Alex, 26, cut her teeth as a psychologist at the only maximum-security program in the country that deals primarily with sex offenders convicted of rape, incest and pedophilia. The Assessment and Program Preparation Unit at Clinton Correctional Facility (APPU), houses prisoners who face an unquestionable threat from the prison’s general population.
On the inside, these men are referred to as “baby rapers” or “rapos,” and would be subject to rape and murder under the honor code upheld by inmates outside the isolated unit. After a year at Clinton, Alex helped establish a treatment program for released sex offenders and continues to work in the field.
Alex: The head of my department tried to get me thrown out of school, but when he couldn’t he sent me to prison. I had the choice to work at Clinton to finish my degree, or drop out. When the prison agreed to take me, they didn’t know I was a woman. I worked there for a year, after which my supervisor said, “I love you like a granddaughter, and if you don’t get out of hear your going to end up dead.” So, I left.
It was my first couple of months there, and during a big snowstorm, the prisoners had dug out a snow cave in the yard. When I walked out there, I saw three of the inmates, sodomizing each other in a row. Actually that was the first time I had seen a penis in my life.
AW: Were you trained to deal with rapists?
ALEX: Absolutely not. The school that I finished up at was very Adlerian in nature, which is a how-can-I-help-you, let-me-hold-your-hand kind of psychology, which in no way prepared me. When you work in a prison, you can’t think of the man sitting in front of you as a person, you have to think of him as an inmate.
The minute that I started to think about one of them as a person I would lean closer, make eye contact, use sympathetic body language – all the stuff that will get you sucked in until you let your defenses down, and the next thing you know you’re dead. Somebody tries to shank you, somebody tries to rape you, which nearly happened to me several times, because I was not prepared. I did not have the training I needed.
AW: Were the sex-offenders abused as children?
I have been working with sex offenders for three-and-a-half years now, and I could count the number of sex offenders on both hands who were NOT abused. But what I tell these men, is that may explain it, but it doesn’t excuse it.
I asked one client, “You know what it feels like to be sodomized by a family member, so
knowing that, why would you go and do that to your nephew?”
AW: How did he answer?
ALEX: He looked at me and he didn’t know why. Do any of them know why they do it?
The sadists do. I had a guy who said to me “I do it because I know she’s bleeding and screaming and crying and that’s what gets me off.” But the majority of the crimes that I have seen are not done by sadists.
AW: Is it against the law to show pornography to minors?
ALEX: Yes, it’s a sex offense. Its part of grooming — the things the sex offenders will do to earn your trust and get you interested in sex.
AW: How do you help the sex offenders not offend again?
ALEX: We sit down with sex offenders and figure out what their cycle of sex abuse is. What are their pretends-to-be-normal behaviors? What are their triggers? What are their coping or covering up mechanisms which lead to the acting out phase? After raping or molesting, what do they tell themselves to feel normal again? And what do they tell themselves to make it OK?
“I was teaching her.” “Oh no, the three-year-old grabbed my head and put it in her crotch. She wanted it.” “It was only one time, it will never happen again.” “If no one knows, its no big deal.”
AW: How did these experiences impact your own sexuality?
ALEX: I was very sexually inexperienced. I was a virgin… by the time I hit the prisons, I was just starting to get more open with my sexuality. But after day two of being there, I shut down completely. I still consider myself recovering from what happened to me in prison.
This is personal, but I don’t mind sharing it with you. I have been bombarded with perversion, deviant porn, snuff and bestiality. And I was pretty bread-and-butter heterosexual in my thoughts up until then.
After being exposed to this type of pornography, my sexual arousal to what normally would work very well for me didn’t work anymore. And I never really bought into that before, that you could be conditioned into what you could be turned on by, but then I got to the point, where if I wasn’t fantasizing about incest, I wasn’t orgasming at all. Even now, its something I need to work on. I have two older brothers, who are very attractive, but I wouldn’t go out and seek incestual relationships with them.
Pornography has affected me in ways that I am not happy about.
AW: What about the argument that porn is an alternative to acting out harmful fantasies?
ALEX: I think that some people know when to draw the line. ALL sex offenders have very poor sense of boundaries.
AW: I see that you are married.
ALEX: Actually no I’m not, I wear this ring because women are 60 percent less likely to be a victim of a random sex offender act if he sees a wedding ring.
AW: Are you more likely to be jailed if your victim is a stranger rather than someone you know?
ALEX: Yep. The courts are more likely to say, “Let’s let family services handle this.” People will get different sentences for the same crime. One man might be doing five years for fondling a girl that he found on a playground, whereas another man might just get 30 days probation for fondling his granddaughter at Thanksgiving. Is one victim’s pain worth more than another’s?
AW: Do you feel that the vilification of sex offenders in society impedes their ability to assimilate? Does stigmatizing them for the rest of their lives keep them in that mindset?
ALEX: I think that goes two ways. The stigmatization fuels their hate and frustration and feeling like victims of society. Or they take it and don’t like it, but feel guilty enough that they deserve it. They never like it… trust me.
AW: Does it inhibit their re-entry?
ALEX: Yes, I think it really does, but these laws are not for the sex offenders. They are meant to protect the victims and the potential victims. Communities across the country do not allow sex offenders to answer the door to trick-or-treaters on Halloween, despite the fact that most sex offenses happen to victims that know the perpetrator.
AW: Do you support such measures?
ALEX: Yes, because I know some men who would see little Johnny dressed up like a pirate and that’s going to trigger his urge to want to offend somebody. I would rather have him not open the door, than stalk little Johnny or offend his own son that’s sleeping upstairs.
AW: How would you change the criminal justice system?
ALEX: I would say that anyone who is found guilty of a sex crime does state time, not county time, not probation – state time. For some of these guys 30 days in the big house will break them. If they’re in for three years, they’re going to think twice before they touch another little girl, cause they might be looking at six years next time.
For one thing, there’s the fear of being raped and killed in prison. Many prison officials won’t care, one less “rapo” for them to worry about.
Psychological treatment should be mandatory and paid for. Right now, it’s left to the prisoner to find treatment after they’re released. The people who need it most are the people who are the most resistant to getting it. I don’t really worry about the guy who is coming in early for his appointment, as much as the guy who has cancelled six or seven times. What’s he cookin’ up? That’s what scares me the most.