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Nashville Scene Tales From the Dark Side

How the State of Tennessee is treating our rapists and pedophiles

By Phil Campbell

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  It isn't until the pedophile in the corner speaks up that we actually start to make some progress. For the past hour, the sex offenders surrounding me have done nothing but fill my tape recorder with useless talk. Dressed in prison blues and grays, they watch me from behind two long wooden tables and, at the behest of their therapist, repeat for me seventh-grade aphorisms about the benefits of positive communication. Almost all of them wear thick mustaches like Freudian masks. Two of the 14 present are black; the rest are white. They're all incarcerated at the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville, the prison down the road from the state's death row.

As I sit among them, the pedophiles and rapists all seem to blend into one another, their anonymity reinforced by the fact that the only thing I know about them is their first names. And they've been talking now for more than 60 minutes about how wonderful their rehabilitation is, without really talking about anything at all. The therapist interrupts occasionally to remark about the importance of good communication skills and learning to express one's feelings, but, compared to the situation's context, his words seem like talk-show psychobabble.

But then Edward starts to talk. Clean-shaven and overweight, his mournful voice makes him different from the others. He sounds sincere. And he's using confessional words that haven't been used in this conversation yet, like "victim" and "sex offender."

"I had a year of therapy on parole. I thought, this is it, I don't need this anymore," he says. "But I got right back into my own patterns and started offending again. Through this program, I'm able to see the total devastation to my victims, which were my own children, but throughout my life, I've had so many victims and seen the harm that I caused them and seen how my victims, how their behaviors have changed in the way they have to live their lives. I always thought that that was their problem. It had nothing to do with what I did. Now I see where it has all to do with what I did."

"How many victims have you had?" I ask.

"Sixty-five." The number sounds more like November weather or the speed limit on the interstate. The mind just cannot visualize 65 children at once, molested or not.

In jail and in psychiatric therapy, Edward is removed from children, but that doesn't stop him from having sexual fantasies about them. When that starts occurring these days, he does what his state-employed therapist tells him to do: He masturbates. He reads from an embellished script that he himself wrote about having healthy, spontaneous intercourse with his wife. After he's ejaculated, he reads from a different script that he's written. This script describes him molesting a child. Stripped of his fantasies, Edward reads again and again how the child he touches doesn't understand what's really happening, doesn't necessarily like him, doesn't gain any pleasure by being touched sexually. Edward will spend as many as 45 minutes reading from this and learning yet one more time what normal adults already know: It's OK for an adult to have consensual sex with another adult, but molesting children is immoral and illegal.

"I've been a pedophile since I was 11 years old," Edward explains. "I don't want to cause anyone else to have to live like my victims have to live. It hurts me to know that they're out there having to live their lives in terror."

Edward tears through the wall that had bricked over this conversation. Two rapists and another pedophile speak up, and one of them, a guy named Bill, reads from his therapeutic homework--he imagines how his wife has nightmares about him violating her again. (Her life is ruined, he writes.) A few tears are shed. This scene is made all the more surreal when you consider that a significant number of people outside these prison walls would rather have the sex offenders dead than have the state spend money treating them. The support group has only itself.

The Tennessee Department of Corrections is proud of its sex-offender therapy session, which aims to prevent as many repeat offenders as possible. The first, intensive phase takes place in Nashville and lasts as long as 18 months. The second phase involves more therapy at another jail in Bledsoe County, southeast of Nashville. The third involves private psychiatric help after the inmate is released. For many offenders, this third phase is supposed to last the rest of their lives.

How much of all this are we to believe?


A new field of therapy

"These guys are going to get out. That's the reality of it. Our society needs to take a stance on how we're going to control these guys in the most effective manner."

Lenny Lococo is the head of mental-health services for the Department of Corrections. At 39, he wears his black hair short and parted to one side, his beard neatly trimmed. His hawkish nose gives his face a serious, probing quality. With a master's in clinical counseling psychology and 16 years' experience with sex offenders, he talks to me for an hour and a half on a wide range of topics, from the need for greater public funding and education, to the importance of protecting the community.

Yet within Lococo is a coping mechanism, something he uses to deal mentally with the tragedy of sexual violation. One of his psychological reactions is to be especially protective of his children; the other is to crack goofy jokes at odd moments.

"Let's say a sex offender doesn't go back into the system, beats the odds, whatever...," I say, trying to formulate a question during an interview.

"Beat?" Lococo bursts into laughter. "No pun intended!" Pam Hobbins, the department's spokeswoman who sits in on the conversation, shows her horror in the involuntary "O" formed by her mouth; Lococo makes a sheepish apology.

Lococo may not stop to think about his throwaway references, but he is acutely aware of public perceptions about sex offenders. The molestations or the rapes that garner media attention make him wince. He knows how public emotions spill naturally into a "lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" mentality. Once a sex offender, always a sex offender, the belief goes. For decades, there's been no concrete evidence to undermine that suspicion. Criminal psychologists and forensic psychiatrists, however, are beginning to see evidence that a percentage of pedophiles and rapists can be taught not to molest or rape again. "Sex offenders are an extremely unpalatable issue for anybody," Lococo says. "It prompts a lot of emotionally charged issues. Sometimes it's better [for me] to ignore them because I don't want to step my foot into that spider web. Politically, it's very difficult for a state representative or senator to jump on our bandwagon."

Recent studies of recidivism (the rate at which convicts return to jail for committing similar crimes) for sex offenders have varied, depending in part on the scientific methodology used. Most studies tracked convicts from three to six years.

Studies have found untreated sex offenders have a recidivism rate between 20 and 35 percent. Treated sex offenders have a lower rate, of 9 to 20 percent.

The statistics provide hope. But there is a caveat that skeptics quickly point out: Social scientists will never be able to prove that a treated offender didn't commit as many crimes as an untreated sex offender, just that the treated offenders didn't get caught as often.

The first two stages of treatment cost the state about $150,000 a year, Lococo says--the cost of six therapists to work with the sex offenders. As for the third, post-release phase, Lococo is trying to find more private therapists throughout the state who will take these sex offenders as patients. He's scheduled a training session for licensed therapists.

Though the program has been in existence for six years now, Lococo doesn't have statistics on its effectiveness. He says the department is just beginning to study former participants of the first two phases of the program, comparing how far along in therapy the inmates proceeded, as well as whether they ended up back in a state penitentiary.

"Tennessee is in such a wonderful position to really be a model, I think," Lococo says. But then he concedes, "There's no clear-cut picture. And it's a relatively new process over the past several years, so I think the proof will be in the pudding." Right now, the department is spending time trying to improve its monitoring within the program itself, as well as its record for screening potential participants for the program.

A hypnotist can't charm a skeptic, and alcoholics first have to stop denying to themselves that they have a problem. Similarly, the sex-offense program can only work if the sex offender is a willing participant. Lococo has received a surprisingly large response from Tennessee's jail population. At the end of July, there were 2,925 sex offenders in Tennessee's prisons--rapists and pedophiles hailing from Memphis to Johnson City. Of these, 1,189 offenders--41 percent--are on the waiting list for the therapy.

"I think initially there was a perception [among sex offenders] that, 'Heck, if I go through this program, I'm gonna get paroled,' " he says. "That's not the case. We tell these guys right up front that you need to be doing this for other reasons. [Don't] think you're gonna get paroled, because the likelihood of that is not very good." Lococo's own analysis is that there are a lot of sex offenders out there who want to stop offending but don't know how on their own.

Only about 5 percent of those on the waiting list, however, are going to get into the therapy program. Phase 1 of the treatment has just 64 available spaces. Lococo hopes to expand the offender program, as well as create a treatment program for juvenile offenders.

The bottom line: Even with a fully funded program, results are obtainable, but there is no easy solution. One only has to look at the results of a recent Dutch recidivism study which concludes that, even if you were to castrate sex offenders--the most extreme method of removing a man's sexual drive--you still may get a recidivism rate as high as 7 percent. Sex offenders possess more than excessive or abnormal biological drives. They also possess complicated psychological problems involving addiction, power, low self-esteem, and an extraordinary ability to rationalize the irrational. For the therapists, though, the field of sex-offense therapy is showing enough promise to start getting bolder, to ask for more money for both research and treatment.


The offenders

Earl Johnson is a pedophile. After he was convicted on three counts of child molestation at his Church of Christ Sunday school in Knoxville in 1995, he was stripped of his two CPA licenses. Once the revelations of the church incident came out, he decided to seek private therapy--and to tell his wife that their two sons were among the roughly 40 children he has molested over the past three decades.

"I will not allow myself to be around children unattended," Johnson now vows, anticipating his release from jail in less than three years. "Ever. It's important that I recognize the environments, not only where I did those crimes, but also environments that lead me to that kind of thinking, which for me is shopping malls. That's a big risk. Being around that many unattended children, so many vulnerable children." If he starts to have a fantasy about molesting a child, Johnson says he'll sniff ammonia capsules to knock himself off his "deviant cycle." The therapists call this "noxious stimuli," a form of aversion therapy.

William is a rapist. He will not let me use his last name or identify his hometown, where he committed aggravated rape. He would not be photographed for this story.


Lenny Lococo

He does, however, describe the incident that placed him in prison and in sex-offense treatment. One night, while walking down the street, he saw a woman sleeping in her bedroom, her body visible with the help of a street light. Drunk from booze and high on crack, he broke into her house and woke her up.

"I told her to pull her legs back, pull her legs back," William says. "But she wouldn't, so then I slapped her, I think about two or three times. And I tried to force myself into her vagina. At this time, she stated to me that she was a small woman and [asked if she] could go and get some grease. And she went to go get some grease and whatnot, and I stood there. She threw alcohol in my face, which made me sorta angry. So I put her back on the bed, where I forced myself on her, into her vagina, and had sexual intercourse with her, where I raped her. After that, after I raped her, I laid there and I said some abusive things to her and I laid there and I went to sleep, I fell asleep in her house next to her. And when I was awakened, I was wakened by the police. That's when they brought me to the city jail, and I've been here ever since."

William attributes his actions to his uncontrollable anger, his general rage at the world for things that are beyond his control. Before he came to sex-offender therapy, he had to go through drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Now that he's halfway through the second phase, he says he is confronting what made him capable of rape.

"I've learned to look at a lot of things," William says. "It hurts, now, when you have to look at yourself. I'm angry, but I don't need to act this way. Also, there was a time I wouldn't come back and apologize to people, and now I do."

I talked to these two men at the Southeast Tennessee State Regional Correctional Facility in Bledsoe County. This is where Phase 2 of the treatment takes place, where the inmates aren't separated from the rest of the prison population, where they've already made some confessions to the state and to themselves about their past sins, where they are given a looser treatment schedule in hopes they will learn to handle their problems without a therapist constantly monitoring them.


The therapist

Joel Jacobs is a mental-health treatment provider who deals directly with 16 of the 64 sex offenders undergoing the program's first phase. A concise speaker whose voice is mostly one deep timbre, the 49-year-old is able to manipulate words gently to elicit the appropriate responses from his patients. He takes his phone calls in the same specially designed building at the facility where the sex offenders are housed.

Jacobs keeps the sex offenders constantly busy throughout Phase 1 of treatment, whether it's group meetings or individual written assignments. Though the program is divided into eight different sections, called "modules," Jacobs works with the sex offenders to focus on three major things: accepting responsibility for their actions, understanding the consequences of their actions, and attempting to recondition their sexual behavior so that they never rape or molest again.

"What you're trying to do is detect and change thought patterns associated with their abuse," he says. "Everything is to formulate a specific plan to prevent any further victimization."

The therapist has a delicate job. For starters, the rapists and pedophiles are put together in the same groups, and the rapists resent that. The rapists have to be forced to sit with the child molesters, and they have to be told repeatedly that they are no better than the pedophiles. Didn't each criminal act involve a victim, someone who may be left emotionally devastated for the rest of his or her life?

Psychologically, though, the rapists can be vastly different from the pedophiles; a rapist can have almost no sexual interest in his victims, while the pedophile has a tendency to fantasize to excess. And then there are exceptions, sex offenders who have had both adult and minor victims. The program has to customize a therapy for each sex offender.

The other thing Jacobs has to stay aware of is that sex offenders know no specific socioeconomic status. They range from the certified financial planner to the unemployed. That means Jacobs has to adjust his teachings accordingly. His lesson plans include going over basic concepts such as anger management, stress management, and communication. "Some of these guys are starting from ground zero as far as their socialization skills," Lococo says. "They're just poor. So you can't rehabilitate something that hasn't ever been 'habilitated.' "

In a way, rehabilitating sex offenders is a subtle war of words--the inmates have their words, and Jacobs has his. Some inmates would like to "flatten out" their sentences, or just fill the time until they can be released on good-behavior, all the time accomplishing nothing. To do this, they may try "flogging," or listening to Jacobs until they learn his words, until they can repeat them, persuading him that he is getting to them, while all the while never admitting to themselves the fact that they are at fault for anything.

Jacobs' words are psychoanalytical jargon. Here's a rundown of a few of them:

  • "Cognitive restructuring" is the process of identifying distorted or twisted thinking. "The most obvious thing is denial of fact," Jacobs says. "The 'I didn't do it's,' 'I was set up.' Also, there's denial of sexual intent--'They wanted it,' or 'I was their sexual teacher.' "

  • "Sexual reconditioning" is what Edward the pedophile does when he starts to fantasize. First he reads about and masturbates to the idea of having sex with his wife, then he reads about the stark realities of how he once molested a child. Offenders read such scripts repeatedly, a psychological conditioning that can make them so ill that they vomit. Some say they have been reduced to tears at night.

  • "Behavioral intervention" is an aspect of sexual reconditioning. Let's say one rapist in the group is giving a "disclosure" to other members of his group. The serial rapist sitting next to him, while listening to the man's emotional story, begins to fantasize about rape himself rather than feel empathy for his fellow sex offender. He has entered a deviant cycle of "thoughts, feelings, and behaviors," and, if he's honest with himself, he will do whatever he can to break from it. "This is a lifelong coping skill," Jacobs says. "You're controlling your deviant sexual arousal."

  • "Victim impact and empathy" is exactly what it suggests. The therapy participants listen to videotape testimonies of past rape and sexual abuse, and they are forced to play out roles in skits in which they are cast as the victims. They make narratives of what they imagine their victims are going through. "This is one of the most powerful parts of the therapy," Jacobs says.

The therapist also tries to help the sex offenders understand what the consequences of their actions have been for themselves. He assigns them to write stories describing what they're going through. "It's not enough to say, 'I'm in prison,' " the therapist says. "No. Say there's a holiday. Christmas is a pretty depressing time around here. What is it like to wake up in prison on Christmas morning? [They write about] dreaming ahead of time about Christmas--food, presents, trees, laughter. Then [they] open [their] eyes and [they're] in prison, away from the family." The addition of emotional elements to the consequences is what makes it effective.

To an extent, Jacobs can tell when the therapy participants are lying. He's got a vaguely Orwellian device on his side. It's called the plethysmograph, and it's basically a transducer and an audio system. The transducer is attached to the inmate's penis. The inmate then listens to a series of skits. If the inmate is a sadistic rapist, the voices most often played might belong to adult women. If the inmate is a bisexual pedophile, the inmate might hear a variety of children's voices.

The plethysmograph shows therapists how sexually aroused the sex offender gets from the skits. If the device has indicated that all of Jacobs' efforts have failed, he's got one more weapon, but he doesn't like to use it. That weapon is Depo-Provera, a drug that lowers the sex drive. It's come into vogue among some therapists and a lot of politicians who are seeking a quicker fix to the sex-offense problem. Like all other aspects of this growing field, however, its effectiveness has not completely been established. "We've found that the techniques that we use are sufficient, so we almost never have to go that far," he says.


Progress?

The latest in anti-sex-offense legislation is the public notification law. It basically mandates that the community be aware of the rapist and pedophile living down the street. Knowledge is prevention.

"Let's say I'm a sex offender," he says. "Someone's going to go into my community--the sheriff, D.A., or whomever--someone's going to come into my neighborhood, three square blocks, and say, 'So and so lives up the street and is a convicted sex offender and is undergoing therapy.'

"There is nothing prohibiting that same [sex offender] from going up the street, getting in his car and driving out toward [you], and molesting a kid in [your neighborhood]. So it creates a false sense of security."


There are skeptics, though, and Lococo is one of them.

Ask the therapists; they know you can't successfully treat everyone. Better yet, ask the sex offenders themselves. Ronnie Turner was a police officer in Nashville until it was discovered that he had molested the children of friends and family. As a cop, he's got an eye for people's behavior that rivals the therapist's in many ways. He is involved in Phase 2 of sex-offense treatment.

"I've seen guys who were Mr. Program when the therapist was around, but when everybody in authority went home and he was in the unit by himself, then he was a completely different guy," Turner says. "He presented one face to the therapist and another face to the inmates. And what I do is, instead of listening to what they say, I watch what they do, because what they do speaks a lot louder than what they say. And sometimes this is not something that a therapist can see." Group support is one reason the therapy can be effective inside the jail. Outside, there is no one to watch the sex offender but the sex offender himself.

If the therapist has a difficult time detecting lies, it is even harder for the layperson. This is part of an interview I had with William, a rapist housed in the state prison in Bledsoe County:

Q: Do you feel you'd be capable of raping again without any sex-offense therapy? You're off drugs. No crack, no alcohol.

A:Within my heart, do I feel that I would rape again? No, I don't feel that I would rape again. Within my heart, I don't. But I can't say what everybody else may say.

Q: Is that something you feel like you're capable of, though?

A: That I'm capable of rape? [long pause] No. I've done it before. I don't feel that--not with everything I've learned and everything, the wrongness of it, the dramatic impact it can have on a person. If I wanted it for enjoyment, if it was a thing I just wanted to do, yes. Now, that's not something that I wanna do, just go out and rape somebody."

The entire time William is speaking, however, he is not looking at me. He looks at everything but me. The questions have gotten painfully intimate. Is he embarrassed? Is he trying to hold down the lightning-quick rage that both he and his Phase 2 therapist say he's trying to deal with?

A layperson might be tempted to say that Earl Johnson has made the most progress in his therapy. Coming clean is an essential part of therapy, and, not only did Johnson give his full name, but he also provided me with the most intimate details of his life--as a pedophile and a CPA. When his pedophilia was found out, he made full confessions to his wife, his children, and his church. That church expelled him, but Johnson stays active in a church that accepts him, despite what he's done.

Johnson, however, adds his own telling caveat: "We're all con artists, and that's something you have to keep in mind. Every one of us is very good at conning, [or] we wouldn't have been as successful as we were. Unfortunately, I rank right up there with the best. I lived a double life for 30 years."

While he discusses his role as a manipulator, Johnson's eyes glimmer. During my hour-long interview with him, he talks of nothing but trying to recover. Part of him, though, seems to take pleasure in having been so subtle, so capable of being "Mr. Nice Guy" in appearances only.

Johnson knows the irony of his own words. The interview he has just granted me may be littered with lies, half-truths, or fabrications. And the truth is, I'll never know for sure.


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