Locked Out (creative commons image by Jared Rodriguez)
Locked Out (creative commons image by Jared Rodriguez)

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that a group of “sex offenders” are registering to vote and plan to run for elected office. I put “sex offenders” in quotations because these voters and office-seekers are not currently under supervision for any crime. Instead, they are “civilly committed,” which means that they have either already completed their criminal sentences or, as is the case for over 50 clients, they were never charged as an adult for a sex offense. Although they are euphemistically called “clients” rather than prisoners, most will likely be locked away forever.

How can we continue to lock someone up after they have done their time? The state Department of Corrections generally reviews those convicted of sex crimes at the end of their sentences, referring those deemed dangerous to county attorneys, who may then file a petition for commitment with the district courts. Although civil commitment is rare in many places, Minnesota does this a lot — there are currently about 700 such clients in two secure facilities in the state. How many are released? The program has been in operation for over 20 years, but only 2 people have ever been provisionally discharged from the program.

In a federal class action lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank has raised serious questions about the program’s constitutionality. To date, however, the residents/inmates have received little hope or relief and the trial has been pushed back until next year. Given the hyper-stigma surrounding sex offending, few brave souls will act or advocate on behalf of the people in the program. So, they are doing their best to advocate for themselves and to work within what is increasingly acknowledged as a broken system — exercising their rights to vote and seek office.

While the article by Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt contains a wealth of information, they omitted one other factoid that speaks to the program’s sustainability: according to the state Department of Human Services, the per diem cost of the program is $341. This is approximately $125,000 per inmate per year, or roughly four times the cost of the $86 per diem at the state’s correctional facilities. As law professor Eric Janus once put it, “The option of doing nothing would not be responsible from either a legal or fiscal perspective.”

hi-women-prison-852The title of this post may be a bit lofty for the content, but I want to share in this public forum an observation from my summer class that I have been reflecting on over the past several months.  One of my grad students and I co-taught a one-week course this summer (40 contact hours over 5 days) on “Inside Perspectives: Exploring Gender, Power, and Programs in Oregon Prisons.” Of our five class days, we were able to spend one full day in Oregon’s only prison for women and another full day in a medium-security prison for men.  In both cases, we spent a substantial amount of the day interacting with long-term prisoners, and we also spoke with correctional officers, counselors, and chaplains, and were able to tour both institutions.  We learned a lot about the available programming for men vs. women in state prisons, and we heard about both frustrations and small victories in each facility.

One of the things that was most striking to me was the conversation with a group of female lifers.  The women, the students, the chaplains, and the instructors (including me) were all sitting in a circle, coming together in the larger group to ask questions and hear different perspectives after spending time in the morning in small group discussions and sharing prison brown bag lunches.  The testimonials that have stuck with me came after the chaplain – who was clearly well-loved and respected  by the women in the group – gave a prompt: “Prison saved my life because…”

Approximately ten different women responded with their stories: “Prison saved my life because…”  As anyone who has studied gender and crime might suspect, many of these women were entangled in very abusive relationships when they were in the community, and the perception was that the violence they were experiencing would have only continued to escalate until they were killed by their partners/associates or possibly driven to take their own lives.  One of the older women succinctly – and honestly – rephrased the prompt to explain that her going to prison may or may not have saved her life, but it likely saved the lives of others in the community.

The thread of this conversation was striking to a number of us, made much more so by the fact that – even when given a similar prompt – not one of the men in the medium-security prison credited prison with saving his life.  I have heard men in prison make such assertions in other settings, but it was a stark contrast to have such a large percentage of the women claim that prison saved their lives, while not one of the men made this claim.

In all cases, there was consensus that prisons are overused and the sentences are much longer than is necessary for whatever growth and rehabilitation may take place in the prison setting.

It has now been several months since these conversations took place, and I remain intrigued and troubled by this gender difference in understanding the meaning(s) of prison for the women and men inside the walls.