Innisfail. Other experts have argued that people who commit sex crimes can best be treated in isolation from other inmates who frequently threaten and even kill them. “Prison culture tends to be macho and immature,” says David Tickell, executive director of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan. “It’s hard to protect rapists once they’re identified.” But it is harder to keep such offenders locked away in secret, when they now account for about one out of every six inmates in federal prisons. And Rockwood is getting results despite protests and a shortage of funds.
In fact, world attention is starting to focus on the work being done in the nondescript
trailer that sits between two prisons, Rockwood and Stony Mountain Penitentiary, about 30 km north of Winnipeg. Of particular interest to researchers is Foss’s work in expanding an offender’s empathy for the victims of his crime. “I don’t care if these guys feel good, I want to make sure that they don’t do it again,” says Foss, who looks like a maverick in his Mexican leather jacket. “Inmates need to understand that the damage from one act can last a lifetime.” Two years ago,
the psychologist began using the word “survivor” in talking with sex offenders about their victims. “They would hear the word ‘victim’ and start feeling sorry for themselves,” says Foss. “These guys think of themselves as victims. It amazes me.” This week, Foss was presenting a paper on “reshaping victim empathy” at an international conference on offenders in Britain. His ideas have also created interest among researchers elsewhere in Canada, in the United States, Europe and New Zealand. “We’re shifting to a new method of treatment,” says Evelyn Steginus, a psychologist who used Rockwood’s program as a model for her work with sex offenders at Riverbend Institution in Prince Albert, Sask. “Hugo is teaching the rest of us.”
But the first—and most difficult—step in
dealing with offenders is to break through their denial that they committed a crime. “How can you talk about the victim if they won’t admit that there was one?” asks Dorothy Senka, a Winnipeg therapist who counsels the twice-weekly groups with Foss. “We spend most of our time trying to get them to accept their guilt.” That process was illustrated by an exchange between Foss and an inmate identified only as Jeff, who was convicted of fondling a little girl as she lay sleeping on his living room couch. “I was thinking about cigarettes,” he muttered nervously to the group. Foss drew a diagram of the living room. Slowly, some details started to emerge: a dating game show called Studs was on TV and the little girl was on his mind. He asked his wife and a woman friend to buy cigarettes. The rest, he said, is a blank. Silence. Foss asked why he chose that moment to send the women out for cigarettes. His answer was a question, as if doubting his own logic, “I just wanted to smoke?” Foss wanted to know Jeffs thoughts about the little girl. There was a long pause. Another inmate shifted impatiently in his chair, “Aw, why don’t you just tell him what he wants to hear.” Jeff looked down at the table.
Sex offenders know that they are loathed and that, say the therapists, contributes to their denial of wrongdoing. “I lost my job when the boss found out,” said Danny, a quiet man with a ponytail who was first convicted of rape g more than 10 years ago. “Peo0 pie would glare or spit. It was 1 like I’d never served time for I my crime.” In the prison hier| archy, where child molesters ° and rapists have the lowest
status, the level of harassment can be much worse. “They face death threats, assaults, torture, even murder,” says Lawrence Ellerby, who runs the Forensic Behavioral Management Clinic in Winnipeg that treats offenders when they return to the streets. Many offenders must go into protective custody to save their lives once fellow inmates discover the nature of their crime. “You hear horror stories, like one guy having his head smashed with weights,” says Paul, a convicted rapist who is free on parole. As a result, prison officials often discourage sex offenders from talking about their crime. ‘They choose to lie,” says Tim Leis, a psychologist at the regional headquarters of Corrections Canada in Saskatoon. “The whole prison milieu supports that denial.”
Early in 1991, Foss approached federal
prison officials with the idea of setting up group therapy in a trailer that would face Rockwood’s front door. For six months, regional headquarters in Saskatoon ignored his proposal. Although his superiors at Rockwood told Foss of their concerns that openly treating sex offenders might create more problems than it would solve, they approved his proposal. In September, he received praise—but no promise of funds—at a workshop in Saskatoon. Later that day, Foss sat silently across from a senior administrator with a large sign reading, “I need money.” Within weeks, the program received a boost with a $3,000 federal grant.
But some of the fears were realized when Foss first opened the program. As a dozen offenders shuffled in for the first session, inmates lined up at the windows of Rockwood and yelled catcalls and threats. Foss was devastated. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he said. “I felt like a failure.” The next day, officials told all inmates that troublemakers would be punished. The harassment soon stopped. “Some guys would still bug me in private,” says a former inmate who was in the second session. “By the end of my term, no one seemed to care.” The 16-week program, which will soon handle its sixth round of offenders, has since become an institution itself. Because of the program, Rockwood started to treat sex offenders from across the Prairies. But more than half of the inmates are there for other crimes, and each of them is told of the program’s existence before going to the institution. “If they don’t like sex offenders, they can go stay at Stony,” says case worker Sue Swaigen, referring to the medium-security prison next door—an imposing fortress surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire fences. For his part, Rockwood deputy warden Douglas Spiers expressed understated relief, “We’re pleased that it worked out.”
But official satisfaction has not generated more money for the treatment program. Foss now runs two groups a week in addition to counselling or filing reports on each of the 94 prisoners at Rockwood. His request to expand the program at Rockwood and hire additional staff is under consideration. Meanwhile, he spends his own money: last year, for a trip to an Oregon conference where he presented a paper; this year, for the trip to the conference in England. Each day he looks out of his office window at new houses being built to help Rockwood inmates who are nearing release adjust to the world outside. The homes include kitchens where inmates can do their own cooking and private bedrooms. “It’s very expensive,” said Foss, who remains tight-lipped about the project. “I just hope that it’s successful.”
For most sex offenders at Rockwood, treatment does not stop when they are released from custody. The majority end up attending Ellerby’s program, which is run through a Winnipeg community group called Native Clan Organization, and which also serves non-native clients. It is here that sex
offenders learn, both in individual and group therapy, to deal with the pressures and risks of everyday life. Ellerby, who was hired to set up the 18-month program in 1988, attributes part of his success to close ties with Rockwood. “You can tell which guys went through Hugo’s program,” he says. “We don’t have to focus on denial because they already take responsibility for their crime. So we can work on the fantasies, the coping strategies—the empathy.”
Offenders also need more than a weekly discussion group to cope with the temptations of life on the street. The Native Clan program combines group sessions with individual therapy in which men learn to cope with their sexual fantasies, their personal history of abuse and such related problems as alcoholism. Fantasies are perhaps the most persistent and dangerous factors in recidivism. “I still get strange urges,” says Ron, a serial pedophile who attends the clinic. “From what I’ve learned, even thinking about it is already a crime. I’m offending in my mind.” To identify and reduce those fantasies and even alter sexual preferences, men spend sessions hooked up to a device known as a penile plethysmograph. A rubber band is attached to the penis to measure arousal to various images and audio tapes that include children, men and images of sexual violence. Men then work to reduce the level of arousal in response to negative images—and foster
arousal to healthier ones. “The goal is to control the urges,” says Ellerby. “Men who think about and get aroused by certain fantasies are setting themselves up to re-offend.”
At many levels, the path towards relapse begins well before the actual crime. Foss and Ellerby teach the men to recognize that cycle and develop strategies to alter behavior at
various stages. Those stages are clear to a former offender named Warren, who served time at Rockwood for breaking into Winnipeg homes and exposing himself to women. “It begins with feeling angry or depressed,” he says. “If I don’t deal with it, I start to get my fantasies.” For Warren, a typical fantasy involves touching a woman in her sleep so that she wakes up in a state of arousal. “It’s like she wants it but don’t know it until I play with her.” At that stage, he focuses on the consequences or on more appropriate images—anything to obliterate a dangerous thought pattern. If not, he will I start to plan an attack—a stage I that most offenders deny ever I occurs. Says Warren: “I’d buy ° pornography, walk through neighborhoods—stuff I’d never seen as part of a plan.”
Through the Rockwood and Winnipeg groups, Warren has learned to label and avoid tempting situations or materials. For several pedophiles in the group, that meant leaving jobs where they worked with children or telling landlords about their crimes. The final stage, immediately before an offence occurs, is the most difficult to reverse. That is
when, for some, empathy with victims really comes into play. Says Ron, who abused his young sister and several other children: “I look back at my sister before a fantasy even enters my mind. The best deterrent is knowing how much pain I caused.”
It is an elusive deterrent for most offenders, who hate to discuss or even acknowledge the impact on their victims. Foss tries to keep that impact alive through a constant flow of audio tapes, commentary and even visits from a rape survivor. But that lesson remains a vague notion for a former inmate named Bill, who seems almost giddy as he flops onto an old couch at the Native Clan office. After more than two years in Rockwood and seven months in a Winnipeg halfway house, for a brutal rape, he feels ready to live on his own. “I’m starting to feel good inside,” he says. “My goal now is to form a real relationship.” But despite that confidence, something—or someone— seems missing beneath Bill’s veneer of optimism. There is no mention of the woman he tied up, choked, raped four times and threatened with a curling iron. What does she want out of all this? He pauses at the sound of her name. “I don’t know,” he says quietly. “I guess I had not given her much thought.” That is the kind of evidence that suggests a need for intensive follow-up treatment. A paroled inmate named Harry says that strategies he learned through the Native Clan pro-
gram have kept him out of trouble for two years. It’s an impressive record for a serial rapist with a long history of extreme brutality. Harry recounts his previous crimes as if they were plucked from the pages of a mystery novel. In fact, he picked up his victims in a station wagon with tinted windows after reading about it in a book. He then bought an old trailer, where he would rape each victim, almost to the point of death. He went to jail after literally biting off the breasts of a young prostitute. Harry was not a prime candidate for recovery. But he now has a girlfriend and can be seen walking calmly through Winnipeg neighborhoods in his ski toque and boots. He has to work at it every day, with an elaborate system of coping tools: plethysmograph sessions, self-help cards, regular phone calls to Ellerby and various parole officers.
“I might need something like this for the rest of my life,” says Harry. “But I think I can stay out of jail.”
Most psychologists agree that the best way to reduce sexual offences is through lifelong treatment—not lifelong incarceration. “You
can’t throw rapists in jail and toss away the key,” says Claire Culhane, a Vancouver prison-reform activist. “You need to help them enough that they can help themselves.” That might be the only option in a country faced with severe budget cuts and the second-highest incarceration rate for all crimes in the Western world after the United States. Experts claim that each sexual offence costs the system about $200,000 from investigation through to imprisonment. They have yet to attach a dollar value to the pain and suffering that result from such crimes. With their success record so far, the RockwoodNative Clan teams are at least gaining recognition if not funds. Says the Bowden Institution’s Holden: “I’m envious of that partnership.” It is a pairing based on empathy—an empathy that stresses the long-term impact of hideous crimes. “I’ll never forget the faces,” says Ron, the former pedophile. “I have no choice but to help myself. This can’t happen again.”