Please Note: This episode is largely about sexual violence towards children. Most of the descriptions throughout the audio are clinical, but one description from our court recordings is particularly graphic and disturbing. Keep this in mind, especially if you are listening within earshot of children.
McNeil Island sits in Washington State's Puget Sound, just three miles northwest of Steilacoom. For much of its existence, the island served as a fishing outpost for indigenous coastal people. But for the last 150-odd years, McNeil Island has been a place to house society's undesirables. Soon after white settlers claimed it in the 1850s, they built a prison there--Charles Manson served a stint there, long before his infamous Hollywood killing spree. At that point, McNeil Island was a sustainable community that consisted of the prison staff and their family members. There were houses, an elementary school and a graveyard.
But the world changed, and the island prison became too expensive to operate. In 2011 the prison closed, the inmates were relocated, and the staff moved to the mainland.
McNeil Island's abandoned prison visible from the city of Steilacoom, Washington. The Special Commitment Center is hidden behind the crest of the hill.
But by then, McNeil Island had sprouted a different kind of facility, also nested inside razor wire. It wasn't a prison, but its residents weren't exactly allowed to leave.
It was a late summer morning in 1989 when Washington Governor Booth Gardner came to work at the state capital to find thousands of empty tennis shoes dumped at the capital steps. The shoes were left there by demonstrators calling for harsher punishments for sex offenders. The group did it in response to several gruesome crimes that had happened earlier that year; crimes which the activists argued were enabled by lax sentencing laws and early releases for violent prisoners. The group called themselves the Tennis Shoe Brigade, and the shoes they brought were meant to represent the forgotten victims of rape. Their action prompted Governor Gardner to assemble the Task Force on Community Protection.
That fall, as the Governor Gardner's task force deliberated, serial child rapist Westley Allen Dodd raped and murdered three young boys in Vancouver, Washington. Despite Dodd's long criminal history of child molestation, he never served a full prison sentence for his crimes. Even Dodd himself felt the legal system had failed him and his victims, telling one reporter, "If you add up all the prison time I was given but never made to serve, I'd be in prison until 2026... and those boys would still be alive." Dodd wrote a pamphlet advising children on how to avoid violent sex offenders like him.
One of several patrol boats that puttered around Steilacoom Ferry Dock.
In the wake of Dodd's crimes, the task force penned the Community Protection Act of 1990. This act required law enforcement to keep a sex offender registry, and allowed for the civil commitment of Sexually Violent Predators, or SVPs. This meant that this special class of sex offenders could be legally and indefinitely detained after they'd served their criminal sentences if the court deemed them likely (aka. more than 50% likely) to re-offend, if released into the public. But, per the law, civil commitment would be rehabilitative, not punitive, and therefore wouldn't violate double jeopardy. The act passed into law RCW 71.09 also known as the Sexually Violent Predator law.
In order for a sex offender to be deemed an SVP in Washington, they must meet three criteria (per RCW 71.09)
- They must have been convicted or charged of a sexually violent crime.
- They must be suffer from a "personality disorder" or a "mental abnormality", and
- That condition must make them likely to commit predatory acts of sexual violence if not confined in a secure facility.
In Washington State, that secure facility is the Special Commitment Center (SCC) on McNeil Island. It's not a prison, but a treatment facility administrated by Washington State's Department of Social and Health Services. DSHS told us that (as of publish date) 242 people are confined on the island.
An empty boat meant for transporting vehicles at the Steilacoom Ferry Dock.
There have been two supreme court challenges to Washington's SVP law (other states have challenged too). One plaintiff claimed inadequate treatment, the other claimed they were serving a second prison term. Both times, the court ruled in favor of Washington's law.
This episode is about a man named Chris. To protect him, his family and his victims, we're only referring to him by first name.
According to court documents, Chris was nine years old when he started molesting his younger siblings in the mid 1980s. Eventually he started molesting other children in the neighborhood, and even had sexual contact with one of the family dogs. The documents say that In 1995, at age 16, Chris was caught with a 12 year old neighbor boy who he'd pinned down; both boys were naked from the waist down and Chris had either penetrated the boy with his penis or had inserted it between the boys legs (records vary). By the time he was convicted, further questioning established that Chris had forced sexual contact on other children hundreds of times, including his younger siblings. He was sent to juvenile detention for two years, where he stayed until he was 18. He was released on parole.
Throughout his life, Chris has been medicated with psychotropics for a number of diagnoses: ADD/ADHD, Bipolar, Tourette Syndrome, Bipolar 2, Tardive Dyskinesia, Anti-Social Personality Disorder. His medications included Lithium, Luvox, Clonidine, Anafranil, Risperdal, Paxil, Serzone, Effexor, and Tegretol.
Within a few months of his release, Chris checked himself into an inpatient mental health facility in Seattle for a psych evaluation. Court documents say that Chris kissed up to three other residents during his stay, and later asked staff repeatedly for contact information for one of the women. He started telling staff of his violent sexual fantasies about rape. The documents also say he disclosed fantasies about having sex with human organs and body parts, as well as fantasies about having sex with large sea and land mammals.
Given his history of forced sexual contact and the graphic and deviant nature of his fantasies, the hospital staff filed a petition to have Chris classified as an SVP. He was given a number of tests to measure the severity of his sexual deviance. One of these tests was a penile plethysmegraph (PPG) in which they wrapped a pressure-sensitive, plastic band around Chris's penis and measured his arousal to sexual visual and audio stimuli. He was also analyzed through an actuarial tool called the Static 99R which attempts to statistically predict a sex offender's chance of recidivism. Near the time of his commitment, one of the doctors analyzing Chris wrote this:
"Christopher clearly presents an extremely high risk of sexual assault of younger or vulnerable persons of either sex…Under no circumstances should he return to live with his family now or in the foreseeable future."
As a result, the SVP unit of the King County prosecutors' office drew up a stipulation for Chris. This stipulation would designate Chris as an SVP and send him to live indefinitely at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. However, Chris would be allowed to challenge his civil commitment in front of a jury of his peers. And when he did so, the burden of proof would be on the state to prove that Chris continued to meet SVP criteria.
Trains regularly pass by the Steilacoom Ferry Dock. This one carries military equipment. Presumably, this shipment is bound for nearby Fort Lewis.
Soon after he got to the island, Chris said he changed. Nearly immediately, he requested to take a medication holiday. According to documents written by his lawyers, soon after he stopped taking the medications, the most egregious fantasies dissipated. He describes being on the medications as being in a mental fog, as if he were drunk. He does not claim that his offenses were a result of being overly medicated, but he does believe his inhibition was lowered. By the second year of his commitment, Chris stopped attending group therapy with the other SCC residents. He says that by then he no longer experienced deviant fantasies, and that recounting his offenses week after week was not conducive to his recovery. We found no evidence that he's sexually assaulted anyone since arriving on the island.
In late 2015, per the stipulation he signed when he was 18, Chris received a trial for his unconditional release. One of his attorneys, Andrew Morrison, contacted us to see if we were interested in attending the trial. We said "yes."
A month-long juried trial ensued. The verdict came back unanimously against the State of Washington. They had failed to prove that Chris continued to meet the definition of an SVP. On March 17th, 2016, Chris was released from the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. According to Andrew Morrison, Chris registered as a Level 2 sex offender shortly after his release, as was required of him.
The topic of recidivism for sex offenders is hotly contested, since sex crimes are often unreported and good data for long-term recidivism is sparse. However, some of the best numbers we have come from a report put together by the Office of Justice Programs. They reported that, compared to other criminals, sex offenders are re-arrested at significantly lower rates. They also report that after three years after a sex offender's release, five percent were re-arrested a sexual crime. After 15 years, 24% were re-arrested for a sex crime.
It's been almost 26 years since the Community Protection Act of 1990 paved the road to civil commitment laws in 20 states and the District of Columbia. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which instated a federal system of civil commitment.
Detail of the abandoned prison on McNeil Island.
In 2015, an advocacy group called Disability Rights Washington drafted a lawsuit against the SCC on McNeil Island. They claimed that the SCC failed to provide adequate treatment for mentally disabled residents, making commitment there more punitive than rehabilitative. This claim is backed by a 2013 Washington State Institute for Public Policy Report that cites special needs residents who were receiving just 2 hours of treatment per week in 2011.
That same WSIPP report cites that the cost of Special Commitment Center is roughly $150,000 per resident per year (and significantly more for those in transitional programs). The center received $47,609,000 in the 2013 state budget. Civil commitment at the SCC is roughly five times more expensive than incarceration in a Washington State prison.
Jeff Emtman and Bethany Denton produced this piece. George Lavender fact-checked the audio for this story. Nick White did content editing.
People who appear on tape (in order of first appearance):
Bethany Denton - Host
Jeff Emtman - Host
Andrew Morrison - One of Chris's Defense Attorneys
Chris - Former SVP
Jennifer Ritchie - King County Prosecutor's Head of the Sexually Violent Predator Unit
Alison Bogar - King County Prosecutor
Bill Bowman - Judge
Dr. Harry Goldberg - Expert for Prosecutors
Dr. Joseph Plaud - Expert for Defenders
Dr. Holly Coryell - SCC's Head of Clinical Treatment
Others who provided background information, but were not heard in audio:
Christine Sanders - Chris's other defense attorney
Kristen Richardson - King County Prosecutor
Chris Wright - Communications for Washington's Department of Social and Health Services
For this story, we were originally granted permission to visit the island to interview Dr. Coryell and Chris. However, that permission was revoked because our scheduled date happened to coincide with Chris's release date. The SCC was unwilling to reschedule us. Mark Strong, the CEO of the SCC declined our request for an interview.
Music: The Black Spot
Photos: Jeff Emtman