To Catch-22 a Predator

On Ward's Island, it's legal limbo for men who probably deserve it

At the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward's Island, a man named Michael Parker is stuck in a strange legal limbo.

He's in custody, but he's not serving a criminal sentence. He was actually released from state prison in the spring after completing his required stay there.

He's also not been officially committed as a psychiatric patient. He's being held in a separate area from the patients at the center who suffer from severe psychosis.

Peter Mitchell


Not Getting Off the Island
A rogues' gallery of (don't call them) prisoners
by Maria Luisa Tucker

According to the Office of Sex Offender Management, which was created by legislative action last spring, 36 sex offenders were committed to psychiatric facilities during the first year of New York's new civil-confinement law. Another 139 were identified for "civil management"—either commitment to a psychiatric facility or long-term, intensive parole. Many of these men's cases are sealed, but documents obtained by the Voice provide a glimpse into the criminal histories of a few men identified as sexually violent predators with "mental abnormalities." They are:

Christopher James, 26, whose life was disastrous from the start. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, causing a lack of oxygen to his brain, and two genetic syndromes that cause eye-movement problems, small testicles, and reduced fertility. By seven months old, he was banging his head against things—the first sign of developmental delays. At four, he was kicked out of special-ed preschool for behavioral problems, and at nine, a cyst was found in his brain, which was drained but unable to be removed. All of these early problems, according to a state psychiatrist, contributed to what came next: an inability to control deviant sexual behavior. James was kicked out of his house and arrested for his first offense at age 19, after a seven-year-old girl accused him of touching her vagina. Out on probation, he was arrested a second time for fondling a 17-year-old girl while she was sleeping. That incident was caught on tape after the family he was living with put cameras up because they thought James was stealing from them. By 2005, he was behind bars and in trouble for violently raping a fellow inmate. He was going to be released in February, but has been civilly committed and will remain in a psychiatric facility indefinitely.

Stanley Dixon, an aging pedophile who racked up six sex-offense convictions from 1964 to 2002 in New York, North Carolina, and Connecticut. Dixon claims that he was sexually abused by his father and uncle as a child, and physically abused by his mother and foster family. After being arrested for sodomizing an eight-year-old boy in 1968, his first sex offense, he told police: "I didn't think I had a problem, but I did. I did it three more times." He molested and sodomized several boys ranging in age from eight to 15 over the years, serving a short sentence after each conviction. Then, in 1973, he pulled a gun on a 20-year-old woman and forced her to give him oral sex. In 1990, he was arrested after pulling a razor on a 26-year-old female acquaintance and sodomizing her for several hours. Only three months after his release for that crime, Dixon was arrested again for repeatedly molesting his girlfriend's 11-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old friend. He was supposed to be released last August, but has been detained in a psychiatric facility instead.

Shawn Short, a pedophile convicted of vaginally and anally raping a six-year-old girl in 1992. Short was also accused of molesting the girl's two-year-old brother, but never charged. After serving 10 years, Short was released on parole and was soon accused of victimizing children again. His parole was revoked eight months after his release, when he was accused of molesting his girlfriend's three-year-old son. Those charges were dropped, but a state psychiatric examiner petitioned to have Short put on "strict and intensive supervision"—basically lifetime parole with an ankle bracelet.

Freddie Johnson, who made headlines in April for his 53rd arrest, this time for rubbing against a young woman on the No. 6 train. Previously, the attorney general's office had tried to get the 49-year-old repeat sex offender committed to a psychiatric facility, but Judge William Wetzel ruled that Johnson should be released instead under "strict and intensive supervision" (lifetime parole with an ankle bracelet). That decision came back to bite Judge Wetzel just a couple weeks later, when Johnson was arrested after subway cops spotted him in the act. It was his 30th arrest for a sex crime.

And although Parker's not going anywhere, no one, not even his attorneys, is pushing for his immediate release.

Like several other men in custody at the center, Parker is stuck because he's facing a choice that is, depending on your view, either diabolical or diabolically clever.

If he is officially committed, the only way Parker can ever be released is by volunteering to undergo psychiatric treatment that may require him to divulge incriminating information about his past—information that in turn could be used to send him right back to prison. Parker can't be forced to undergo the treatment, but he also can't leave until he agrees to participate. And participation, he knows, may mean prosecution and many more years in the state penitentiary.

Like the other men sharing his fate at the center, Parker has refused to volunteer, which is keeping him in custody indefinitely.

It's a catch-22 of serious proportion. But it's hard to find anyone feeling very sorry for him.

That's because Parker is a rapist, and for some New Yorkers, the limbo Parker finds himself in may be exactly what they've been hoping for.

Like other states, New York has wrestled with what to do with repeat sex offenders who serve their prison sentences but are still likely to continue victimizing others upon their release. In 1997, the Supreme Court decided that states could keep such people in custody using civil law, in a manner similar to committing mentally ill people to institutions. By labeling such offenders as mentally unfit and in need of treatment, their custody can be indefinite.

In the 19 other states where sex offenders are being held as patients, mental-health advocates, victims' advocates, and lawyers have criticized the high price and low rehabilitation rates of those programs; many say that focusing resources on the worst predators ignores a much larger population of less dangerous sex offenders who are often related to or friends of their victims, and who receive little treatment.

In March 2007, however, with overwhelming support from both political parties, New York passed its own civil-commitment law, sending Parker and others who were finishing their criminal sentences into secure psychiatric facilities.

A little more than a year later, 10 men have been moved to Ward's Island, at a cost to taxpayers of $200,000 per patient each year. (Keeping them in state prison costs considerably less—about $35,000 a year.)

By law, they can only be held past their criminal sentences if they are getting psychiatric treatment. But, until recently, none of them were.

Instead, they sat around playing Nintendo.

To get to the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward's Island, you cross a bridge strewn with discarded needles and broken glass, trek through the eerily deserted island, and approach a tall fence adorned with spirals of barbed wire. For the more than 300 people who call this place home, their ticket here was a diagnosis of ailments like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and even psychogenic polydipsia—a compulsion to drink so much water that seizures and cardiac arrest can result. Some patients are delusional or paranoid. One patient, for instance, claims to be from Planet Pacifica and says that she has a body different from humans.

Things are different inside the sex offenders' locked ward. Most of the men there are not typical psychiatric patients: They are not on heavy anti-psychotic medications, don't have hallucinations, and don't do things like set fires or beat their heads against the wall, as patients in other wards have been known to do. These men spend most of their hours playing video games, watching television, or writing letters in the computer room. (They're not trolling on MySpace; they don't have Internet access.) Although they're segregated from the other patients, the men are sometimes allowed into the center's café, where they can buy food and soda. At night, because the entire ward is devoted to just 10 men, most retire to a private room. Some of the men reportedly like their accommodations. It is, after all, an improvement over prison, or even the shabby halfway houses they might have gone to if they were released.

The Manhattan Psychiatric Center is supposed to be just a temporary stop for these men while they're in the city for court hearings. If the state successfully makes the case that they suffer from a mental problem that compels them to rape or molest, they'll be officially committed and locked away at psychiatric facilities upstate, where scores of other sex offenders are being housed already. However, about half of the men in the sex-offender ward have been cooling their heels there for more than two years. They are the originals, the men committed under former Governor George Pataki's initial attempt at civil confinement.

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