Since 2010, sex offenders in Alaska prisons have been able to opt in to an intensive treatment program at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, but it’s unclear if it reduces recidivism.
A 2012 University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center publication identified a statewide benchmark; of about 240 sex offenders released from Alaska prisons in 2008, 2 percent were reconvicted on sex offenses within two years.
Here’s a look inside the treatment program at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
Andrew Peabody has served about 27 years in prison for sexual assault. He said he’s scheduled to be released in February. Peabody said he used to feel numb and didn’t want to deal with what he’d done.
During an event at Lemon Creek Correctional Center earlier this year, Peabody said the sex offender treatment program is teaching him empathy “for my victim. You have to write a letter to that person realizing what you’ve become to that person, how you affected that person’s life.”
The letters aren’t actually sent.
Licensed clinical counselor Malcolm Nichols created and runs the sex offender treatment program at the Juneau prison. Nichols has a history of working with high risk populations. Prior to Lemon Creek, he ran a sex offender treatment program in Columbus, Ohio.
The two-year program is a combination of structured group therapy and individual counseling. Some inmates are also prescribed medication for sexual urges. Nichols says the program is not supposed to be a cure. The goal is for inmates to learn to control and manage risk factors that could lead to sexual assaults.
Another assignment is writing a narrative describing the period of time leading up to their crime.
“It starts a year out from their sexual crime and then takes them nine months, six months, three months and then 24 hours before it happened and this can be very difficult and dramatic,” Nichols said.
It’s supposed to be self-revealing. Nichols doesn’t let inmates get away with denying or minimizing what they’ve done. These are tactics, he says, to avoid change. Nichols recounted what happened when one inmate described his offense during a recent group session.
“He was telling it from his own personal position but I always want them to also give the objective, what actually happened, which he didn’t. So when I confronted him, he sort of got extremely dysphoric and broke into some deep sobbing and the whole group [got quiet]. You could hear a pin drop,” Nichols said.
The Lemon Creek Correctional Center program treats 24 men at a time. Inmates enter the program when they’re within 3 years of being released. All have been convicted of at least one sex assault and have admitted to at least one. Nichols says some have a long history of committing many sexual assaults. One even claimed to have committed hundreds.
“Some of the high risk guys have a history of sex offending going way back into their adolescence or even childhood,” Nichols said.
Alaska leads the country for the rate of reported forcible rape, according to FBI crime statistics. There are about 770 sex offenders in the Alaska prison system, which Nichols says represents a fraction of total offenders.
He says it takes a lot of patience to work with sex offenders.
“I don’t see people as necessarily the sum of their parts. I think that people are capable of choice and that I have to not shame them or ostracize them or let them think that they’re not human or they’re not incapable of change,” Nichols said.
The work takes its toll. When Nichols leaves the office he tries to completely disengage with work. To avoid stress, he bikes and exercises regularly.
And there’s a lot at stake when inmates leave the treatment program and are released into the community.
“We all in this field live in dread of one of our guys getting out and committing some kind of horrendous sexual offense,” Nichols said. “And I’ve had some extremely dangerous inmates who, as they were leaving the program, I was keeping my fingers crossed.”
So far, of the 52 who’ve completed the program and been released, one is back in prison for a sexual offense.