America's Toughest Prisons: Sex Offenders

Monday 14th September 10.00pm

The documentary series that unlocks the doors of the United States’ most notorious prisons continues. This edition focuses on a Colorado jail dedicated to sex offenders. Fremont State Prison houses 1,400 sex offenders, many of whom are compelled to undergo therapy to face up to their crimes. But with violence and victimisation simmering under the surface, staff know they must remain vigilant.

Fremont State Prison in Colorado is home to 1,600 prisoners, around 1,400 of whom are guilty of sex offences. In the penal system, sex offenders are regarded with contempt and disgust by other inmates, who categorise them according to the severity of their crime. Rapists occupy the top rung of the ladder while child molesters are considered the lowest of the low.

The prisoners are divided into cell houses containing around 250 men, guarded by just six officers. “We’re definitely outnumbered,” affirms Officer MacLaine. “If one of them wanted to create a problem… it would be an issue.” The guards must impose order and prevent inmates victimising other prisoners. In particular, they must stop convicts from imposing a ‘rent’ system on their cellmates – forcing them to pay for their bed in contraband.

Many of the guards are female, which represents a particularly tough challenge when handling inmates. “Some of them just absolutely can’t stand women,” says MacLaine. It is vital that guards do not become friendly with prisoners or share personal information. Interactions are kept to a two-sentence limit. “These inmates are sex offenders,” says Sgt Festimi. “They’re gonna try to manipulate you.”

Randall is serving time for sexually assaulting his 12- year-old stepdaughter. He is one of the few inmates to talk openly about his crime and does so in an effort to change people’s perceptions about sex offenders. “Sex offenders are singled out because they picked on the most innocent people,” he says simply. “They get off on victimising people that can’t fight back.” Randall points out that they cannot get away with lying about the nature of their crime: “The only thing you have in here is your word. Once you blow that, you’re not good for anything.”

In Fremont, sex offenders find that they have safety in numbers. Some inmates, guilty of other types of crimes, are appalled by the relative freedom allowed to child molesters and the like. “They’re just happy to be alive, because anywhere else they’d be dead,” says drug dealer Sean.

One inmate who feels particularly concerned about his personal safety is Matthew, who refuses to discuss the nature of his offence. “I wanna do my time peacefully and not have any problems,” he says. Having received threats, he deliberately floods his cell to earn himself 20 days in solitary confinement. After returning to general population, he earns another 30 days in segregation by cutting his wrist. Staff can do little to prevent Matthew from manipulating the system to get what he wants.

A key part of the jail’s work is to rehabilitate prisoners for release. Phase one of this programme is group therapy, in which sex offenders are encouraged to discuss their crimes and accept the blame for the first time. “You have to work with them, confront them in a respectful manner and get them to talk about the issues,” says social worker Mr McGill.

Phase two occurs in a separate facility within the prison, where 96 inmates are slowly prepared for release. The manager, Mr McCullough, accepts that some offenders may never be suitable for parole, but believes that rehabilitation is always preferable to life imprisonment. “Personally I don’t just believe in throwing people away,” he says. As he speaks, the latest batch of inmates wait to see if they have gained the chance for a fresh start in the outside world.

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