Sunday 19 April 2009

Louis Theroux: A Place for Paedophiles

Few are hated and feared in equal measure than paedophiles. That one's children could be abducted and sexually abused is every parents' worst nightmare. But what is to be done with them? Understandably the sorts of punishments favoured by the public at large border on the mediaeval, which is regularly exploited by the right to attack rehabilitation and reform in custodial sentencing at large.

In this documentary, the doe-eyed Louis Theroux (pictured) travels into what many would regard as the ultimate heart of darkness: a secure hospital specialising in the detention and treatment of America's most dangerous paedophiles.
Coalinga State Hospital is part of California's extensive penitential and correction system, a system Theroux has covered before. As Coalinga's director's message makes clear, the hospital's mission "is a critical part of Governor Schwarzenegger’s very clear goal to protect Californian’s [sic] from sexual predators. Rather than having some of the most serious sex offenders released into the community after serving their criminal sentences, these predators will come to this maximum security psychiatric hospital to receive critical treatment and evaluation." When its current expansion is complete Coalinga will have the capacity to take on 1,500 patients, employ 2,000 staff and an annual budget of $152 million.

As noted in the
press blurb for Louis Theroux: A Place for Paedophiles, of the 800 patients currently housed by the institution, only a fraction - 13 - have been deemed safe enough to return to society. Not an obvious success story by any means. So what is it like inside? How are the paedophiles treated? And what do they themselves think about their situation?

Theroux's first interview is with Mr Rigby (all the offenders are referred to formally), a former high school sports coach who was sentenced for 10 years for molesting 11-12 year old boys via a sexual "initiation" he forced upon his athletic troupe. Louis asked what most of the audience are likely to have been thinking: as Mr Rigby was a patient who was deemed to be making progress, how can he guard against re-offending? He replied by "guarding his environment". Unfortunately he was immediately shown up for not doing this vert well. While he was showing the camera his corner of the dorm he shared with three other men, Louis spotted a print of three adolescent-looking ballet dancers - which was something none of the staff had picked up upon. This was to have consequences. At Rigby's progress hearing he said he was shocked to have had this pointed out to him - and went to the lengths of contacting the original's owners for reassurance they were
not adolescent boys.

After meeting Mr Rigby Louis went along to a group therapy session. Here the patients are encouraged to talk about their crimes and any lingering fantasies they may have. On this occasion the meeting was taken up by a man talking about regulating his sexuality by pacing out and lengthening the intervals between masturbation. Louis then took up with Ernie Marshall, one of the resident social workers at Coalinga and chair of the many group sessions. He asked how he manages to work with these men given the nature of their crimes. Does he like them? Ernie's reply was interesting - the challenge for him is seeing and treating the patients as whole human beings - they are more than just their previous behaviour. He also tries to find things to like in all the men and suggests no one wants to grow up to become a paedophile or a rapist.

Even though only a tiny fraction has successfully graduated from Coalinga's treatment plan, how can one be sure they are completely cured? The therapy utilises lie detection techniques - these include traditional polygraph measurements in addition to more specialised 'phallometric' tests. Typically the subject is fitted with a guage ringing the penis and is subject to a variety of images - some pornographic but mainstream, and others deviant but suggestive. Throughout the subject is observed via a monitor-mounted webcam and they are expected to place their hands in plain view so the guage cannot be slipped over their fingers.

Afterwards we meet Mr Lamb, an affable but penitent offender awaiting release. Unfortunately for him he has been stuck in limbo owing to the difficulty of finding a suitable place for him to move into. In all his case officer is looking at 1,100 rental properties. The problem of course is that no one wants a sex offender and especially a convicted paedophile as a tenant. Some times if local residents get wind of what's going on landlords can be intimidated into withdrawing from the resettlement programme. The difficulty lies in convincing the outside world the treatment has been successful. Later, after looking at Mr Lamb's prolific record of offences against young boys, Louis asks him how can we be sure he won't offend again - even if his crimes are decades past? Mr Lamb replies that you can only do so by his actions. The sexual attraction he once had has gone. Since being medically castrated, what he describes as his invasive fantasies have evaporated - that plus the rigorous assessment regimen he's gone through. Finally for Lamb a trailer is found on a friend's property which is away from large concentrations of people. Perhaps he was cured - only time will tell.

The flipside of Coalinga is that some 70% of its inmates refuse to enter the treatment programme. Louis met a few of these - one was adamant he was convicted of a crime 20 years previously that he didn't commit. Another said he was in for a date rape, but would much rather be in prison than held indefinitely in this holding pen. A Mr Yarn was definitely of the opinion the whole operation was a sham. Having exhausted all legal avenues his only possible route out of the hospital was therapy - but he refused it point blank. For yarn the therapy is based on a fundamental conceit - that anyone other than himself could know what's going on in his head. Asked if in that case he was still a danger, he didn't believe so. The acts he forced upon children were part of his make up
then, but having seen his children fully grown, he now realises they are people too(!) It seems unlikely Mr Yarn will ever be in a position to put this to the test.

Louis's closing words ponders what he seen. He admits being impressed by some inmates' sincerity and commitment to change, and notes how others clearly remain in the grip of self-delusion. But looking at the numbers residing at Coalinga and the trickle of men to have come out the other side, he asks if it exists not to treat but to contain the paedophile problem? Ernie Marshall was under no illusions about the place, despite his hopes for the programme. He said  Coalinga exists because of the outrage American society feels toward men who commit these crimes - he knows because his has to set aside his disgust to work with them everyday. But he also understands why many refuse the therapy because, under his interpretation of the constitution, they had served their sentence, so why should they go along with further incarceration?

When it comes to crime and punishment issues the left has often been all at sea - as I noted
last week. This is no less true when it comes to paedophiles. But this if further complicated by the a) interminable debates over the victims: what counts as underage, the distinction between child and adolescent, and whether the latter are capable of consensual sexual relationships with adults; b) the social psychological roots of paedophilia - the extent to which it is individually experienced as a compulsion, whether one experienced abuse when they were a child, etc; c) a healthy urge by the left to avoid the simplistic and authoritarian law and order rhetoric deployed by the right.

There is no point fighting shy of difficult issues like these. Hopefully sexual offences would not occur on the same scale in a socialist society, but it will take place nonetheless. There will always be dangerous deviations from the socially accepted norm and the kinds of debates California's policy has provoked is bound to have the same purchase in a society not scarred by systematic exploitation and oppression. The notion found in William Morris's
News from Nowhere that in the socialist future, murderers will receive just punishment at the hands of their consciences is utopian to say the least. Sad to say socialism will need prisons too, and though I would imagine rehabilitation would be emphasised over vengeance, some offenders need segregating from society for life, for society's protection. 

For the questions it raises and the insights it delivers, A Place for Paedophiles is required viewing for any socialist interested in this thorny issue.

Edit: You can watch the documentary online here.


Vicky said...

I've never seen one of Theroux's shows that hasn't been extremely interesting; he certainly isn't afraid to go where other journalists will not go.

Hinney said...

The show was fascinating. I would be interested to know how successful the men who have been released have been.
The psychobabble that came out of the mouths of both staff and patients was annoying. Barely a word from the men who were in therapy sounded like genuine feeling, more like mouthing what their therapists wanted to hear.
I didn't like the incident where a man was angry with the senior psychologist. Having worked in the psychiatric system for a long time I recognise that tendency for therapists to deny patients the right to feel angry. It is twisted around and turned into a symptom. This is useful for the therapist because they don't have to examine their own part in the interaction then.
That is not to deny that someone's anger can be an insight into what a person may be feeling. Rather, why not acknowledge what it is. Anger, discomfort, defensiveness, whatever. Lets not call it innapropriate. In fact I thought he handled his feelings well. He didn't shout or threaten. His behaviour in that incident was quite reasonable. His reason for feeling the way he did may demand some exploration.
That style of language somehow removes the emotion from the whole issue. It turns actions into symptoms and detracts from truly taking responsibility. I would like to hear people say real things "Yes I did that, and at the time I enjoyed it. Now I am frightened that the thoughts may come back. I hate what I did and grieve for the children whose lives I ruined. There is no way I can fix it."
I don't know ANYTHING as long as it is real and not self involved,over analysed claptrap.
I have no idea whether people who commit these terrible acts can live safely in the community. I suspect it is not something anyone really knows. I do think that deciding not to be involved in that therapy might be a more honest path to take for many.

Phil said...

Among other things, watching this documentary took me back to my A-Level sociology classes when we learned about Erving Goffman's classic work, Asylums. What matter here was not if a patient was "well" but whether they followed the rules and submitted to the authority of those who stood over them. If you didn't think you were insane and told the doctors this you would never get out.

I don't know what we should do with paedophiles and criminal sexual predators. Rehabilitate as much as possible while trying to understand how they became abusers seems the most sensible humane option. But the safety of society takes precedence.