Inside the Endless Nightmare of Indefinite Detention Under “Civil Commitment”

After serving their criminal sentence, these men discover their punishment may never be over.

Sarah Lazare

VICTOR TORRES/Shutterstock

In June 2019, after serv­ing more than 29 years in Illi­nois pris­ons, Otis Arring­ton expect­ed to be released to free­dom: He had fin­ished his time, which he describes as dif­fi­cult and trau­mat­ic, and his exit date was pend­ing. But three days before he was slat­ed to get out, Arring­ton says he was informed that he would, instead, be placed under a new form of con­fine­ment — one with no end date, met­ed out after he had already com­plet­ed the pun­ish­ment imposed by the crim­i­nal courts. 

I was sup­posed to get out, and they kid­napped me,” says Arring­ton, now 62 years old. He is speak­ing over the phone from the Treat­ment and Deten­tion Facil­i­ty in Rushville — a rur­al area in west­ern Illi­nois — where he is one of rough­ly 560 men (or, at least, peo­ple who the state has deemed men) who are being held indef­i­nite­ly under a lit­tle-known civ­il com­mit­ment” statute.

Under this legal mech­a­nism, which exists in at least 20 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, indi­vid­u­als con­vict­ed of cer­tain sex­u­al offens­es (or in some instances con­vict­ed of noth­ing), and deemed to have a men­tal dis­or­der and con­sti­tute a dan­ger to soci­ety, can be invol­un­tar­i­ly com­mit­ted to treat­ment” facil­i­ties after they’ve already served their crim­i­nal sen­tence. While in civ­il com­mit­ment, indi­vid­u­als are sup­posed to receive men­tal health­care and reg­u­lar exam­i­na­tions, and to be released once it is deter­mined they are no longer dan­ger­ous. As the statute that estab­lished civ­il com­mit­ment in Illi­nois in 1998 puts it, indi­vid­u­als are to receive con­trol, care and treat­ment until such time as the per­son is no longer a sex­u­al­ly vio­lent person.”

Yet, In These Times spoke with peo­ple held in civ­il com­mit­ment, rights advo­cates, schol­ars and lawyers who say that, instead of receiv­ing effec­tive treat­ment, peo­ple held under civ­il com­mit­ment statutes are sub­ject to prison con­di­tions, inad­e­quate men­tal health­care, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly dubi­ous eval­u­a­tions, and homo­pho­bic bias; they are deprived of mean­ing­ful due process; and they have lit­tle hope of get­ting out any­time soon. Reha­bil­i­ta­tion is not the goal, crit­ics charge, but rather, civ­il com­mit­ment is intend­ed to indef­i­nite­ly detain and pun­ish peo­ple whom soci­ety has deemed unde­sir­able. This con­fine­ment does not rec­ti­fy the harm indi­vid­u­als have done, and there is no evi­dence that civ­il com­mit­ment laws reduce sex­u­al vio­lence in soci­ety, crit­ics say. Instead, they argue, it unleash­es untold new harms: as the site of abuse, trau­ma and, accord­ing to some, sex­u­al violence.

We served our time, and then they turn our sen­tence into a life sen­tence,” says Arring­ton. There are guys here who have been here over 20 years.” He adds, You would be amazed at how many res­i­dents have died here.”

Arrington’s obser­va­tions are borne out by evi­dence. Accord­ing to infor­ma­tion obtained through a Free­dom Of Infor­ma­tion Act request to the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Human Ser­vices, which over­sees the Rushville facil­i­ty, 76 peo­ple have died while under the cus­tody of the facil­i­ty since it opened in 2006. That same FOIA data shows that 288 of the peo­ple being held there — slight­ly more than half of the total pop­u­la­tion — have been held for 10 years or more. Fifty-one peo­ple in Rushville have been held in civ­il com­mit­ment for 20 years or more, and 12 have been in civ­il com­mit­ment for 22 or more years, mean­ing they’ve been in civ­il com­mit­ment since the statute was imple­ment­ed in 1998.

If the Rushville facil­i­ty is sup­posed to treat peo­ple until they are no longer sex­u­al­ly vio­lent” and can there­fore be released, it appears to be fail­ing on its own terms.

How civ­il com­mit­ment works

Ste­fan Vogler, a post­doc­tor­al schol­ar at the North­west­ern Cen­ter for Legal stud­ies who spe­cial­izes in civ­il com­mit­ment, says that these long stretch­es of con­fine­ment can be attrib­uted to the fact that, once held under the civ­il com­mit­ment statute, indi­vid­u­als find them­selves trapped in an opaque sys­tem that’s near­ly impos­si­ble to escape.

In Illi­nois, indi­vid­u­als con­vict­ed of cer­tain sex crimes — gen­er­al­ly those that involve con­tact, a phys­i­cal vic­tim, or pos­ses­sion of child pornog­ra­phy — are eval­u­at­ed by the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions at the end of their crim­i­nal sen­tence. If the depart­ment finds they meet a cer­tain risk thresh­old, it will refer them to the attor­ney gen­er­al or state’s attor­ney who will then pur­sue a sex­u­al­ly vio­lent per­son” (SVP) case against them. The per­son then must go before a judge, who has the pow­er to deter­mine whether a civ­il com­mit­ment tri­al is war­rant­ed. Pret­ty much any time they do that, they find prob­a­ble cause,” says Vogler.

“As a feminist, I'm someone who has a history of being committed to ending gender and sexual violence. What pushes me to continue this work is that the current regime of more punishment of people with convictions is not the path." —Erica Meiners, professor

Once prob­a­ble cause is deter­mined, that per­son is sent to Rushville where they wait for their SVP tri­al — some­thing that is sup­posed to hap­pen quick­ly but can often take years. While await­ing tri­al, indi­vid­u­als are giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to receive treat­ment, but accord­ing to schol­ars and lawyers inter­viewed by In These Times, the things peo­ple say in treat­ment are not con­sid­ered con­fi­den­tial and can be used in their SVP trial.

Arring­ton says he does not know who rec­om­mend­ed him for com­mit­ment, and his efforts to find out have been fruit­less. Held in Rushville since June 21, 2019, he has not had an SVP tri­al, nor does he have a tri­al date, and he said his motions to dis­miss civ­il com­mit­ment, filed with­out legal coun­sel, have been dis­missed. As he awaits tri­al, he says, he spends most of his time in my cell, on the wing, in this so-called yard they have, which is more of a patio.” He explains, I’m not receiv­ing any treat­ment while await­ing tri­al. I don’t go to any of the groups. I’m just stuck here.” Accord­ing to Arring­ton, his entire unit is in quar­an­tine due to the coro­n­avirus pandemic.

This is pun­ish­ment after the pun­ish­ment,” says Arring­ton, adding: It’s worse than prison, because you don’t have an out-date and don’t have a sentence.”

Arrington’s odds of get­ting out may not improve much once he has an SVP tri­al. The state of Illi­nois must prove beyond a rea­son­able doubt that the offend­er has a men­tal abnor­mal­i­ty that pre­dis­pos­es him to sex­u­al vio­lence, and that he is sub­stan­tial­ly prob­a­ble to recom­mit a sex crime if released from deten­tion,” Vogler explains.

Schol­ars and lawyers describe an envi­ron­ment that is stacked against the defen­dant, in which it is almost impos­si­ble to win one’s free­dom. Sara Gar­ber, a lawyer with expe­ri­ence lit­i­gat­ing SVP cas­es in Illi­nois, tells In These Times, The sys­tem is designed so that near­ly every­one who is eval­u­at­ed is found by the state’s experts to be SVP, and it is rare that one pre­vails at tri­al before a judge or jury, unless the state’s experts deem the per­son to not be SVP.”

Gar­ber adds, The entire SVP process is based on the false premise that we can pre­dict some­one’s propen­si­ty for future crim­i­nal con­duct based on their alleged past behav­ior and, even worse, that we as a soci­ety are com­fort­able pun­ish­ing some­one for a future crime they have not and may nev­er commit.”

If that indi­vid­ual is found to be an SVP, which, accord­ing to Vogler, is the usu­al out­come,” then they will be held in Rushville until they are deemed less of a risk. But they don’t receive any mean­ing­ful treat­ment,” says Vogler, which is why many spend decades — or even life — in the facility.

Trevor Hoppe is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na — Greens­boro and author of Pun­ish­ing Dis­ease: HIV and the Crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Sick­ness who is work­ing on a new book exam­in­ing sex offend­er civ­il com­mit­ment statutes in the Unit­ed States. He says, The idea is to put these peo­ple away and nev­er let them out. That’s how many pro­po­nents of these laws will talk about them. There are due process mech­a­nisms to try to get release, but once you are com­mit­ted, it’s real­ly hard to get out.”

And, indeed, ear­ly pro­po­nents of the Act in Illi­nois described it as a mech­a­nism to lock peo­ple away from soci­ety. In 1997, for­mer Gov. Jim Edgar said at a news con­fer­ence before sign­ing the bill, Sex­u­al preda­tors are among the most dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals and this leg­is­la­tion will help pro­tect the com­mu­ni­ty from these tick­ing time bombs.”

Under the U.S. legal sys­tem, peo­ple are not sup­posed to be pros­e­cut­ed twice for the same crime — what’s referred to as dou­ble jeop­ardy.” How­ev­er, accord­ing to Vogler, this stan­dard is vio­lat­ed when it comes to civ­il com­mit­ment. After the indi­vid­ual serves a sen­tence, he is tried again essen­tial­ly for the same crime,” Vogler explains. The Supreme Court has decid­ed that’s okay because they’re not being tried crim­i­nal­ly twice, but they’re being tried in a civ­il set­ting. This is despite the fact much high­er con­se­quences are attached to this civ­il suit than a nor­mal civ­il suit. Usu­al­ly, when we’re talk­ing about civ­il law, we’re talk­ing about suing some­one for dam­ages. Usu­al­ly those aren’t life impris­on­ment decisions.”

Accu­sa­tions of neg­li­gent treatment

Once civil­ly com­mit­ted to Rushville, indi­vid­u­als must progress through a treat­ment pro­gram, over­seen by the pri­vate Lib­er­ty Health­care Cor­po­ra­tion, in order to be released. In a 2019 – 2020 intern­ship brochure for the Rushville facil­i­ty, the cor­po­ra­tion says its mis­sion is to pro­vide state of the art, sex offend­er spe­cif­ic treat­ment in a safe, struc­tured res­i­den­tial envi­ron­ment. We focus on the indi­vid­u­al­ized needs of the res­i­dents and treat each res­i­dent respect­ful­ly, pro­fes­sion­al­ly and with dig­ni­ty. We believe that all res­i­dents can change. We strive to reduce risk to soci­ety by facil­i­tat­ing life-long behav­ioral change in residents.”

Yet, schol­ars and res­i­dents paint a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Most of what hap­pens in Rushville is group ther­a­py,” says Vogler. There are dif­fer­ent phas­es of treat­ment, and to advance to phas­es, you have to par­tic­i­pate in cer­tain groups. They get lit­tle indi­vid­ual atten­tion. You can’t do effec­tive treat­ment for some­one the state has found severe­ly ill by only doing group AA-type treatment.”

"If you want to end sexual violence, you have to end this too. This is a form of sexual violence.” —Emma Williams, advocate

As part of those treat­ments,” Vogler con­tin­ues, they have to talk about their sex lives in extreme detail, from how many sex part­ners they’ve been with to what types of sex­u­al acts they’ve done to what fan­tasies they mas­tur­bate to to how fre­quent­ly they masturbate.”

Arring­ton says he thinks such a treat­ment pro­gram would be active­ly harm­ful for him. They have res­i­dents run­ning the group,” he says. I can’t do the group treat­ment. I have PTSD from my time in prison. I can’t deal with that. You’re deal­ing with guys talk­ing about all the things they’ve done… I can’t deal with hear­ing that stuff.”

It’s not that Arring­ton is unwill­ing to talk about the harm he has caused. He told In These Times that he wants to be open about the rape he com­mit­ted in 1989. I would­n’t want to try to sug­ar coat it or noth­ing,” he says. I broke into my neigh­bor’s house and assault­ed her.” But accord­ing to Arring­ton, group ther­a­py in a prison-like set­ting, in which any­thing he dis­cuss­es can be used against him in a tri­al, is not going to bring account­abil­i­ty or heal­ing for any­one. I can under­stand want­i­ng some kind of atone­ment,” he says. But we served our time.”

Oth­er peo­ple held in Rushville seem to share sim­i­lar con­cerns about treat­ment. In the spring of 2019, the civ­il com­mit­ment work­ing group of Black and Pink: Chica­go, a prison abo­li­tion­ist orga­ni­za­tion, sent a sur­vey to 569 peo­ple being held in Rushville — which the orga­ni­za­tion says was rough­ly the full pop­u­la­tion at the time. The group received 204 respons­es, which it began ana­lyz­ing that sum­mer. While the orga­ni­za­tion plans to release a for­mal report in the com­ing months, it shared a one-page sum­ma­ry of pre­lim­i­nary find­ings with In These Times. The con­clu­sions are dire.

Res­i­dents com­plained about unqual­i­fied ther­a­pists,” some of them stu­dents, as well as a high turnover prob­lem, and the gen­er­al lack of a trust­ing ther­a­peu­tic rela­tion­ship” this engen­ders. They also com­plained about a cli­mate of favoritism, in which res­i­dents are incen­tivized to kiss ass.” Res­i­dents say, Civ­il com­mit­ment is a life sen­tence, a death sen­tence; they were sent there to die, believe they will die here.” Respon­dents expressed con­cern about homo­pho­bia of staff and vio­la­tion of rights of gay and trans­gen­der peo­ple.” They described an unfair tier sys­tem: no con­sis­ten­cy or trans­paren­cy in appli­ca­tion of tier or behav­ior sta­tus sys­tems; dif­fi­cult to progress, unclear stan­dards for pro­gres­sive, arbi­trary, used for pun­ish­ment rather than treat­ment.” It’s a scam,” farce,” indef­i­nite,” end­less,” is not about treat­ment or pub­lic safe­ty, and is only open for polit­i­cal or finan­cial rea­sons,” the doc­u­ment states.

Alle­ga­tions of pro­found neg­li­gence and mis­treat­ment have also been aired in law­suits. In May 2015, five men detained at the Rushville facil­i­ty waged a law­suit charg­ing that men­tal­ly ill res­i­dents” of Rushville are gross­ly neglect­ed, mis­treat­ed, mocked, abused and unfair­ly cat­e­go­rized as unco­op­er­a­tive malin­ger­ers.” The suit also claims that these indi­vid­u­als are retal­i­at­ed against for fil­ing griev­ances or help­ing oth­ers file griev­ances, and that they can­not get the sex offend­er treat­ment” that they seek.

The law­suit, which names sev­er­al defen­dants, includ­ing Lib­er­ty Health­care Cor­po­ra­tion and the facility’s direc­tor, pro­vides gris­ly anec­dotes. If they try to com­mit sui­cide by hang­ing them­selves with a sheet from their beds, they will be writ­ten up for destruc­tion of state prop­er­ty,” the law­suit states. It con­tin­ues, What lim­it­ed and errat­ic care there is, is pro­vid­ed chiefly by med­ica­tion. A res­i­dent with para­noid schiz­o­phre­nia may see a psy­chi­a­trist once a month, to re-up’ his med­ica­tion, and a social work­er once a month.” The law­suit charges,“Residents on sui­cide watch are neglect­ed, abused or both. They can be stripped naked, placed in a cell with no mat­tress or blankets.”

These con­di­tions vio­late the con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­hi­bi­tion of cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment, alleges the law­suit, which was even­tu­al­ly dismissed.

Eri­ca Mein­ers, pro­fes­sor of women’s and gen­der stud­ies at North­east­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty and co-author of the book, The Fem­i­nist and The Sex Offend­er, says such com­plaints are com­mon among peo­ple held in civ­il com­mit­ment across the coun­try. Invari­ably, the peo­ple who work at these places, are usu­al­ly sort of interns. They get practicum stu­dents who are try­ing to get hours toward their psy­chother­a­py degree. They don’t stay long — they stay a year or so. In most of these states, the treat­ment mod­el is a stage mod­el. You have to pass a poly­graph test to move from stage to stage. Then they have to start from square one again, because the psy­chother­a­pist left after a year because they got a bet­ter job. And then they’re in there for anoth­er year.”

A lot of the peo­ple in these insti­tu­tions have been insti­tu­tion­al­ized for decades and have endured incred­i­ble harm and done harm. These are intense and com­plex cas­es,” says Mein­ers. If we’re say­ing we’re doing treat­ment, we need the real thing here, not a wide range of prac­tices that are not nec­es­sar­i­ly proven to be effective.”

In 1999, a task force of the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric Asso­ci­a­tion strong­ly crit­i­cized civ­il com­mit­ment in its pub­li­ca­tion, Dan­ger­ous Sex Offend­ers.” It states, In the opin­ion of the Task Force, sex­u­al preda­tor com­mit­ment laws rep­re­sent a seri­ous assault on the integri­ty of psy­chi­a­try, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regard to defin­ing men­tal ill­ness and the clin­i­cal con­di­tions for com­pul­so­ry treat­ment. More­over, by bend­ing civ­il com­mit­ment to serve essen­tial­ly non-med­ical pur­pos­es, sex­u­al preda­tor com­mit­ment stat­ues threat­en to under­mine the legit­i­ma­cy of the med­ical mod­el of commitment.”

The APA con­cludes, In the opin­ion of the Task Force, psy­chi­a­try must vig­or­ous­ly oppose these statutes in order to pre­serve the moral author­i­ty of the pro­fes­sion and to ensure con­tin­u­ing soci­etal con­fi­dence in the med­ical mod­el of civ­il commitment.”

Men­tal Health Amer­i­ca, a non-prof­it that aims to meet the needs of peo­ple liv­ing with men­tal ill­ness, express­es sim­i­lar con­cerns about civ­il com­mit­ment. They focus on pun­ish­ment rather than treat­ment, deal with peo­ple who often do not have a treat­able men­tal ill­ness, increase stig­ma, dis­tort civ­il com­mit­ment, risk the safe­ty of oth­er per­sons in men­tal health facil­i­ties, divert resources from men­tal health­care and inap­pro­pri­ate­ly bur­den the men­tal health sys­tem with a crim­i­nal jus­tice func­tion for which it is not fund­ed or equipped,” the organization’s web­site states.

Con­tro­ver­sial assess­ment methods

Crit­ics point out that the tests and eval­u­a­tion tools used to assess whether an indi­vid­ual can progress through the treat­ment pro­gram at the Rushville facil­i­ty are not uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed as sound sci­ence. Lawyers, schol­ars and res­i­dents con­firmed to In These Times that peo­ple held in Rushville have to take poly­graph lie detec­tor” tests, which have been broad­ly dis­cred­it­ed as junk sci­ence. In a posi­tion state­ment on this test, the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion advis­es, although the idea of a lie detec­tor may be com­fort­ing, the most prac­ti­cal advice is to remain skep­ti­cal about any con­clu­sion wrung from a polygraph.”

There is anoth­er, more inva­sive test peo­ple held at the Rushville facil­i­ty must take if they wish to progress, accord­ing to lawyers, schol­ars and res­i­dents: The penile plethys­mo­graph. Vogler explains, A blood pres­sure test or tube is placed on a man’s penis, and then he is either shown porno­graph­ic images or pre­sent­ed with audio vignettes of sex­u­al sit­u­a­tions, and they gauge his erec­tile response. This is how they deter­mine if they think some­one is sex­u­al­ly dan­ger­ous. If some­one shows arousal to a scene involv­ing coer­cion or forced sex­u­al pen­e­tra­tion, then they could take that as indi­ca­tion of under­ly­ing sex­u­al danger.”

“We served our time, and then they turn our sentence into a life sentence." —Otis Arrington, held in the Rushville facility

In its brochure, the Lib­er­ty Health­care Cor­po­ra­tion acknowl­edges its use of the test, stat­ing, Detec­tion and mea­sure­ment of deviant sex­u­al arousal is an impor­tant index of response to treat­ment and treat­ment effectiveness.”

But the penile plethys­mo­graph is a con­tro­ver­sial pro­ce­dure, and numer­ous experts do not con­sid­er it sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly reli­able. For one, it is pos­si­ble to sti­fle an erec­tion by focus­ing one’s mind on oth­er, non-arous­ing thoughts. In addi­tion, becom­ing aroused by rep­re­sen­ta­tions or descrip­tions of vio­lent acts does not prove that an indi­vid­ual will com­mit sex­u­al vio­lence in the future. Final­ly, as psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Bea­con Col­lege in Flori­da, Dr. A.J. Mars­den, told VICE, A lot of ther­a­pists think [the penile plethys­mo­graph is] not the best mea­sure to prove if they are real­ly attract­ed to the images they show them.”

Accord­ing to Vogler, the test reflects a poor under­stand­ing of how sex­u­al­i­ty and anato­my works. This is not a good test.” He con­tin­ues, Peo­ple have brought law­suits say­ing this is cru­el and unusu­al pun­ish­ment and inva­sion of pri­va­cy. Often peo­ple freeze at those points in treat­ment, and they can’t progress and if they can’t progress they can nev­er be released.”

Most U.S. courts do not con­sid­er evi­dence obtained by penile plethys­mo­graph to be admis­si­ble to deter­mine guilt or inno­cence. In 2006, the U.S. Ninth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals ruled that the penile plethys­mo­graph vio­lat­ed the civ­il lib­er­ties of the defen­dant, a man who was con­vict­ed of pos­sess­ing child pornog­ra­phy. The court stat­ed that it viewed penile plethys­mog­ra­phy as an intru­sive pro­ce­dure, both phys­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, liken­ing the pro­ce­dure to a device from a George Orwell nov­el,” accord­ing to a sum­ma­ry of the case pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Psy­chi­a­try and the Law.

Yet, with­in the Rushville facil­i­ty, such a test could play a role in deter­min­ing whether some­one remains con­fined, lawyers, schol­ars and res­i­dents confirmed.

These are not the only assess­ment meth­ods that have gar­nered crit­i­cism. Anoth­er eval­u­a­tion tool — the Sta­t­ic-99—came up in numer­ous inter­views, with experts express­ing con­cern that homo­pho­bia is baked into its meth­ods. The Sta­t­ic-99 and oth­er updat­ed ver­sions of this tool are broad­ly used in civ­il com­mit­ment cas­es — includ­ing at Rushville — to eval­u­ate the risk posed by peo­ple con­vict­ed of sex crimes. One of the ques­tions this tool asks is whether the indi­vid­u­als, who the state deems to be men, had a male vic­tim. If so, they are deter­mined to be more dangerous.

Accord­ing to Vogler, There is bias built into the objec­tive’ actu­ar­i­al tool we use to eval­u­ate people.”

Hoppe puts it suc­cinct­ly: They are assign­ing a high­er risk score to gay men necessarily.”

Not the right way to address sex­u­al violence

Civ­il com­mit­ment laws spread through­out the Unit­ed States dur­ing the 1990s-era pan­ic about crime, and the relat­ed 1990s and ear­ly 2000s expan­sion of sex offend­er noti­fi­ca­tion and reg­istry laws. Some ves­tiges of the tough-on-crime 90s, like the 1994 crime bill and the 1996 Prison Lit­i­ga­tion Reform Act, have fall­en out of favor in recent years, due to con­cerns over mass incar­cer­a­tion. Yet, civ­il com­mit­ment laws remain rel­a­tive­ly polit­i­cal­ly unchal­lenged, in a cli­mate where few want to ques­tion laws that tar­get peo­ple con­vict­ed of sex offens­es. There are very few coura­geous law­mak­ers who are going to say, Hey, we need to look at this,’” says Tony Thed­ford, a lawyer with expe­ri­ence lit­i­gat­ing SVP cas­es in Illinois.

Pro­po­nents of civ­il com­mit­ment laws cite the need to pro­tect pub­lic safe­ty from dan­ger­ous sex­u­al preda­tors. Illi­nois’ Sex­u­al­ly Vio­lent Per­sons Act and the eval­u­a­tion by the IDOC is the clos­est thing we have to a crys­tal ball when it comes to deter­min­ing whether an offend­er will attack again,” then-Illi­nois Attor­ney Gen­er­al Lisa Madi­gan said in a 2006 state­ment announc­ing an expan­sion of the law. This process is designed to iden­ti­fy those offend­ers for whom it is sub­stan­tial­ly prob­a­ble that they will engage in future acts of sex­u­al vio­lence and to keep them out of soci­ety for as long as they remain a danger.”

But, accord­ing to Mein­ers, There is no research that shows states with civ­il com­mit­ment have low­er inci­dents of sex­u­al assault than states that don’t have civ­il commitment.”

Indeed, a study pub­lished in Brook­lyn Law Review in 2013, based on orig­i­nal data gath­ered direct­ly from states with SVP laws,” found, SVP laws have had no dis­cernible impact on the inci­dence of sex crimes.” The arti­cle con­cludes, These results imply that states could more effec­tive­ly reduce sex crimes by allo­cat­ing these resources elsewhere.”

Hoppe puts it this way: These pro­grams don’t make us safer in real­i­ty. Many would say it makes them feel safer. We’re not real­ly tack­ling the prob­lem, just mak­ing a lot of people’s lives insufferable.”

What’s more, crit­ics charge that civ­il com­mit­ment sends the false mes­sage that the key to stop­ping sex­u­al vio­lence is pro­tect­ing mem­bers of the pub­lic from dan­ger­ous strangers. Accord­ing to the Rape, Abuse & Incest Nation­al Net­work, an anti-sex­u­al vio­lence group, eight out of 10 rapes are com­mit­ted by some­one known to the vic­tim.” Mein­ers says civ­il com­mit­ment per­pet­u­ates the myth that stranger dan­ger” is the big­ger threat. It’s over­whelm­ing­ly peo­ple that we know, peo­ple inti­mate to the fam­i­ly cir­cle,” she says. We should­n’t be falling for that line.”

Peo­ple held in civ­il com­mit­ment are osten­si­bly mem­bers of the pub­lic, so any claims that the laws pro­tect pub­lic safe­ty must take their well­be­ing into account. Emma Williams is a vol­un­teer for Black and Pink: Chica­go who helped run the sur­vey of res­i­dents at the Rushville facil­i­ty, and she became con­cerned about civ­il com­mit­ment as a result of her years of sup­port­ing sex­u­al assault sur­vivors. A num­ber of peo­ple in the sys­tem are sur­vivors them­selves, par­tic­u­lar­ly of child­hood sex­u­al assault,” she says. Williams empha­sizes that peo­ple in civ­il com­mit­ment say it doesn’t work, they feel judged and have to recount every sex­u­al trau­ma they’ve suf­fered since child­hood. They’re hav­ing to do that in a sit­u­a­tion where every­thing you’re shar­ing is shared with a prosecutor.”

If you want to end sex­u­al vio­lence,” argues Williams, you have to end this too. This is a form of sex­u­al violence.”

As long as we focus on things like civ­il com­mit­ment as the solu­tion to sex­u­al assault, we are not pur­su­ing actu­al solu­tions, crit­ics charge. As a fem­i­nist, I’m some­one who has a his­to­ry of being com­mit­ted to end­ing gen­der and sex­u­al vio­lence,” explains Mein­ers. What push­es me to con­tin­ue this work is that the cur­rent régime of more pun­ish­ment of peo­ple with con­vic­tions is not the path. If we’re com­mit­ted to end­ing gen­der and sex­u­al vio­lence, we have to do that work. This sys­tem func­tions as a resource drain and dis­trac­tion from the real ques­tions that we as com­mu­ni­ties, fam­i­lies and soci­ety need to be addressing.”

Accord­ing to Mein­ers, a par­a­digm shift” is need­ed. If we’re think­ing about child sex­u­al vio­lence, which dri­ves a lot of anx­i­ety around civ­il com­mit­ment and the push for crim­i­nal­iza­tion, approx­i­mate­ly one in five young peo­ple lives in pover­ty across the Unit­ed States,” she says. We have no mean­ing­ful child­care, we have no gen­der-affirm­ing fem­i­nist sex edu­ca­tion in pub­lic schools. We need shifts that would let fam­i­lies, moth­ers and care­givers have some social safe­ty net that’s actu­al­ly mean­ing­ful. Those are just some things that are preventative.”

"If the Rushville facility is supposed to treat people until they are no longer 'sexually violent' and can therefore be released, it appears to be failing on its own terms."

Williams, for her part, empha­sizes the need for gen­uine account­abil­i­ty and resti­tu­tion for harm done. While there are like­ly some wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed peo­ple inside, for those who tru­ly did cause harm that they must account for, account­abil­i­ty is some­thing that must hap­pen with­in their com­mu­ni­ty,” she says. When you remove some­one from their com­mu­ni­ty indef­i­nite­ly, they’re not going to want to change their behav­ior because they will no longer feel a sense of account­abil­i­ty to that com­mu­ni­ty. It’s a sys­tem of pun­ish­ment and also iso­la­tion.”

Amid grow­ing calls to defund the police, and the for­ay of con­cepts like prison abo­li­tion into main­stream dis­course, Mein­ers says now is an impor­tant time to take a long, hard look at the civ­il com­mit­ment sys­tem. Yet, even as mass incar­cer­a­tion falls fur­ther out of polit­i­cal favor, few politi­cians are will­ing to expend their polit­i­cal cap­i­tal pro­tect­ing the rights of peo­ple con­vict­ed of sex crimes. There is lit­tle to gain from defend­ing those peo­ple whom soci­ety has deter­mined to be irre­deemable and less than human. The result is that places like the Rushville facil­i­ty oper­ate with lit­tle over­sight and pro­tec­tion for those held inside.

It’s so depress­ing here, I’m sur­prised more peo­ple haven’t com­mit­ted sui­cide,” says Arring­ton. I con­sid­ered that when I first got here.” Des­per­ate for release, Arring­ton says over the phone he fears he will spend the rest of his life in the Rushville facil­i­ty.

No one,” he says, wants to stand up for peo­ple in this kind of program.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

Limited Time: