Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

These 10 Questions Can Mean Life Behind Bars

A short checklist called the Static-99 weighs facts about a sex offender’s past in order to predict the likelihood of future crimes. Many legal and scientific experts worry that the way the test is often used — to make high-stakes decisions about an individual’s liberty — is critically flawed.

Hersey Lelaind knew he was in trouble — just not how much trouble. He and a housemate had been on a drive, and Lelaind had been smoking pot. When they returned to their home in Vacaville, California, the sheriff’s department was waiting.

“We pull into the driveway. They draw down guns on us and tell us to get out of the car,” Lelaind said in an interview with BuzzFeed News last May. Both men were living with other parolees in a house that had been targeted for a sweep to check for violations. The cops led Lelaind, handcuffed, through the front door of the house, which had already been searched. They made him give a urine sample.

Lelaind knew he’d test positive for marijuana. But after spending the past few years bouncing in and out of jail, mostly for minor parole violations, he wasn’t afraid of another 30-day stretch. I can do that standing on my head, he thought.

That was in 2006, when Lelaind was 26 years old. He’s been kept under lock and key ever since. His problem wasn’t the drug bust itself. But the bust prompted the authorities to review Lelaind’s checkered past. As a teenager, he had been convicted for sexual abuse against a minor — and had served his time.

That fact, along with other aspects of his criminal and life history, were entered into the “Static-99,” a little-known but highly influential questionnaire that critics contend is being tragically misused. The test spit out a score that set him on the path to being locked up in a state psychiatric facility. Why? Because he might commit another crime in the future. He doesn’t know if he will ever be released.

Lelaind is one of thousands of men detained under so-called “civil commitment” laws enacted by 20 states, Washington, D.C., and the federal government. Under these laws, offenders who have been judged to be a high risk can be detained indefinitely — not as criminals, but as psychiatric patients.

The Static-99 helps decide which offenders are the riskiest, and looms large over civil commitment proceedings. It weighs a variety of facts about a sex offender’s past in order to predict the likelihood of future offenses.

More precisely, what the Static-99 predicts — with modest accuracy, at best — is the risk that men within a group of sex offenders will commit a new sex offense, compared to other members of that group. Experts agree that it’s a useful tool for managing sex offenders in prison — assessing which of them need higher levels of security, for example. But the way the test is used in civil commitment — to help make high-stakes decisions about offenders’ liberty after they have served their criminal sentences — is highly controversial.

Civil commitment is “a ridiculous solution on multiple levels,” Raymond Knight of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, who studies sexual aggression, told BuzzFeed News. He doubts that it will ever be possible to devise a test that is predictive enough to justify locking individuals away indefinitely for something they might do in future.

In civil commitment trials, Static-99 scores are often converted into precise-sounding rates of reoffending. But over the last few years, as the test’s powers of prediction have been studied in diverse groups of released sex offenders, two big problems have emerged.

First, the original group of Canadian and British criminals used to validate the test came from an earlier era in which sexual violence was more common than it is today. Even for their time, these criminals seem to have been particularly dangerous. This means that the reoffending rates quoted in many civil commitment trials have been significantly overestimated.

What’s more, reoffending rates vary widely among the different groups of men in which the Static-99 has been studied — making it extremely hard to know how to convert a Static-99 score to a meaningful prediction of an individual’s future behavior. To which group should he be compared? Prosecution and defense experts tend to disagree on the answer, and consequently wind up quoting widely differing estimates.

These are not minor issues. And yet the Static-99 remains a cornerstone of civil commitment.

“It’s being relied upon so heavily,” Karen Franklin, a forensic psychologist in El Cerrito, California, who spoke for the defense at Lelaind’s civil commitment trial, told BuzzFeed News. “I think it’s an attempt to make this whole process seem more scientific than it is.”

Lelaind grew up in the projects of Bayview-Hunters Point, a mostly black neighborhood of San Francisco where unemployment and poverty were rife. He was the middle of three boys, all of whom were removed from their crack-addicted mother by the city’s Department of Social Services in 1987, when Lelaind was 6.

The boys moved into their grandfather’s home, and this helped, at first. But later social services documents describe a deteriorating situation in which Lelaind’s increasingly disruptive behavior was met with harsh physical punishment. By 1990, Lelaind was continually getting into fights at school, and had started what he called “bootie-bumping” other children, grinding his crotch against their buttocks.

Most of these incidents were with his younger brother, but one social services document states that it also happened with an 18-month-old baby who was living in the home. Lelaind’s grandfather responded to what he called this “punkish and sissy” behavior with more beatings. By then the old man was running into financial and marital problems, and was in poor health. He could no longer cope.

So Lelaind, then aged 10, and his younger brother were placed in a foster home across the San Francisco Bay, in Oakland. Lelaind continued grinding himself against his brother, and was once found in bed with his foster parents’ 11-year-old adoptive daughter. Lelaind was removed from the placement and for the remainder of his childhood lived in a series of group homes.

When he was 15, criminal charges were filed against him twice. Once he tried to hit a group home worker with a vacuum cleaner. The second incident involved a sexual assault against a 10-year-old boy in his group home. The boy accused Lelaind of trying to remove his pants and threatening to rape him. Lelaind denied it, but was ordered by a juvenile court to participate in sex offender treatment.

Lelaind’s offenses continued into young adulthood. When he was 18, he was convicted of sexually abusing a 10-year-old female relative. The abuse happened on a number of occasions, though the specifics are murky. Lelaind denied that there was any penetration, but pleaded “no contest” to the charge of “lewd and lascivious acts” with a minor and was sentenced to three years in prison.

When he was released on parole, in April 2002, the state did not pursue civil commitment. California then required qualifying offenses of sexual violence against two or more victims. Lelaind had just one, his young relative.

Back on the streets, Lelaind, now 21, couldn’t keep out of trouble. Six times he violated parole, each time spending months back inside. The first was for possession of pornography. Others were for minor infractions such as violating curfew or talking to some 17-year-old boys while out riding his bike. Another time a parole officer found he was dating a woman with a young child, breaching the terms of his release. Lelaind also had sexual relations with two 17-year-old girls. One of these cases resulted in a new two-year sentence, after he pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse.

Yet throughout this time, there is no evidence that Lelaind repeated his original offense, no record of any sexual interest in prepubescent children, and none of the violent outbursts that blighted his youth.

By the time of the parole sweep, in November 2006, Lelaind was living in a transitional home with other sex offenders in Vacaville. As well as testing positive for marijuana, he was again busted for possessing pornography. Records from this arrest show that the offending items were pictures of seminude women and copies of King magazine, a mainstream title aimed at young black men featuring rappers, urban fashion, and scantily clad models.

Even with an additional parole violation for pornography, Lelaind expected to spend just three months inside. But when the time for his release came around, nothing happened. When Lelaind asked why he hadn’t been let out, he was told he had a 45-day hold from something called the “SVP” (for sexually violent predator) program. Lelaind’s sex with his 17-year-old girlfriends did not count as sexual violence. But in 2006, California had amended its civil commitment law, so now one victim was enough.

In February 2007, Lelaind was referred to two state-appointed psychologists, who each filled out the Static-99 as part of their assessments. Both concluded that he met the criteria to be judged a sexually violent predator, setting the stage for his civil commitment trial.

Civil commitment laws came about in response to high-profile cases in which released sex criminals carried out horrendous acts of violence. The first, passed by Washington state in 1990, followed the conviction of Earl Shriner, who raped a 7-year-old boy, cut off his penis, and left him for dead in the woods. Shriner had a history of sadistic assaults, including the killing of a 15-year-old girl. He was also known to fantasize about kidnap and torture.

The value of keeping monsters like Shriner locked away is clear. But few sex offenders are as obviously dangerous as he is. In general, rates of reconviction are low: Only about 5% of sex offenders are convicted of a new sex crime within five years of release. Some are undoubtedly more dangerous than others, but forensic psychologists are remarkably bad at predicting which ones pose the greatest risk. Their “expert” judgment, studies have shown, is not much better than tossing a coin.

If civil commitment was to be anything more than a crapshoot, the courts would need a better prediction method. One emerged, in the late 1990s, from the work of two psychologists who were wrestling with a subtly different problem.

Karl Hanson, working for Canada’s solicitor general in Ottawa, and David Thornton, then at the London headquarters of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, wanted to put sex offenders into categories, based on their risk of reoffending, so that they could be managed better while in prison. As well as helping to determine the security level under which prisoners should be held, the researchers wanted a better way of prioritizing which groups of offenders should be considered for release. “It was very much about the triage of prison populations,” Thornton said. “It wasn’t really about the forensic assessment of individual offenders.”

Both researchers were studying groups of male sex offenders who had been released in their respective countries, looking for factors associated with higher rates of conviction for new sex crimes. Hanson also reanalyzed the results of 61 prior studies, about half of them conducted in the U.S., which collectively involved more than 23,000 released offenders. He tested the predictive power of everything that was recorded — a long list of factors such as current sentence length, the age of any child victims, and whether any victims had been physically injured.

Not surprisingly, the most useful factor in predicting future sex offending was the number of prior sex offenses. Hanson also zeroed in on whether any victims were male or not related to the offender — both of which seemed to increase the risk. Thornton’s list of risk factors was longer, including prior nonsexual violence, a high number of prior sentencing dates, and having never been married.

None of these additional variables, individually, were very strong predictors. Some lacked a clear theoretical explanation of why they were linked to sexual reoffending. But they were the best of the bunch, and improved the overall predictive power of the tests the two researchers were developing if they were added into the mix, alongside the tally of prior sexual offenses.

By the late 1990s, the two researchers decided to combine their respective checklists into a single test. They called it Static-99, after the year of its birth and to emphasize that it measured unchanging facts about an offender’s life history, rather than psychological traits that might shift over time.

The result was a simple 10-item checklist that is usually filled out by reviewing an offender’s files. Since its debut, the Static-99 has assumed an oracle-like status in the world of sex offender management.

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Up to three points are scored for prior sex charges or convictions, and one point more if any victims were male. Another point is added for a high number of prior sentencing dates — both for sex offenses and other crimes. And so it continues, through each risk factor. It’s much like calculating auto insurance premiums based on your accident history and where you park your car at night.

The highest possible score is 12, and those who score more than 6 are considered to have a “high” risk of reoffending. Even a score of 4 or 5, in the “moderate-high” range, can mean the difference between release back into society and being considered for indefinite detainment.

Static-99 scores do not predict the severity of potential future offenses, however. Rapes involving extreme violence and the abuse of young children are lumped together with crimes like voyeurism and indecent exposure.

The most recent survey of U.S. civil commitment programs, conducted in 2014, found that at least 4,658 offenders were held under civil commitment. (Five programs failed to provide any numbers, so the true number is higher.) Another 829 were detained, awaiting a decision on their status. The average Static-99 score for civilly committed offenders across the nine states that reported those numbers was 5.

The idea behind the Static-99 is similar to medical tests that try to predict patients’ health outcomes. Such tests can be evaluated using a statistical method that assigns a score of 1 to a perfect test, which always flags serious problems and never gives a false alarm. A worthless test — one that predicts no more accurately than random guessing — gets 0.5. The Static-99, when tested on some 1,300 Canadian and British sex offenders, scored 0.7.

By the standards applied to medical tests, that’s a mediocre score — about as good as judging someone’s likelihood of getting heart disease by weighing known risk factors such as age, smoking, and blood cholesterol.

The Static-99’s predictions may be imperfect, but in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. 

The Static-99’s predictions may be imperfect, but in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So it’s perhaps no surprise that U.S. psychological evaluators eagerly embraced the new tool to assess candidates for civil commitment.

Thornton remembers their interest in his presentations on the Static-99 at scientific conferences. “I think that for a lot of evaluators, it seemed to bring a certain amount of order, and a rational way to proceed,” said Thornton, who is now research director at the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center, where Wisconsin’s civilly committed sex offenders are held.

Although he devised the test for different purposes, Thornton now supports its use in civil commitment evaluations. “Given that you’re asked to make a judgment about this, it forms one important input,” he said.

A high Static-99 score isn’t the only factor weighed in civil commitment cases. With rulings in 1997 and 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that offenders who are civilly committed must have a mental abnormality that affects their self-control, predisposing them to acts of sexual violence.

Still, the Static-99 is widely used to screen sex offenders who are nearing release from prison, to help determine who should be considered for civil commitment. Prosecutors then use the scores, together with psychiatric diagnoses, to argue that offenders pose an unacceptable public danger.

Civil commitment proceedings vary from one jurisdiction to the next. In federal courts, for example, cases are heard by a judge. In many states, a jury decides.

In Lelaind’s case, a 12-person jury was asked to deliver a verdict of “true” or “not true” on the question of whether he was a sexually violent predator. The evidence before them was his life history — including the “bootie-bumping” incidents that preceded the offense against his young relative — as well as expert testimony on his mental health, and his Static-99 score.

The two state-appointed psychologists had both given Lelaind a Static-99 score of 7. One of them, who also testified at Lelaind’s civil commitment trial, indicated in her report that there was a 39% chance he would be convicted of another sex offense within five years. But Static-99 scores cannot precisely predict an individual’s chance of reoffending. The second psychologist described the situation accurately: In a group with a Static-99 score of 6 or more (from the same Canadian and British offenders studied by Hanson and Thornton), 39% had been reconvicted of another sex crime within five years.

The state psychologists who assessed Lelaind also diagnosed him as a pedophile. This is a condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considered the “bible” of psychiatry. But pedophilia, according to the DSM, was supposed to involve intense and recurrent sexual urges toward prepubescent children.

Lelaind’s public defender called Franklin and another psychologist to the stand to contest the diagnosis. His deviant juvenile behavior, they argued, was probably a reaction to his childhood trauma. They also pointed out that, in the decade since the incidents with his young relative, he hadn’t shown any sexual interest in prepubescent children.

As additional evidence of Lelaind’s dangerousness, the state-appointed psychologists gave him a test for psychopathy — a pathological lack of empathy and remorse — and found him to be near the top of the scale. But Franklin had administered the same test, known as the PCL-R, and came up with a score that placed Lelaind in the bottom 15% of offenders. Such discrepancies between prosecution and defense experts are common with the PCL-R.

The jury heard four days of back-and-forth on the science and other evidence. By their second day of deliberations, they were split 9 to 3, but on the third morning they came to a unanimous decision. On the question of whether Lelaind was a sexually violent predator, they all answered “true.”

In Lelaind’s case, the court was deliberating whether he would repeat a clear act of sexual violence. Others have faced indefinite detention under more ambiguous circumstances — in which the Static-99 can place gay men in a precarious position.

So it proved for Wayne Hicks, who spent nearly five years detained, waiting for a civil commitment trial, before he was released in 2011. Hicks was evaluated under the federal civil commitment law, passed in 2006. The law says any sex offender given a psychiatric diagnosis that meets the Supreme Court’s standard can be considered for indefinite commitment if they are deemed a “sexually dangerous person” — meaning that they would have serious difficulty refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation. But there is no requirement for a prior qualifying offense of sexual violence. In these federal cases, the Static-99 can assume an even bigger role.

Now 55, soft-spoken and slight, Hicks grew up in a white, middle-class family, living in a beachfront home in Mobile Bay, Alabama. Since he was about 4 years old, Hicks knew he was gay. But in the Deep South, that wasn’t something to shout about. He tried dating a girl in high school but knew it wasn’t right. He then had a discreet relationship with a boy, but they didn’t have much in common apart from their sexuality.

Later, at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, his social circle included some out gay friends. But it proved hard to balance work and school, and he eventually dropped out and returned to Mobile Bay. Over the next decade, he worked his way up through the ranks at Walmart. But that career came to an abrupt halt in 1999, when he was 39.

At that time, Hicks lived in a suburb of Mobile with a heterosexual roommate who would sometimes hang out with a group of 17- and 18-year-olds. One day, while Hicks was at work, his roommate bought the teenagers alcohol, and one of the girls got drunk. Her parents complained to the police, the teens were questioned, and they revealed that they had found pornographic images in Hicks’ room. The roommate then turned informant, telling the cops that he had seen Hicks viewing porn on his computer.

Police seized the machine. The FBI later searched it and found more than 1,000 pornographic images, about 40% of which depicted prepubescent boys, according to Hicks’ presentencing report. The police had also found a roll of film with images of nude boys.

Hicks denied any knowledge of the film. As for the computer pictures, he said he didn’t view them before downloading them in bulk, and was looking for material featuring adolescents, not young children. He pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography and was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release. As his life collapsed around him, he came out as gay to his family. His father, according to Hicks, hasn’t spoken to him since. (Hicks added that his mother later told him it was the homosexuality, not the pornography conviction, that her husband couldn’t countenance.)

You might imagine that prison would have been a dangerous place for a petite gay man convicted for possessing child pornography. But Hicks did OK, in part, he believes, by being a good listener. “Most people like to talk about themselves,” he said.

While in prison he converted to Catholicism. When I visited him last July in Raleigh, North Carolina, we met at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, where he was tending a series of planters set up on the street outside. Later, at the burger joint where we had lunch, he was greeted by a fellow parishioner.

After his release, Hicks got in trouble again after taking in a 14-year-old boy, who’d been kicked out of home for being disruptive. By Hicks’ account, there was initially no sexual element. But over the course of a couple of months in 2004, he said, there were some sexual encounters.

The following year, Hicks failed a polygraph test given as part of his supervised release and confessed to the whole thing. The boy did not cooperate with prosecutors, so no new criminal charges were filed. But having breached the terms of his release, Hicks was sentenced to another two years in prison.

Hicks was sent to a facility in Beaumont, Texas, which housed many violent offenders. When he moved into his first cell, he said, there was still blood on the walls from a murder.

He was there for about a year before being transferred to Butner, North Carolina, which he dubs the “sex offender hub” for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There, an evaluator asked him an odd set of questions that Hicks later realized were to help complete the Static-99.

He got a score of 5, and may well have escaped the purgatory that followed had he not been gay. Having a male victim added one point, as did not having lived with a lover for two or more years (a modification of the original “never married” risk factor). Franklin, who testified at Lelaind’s trial, was also retained by Hicks’ public defender, and her report noted that cohabiting with another man would have been difficult because openly gay men in Alabama may still face “social ostracism and even murder.”

The prison psychologist who evaluated Hicks diagnosed him with “paraphilia not otherwise specified (hebephilia).” Hebephilia is an allegedly pathological attraction to adolescents that has been intensely controversial. It was considered for inclusion in the 2013 revision of the DSM but was rejected, largely on the grounds that many normal men find adolescents sexually attractive.

Hicks’ Static-99

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Hicks remained at Butner for more than four years as the constitutionality of the federal civil commitment law was contested through the courts. He recalls this period of limbo, during which he was labeled as a potential predator, as the bleakest part of his incarceration. “We were villainized and treated like pariahs,” Hicks told me. “It is prison in prison.”

In July 2011, the federal government finally conceded that it could not offer “clear and convincing evidence” that Hicks posed a sexual danger to the public, and he was released.

But life was tough on the outside, too. In October 2011, while living in a homeless shelter in Raleigh, Hicks was arrested for visiting the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, on the grounds that it was a place where children congregated. He was placed on probation for three years.

Today Hicks lives in a shared house in a poor part of the city and works for a mold control company.

Hersey Lelaind and Wayne Hicks: two very different men, both deemed risky by the Static-99. But as it turns out, those scores don’t mean exactly what the test’s creators originally thought.

When Hanson and Thornton devised the Static-99, they could see from their data that young men posed an elevated risk. But later studies showed that the risk of reoffending declines more dramatically with advancing age than they had realized. So in 2009 a new version, called “Static-99R,” was released, with a revised scoring system. Men over 40 had their scores reduced by one point, and those over 60 by three.

That’s important, because it means many of the thousands of men who are being held under civil commitment are less dangerous than was assumed. The 2014 survey put the average age of detainees at 48. The oldest was 92.

Yet the introduction of the Static-99R does not seem to have led to a wave of releases. California’s Department of State Hospitals, which runs the state’s civil commitment program, told BuzzFeed News that it was not aware of any offenders in its custody being released based on a revised Static-99R score.

There’s also a wider problem. Since the Static-99 made its debut, researchers have realized that the group of men used to validate it — those prisoners in Canada and the U.K. — seem to have been unusually dangerous. They were also from a prior generation, coming up for release between 1958 and 1993. For reasons that aren’t well understood, rates of sexual and violent crime have fallen since the 1990s. All of this means that the estimates of reconviction rates quoted in many civil commitment trials, based on Static-99 scores, have been dramatically overstated.

In Hanson and Thornton’s original validation study, for instance, 33% of men with a Static-99 score of 5 had been convicted of a new sexual offense within five years. But by 2008, across all the released offenders being studied, the Static-99 team had revised the estimated five-year reconviction rate for this score down by almost half, to 17.2%.

“If courts paid attention to those numbers it would be quite embarrassing for the whole enterprise.”

“If courts paid attention to those numbers it would be quite embarrassing for the whole enterprise,” Eric Janus of the William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, told BuzzFeed News. “The whole edifice of civil commitment is based on the notion that there are some people, who can be identified, who have extremely high rates of recidivism.”

The Static-99’s developers knew they needed better estimates. Indeed, Leslie Helmus, a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, had already been assigned to gather data from newer studies that had tracked reconviction rates for released offenders previously evaluated with the Static-99.

Across 29 samples from around the world, reconviction rates varied widely — making it hard to come up with a simple way to convert Static-99 scores into estimated risks of reoffending. Within each study, the Static-99 was still performing reasonably well in judging men’s relative risks of offending, but the differences in reconviction rates between the different study groups was hard to explain. “We had to struggle with what to do with that,” said Hanson, now with Public Safety Canada in Ottawa.

To try and make sense of the data, the Static-99 team looked for differences between the offenders involved in each study — whether or not they had been judged to be in high need of treatment, for instance. Based on these differences, the researchers divided the samples into four “norm” groups, ranging from “routine corrections” (supposed to represent typical sex offenders), to a “high risk, high needs” group. In January of this year, the four groups were reduced to two.

Reconviction estimates are based on two things: the chosen norm group, and the Static-99R score. Hicks was evaluated using the Static-99R in 2011, getting a score of 4 — down one point from his earlier Static-99, due to his age. The prison psychologist decided that Hicks should be compared to the highest-risk norm group, which suggested there was a 20.1% chance that he would be convicted of another sex offense within five years. But if the psychologist had opted for the routine group, that estimate would have been just 8.7%.

In recent years, prosecution and defense experts in civil commitment trials have considered the same Static-99R scores but presented widely differing estimates of offenders’ chances of reoffending. What’s more, reoffending rates for released sex criminals are known to vary from state to state, further complicating attempts to turn Static-99R scores into estimates of likely reconviction rates.

Still, Hanson defends the test’s continued use for civil commitment. Because the laws exist, he argues, the justice system should be using the best available tool. “Is it ideal for that? Probably not. Could we do better? Most certainly. Do we currently have things that would be substantially better? Probably not.”

But other experts argue that the problems in interpreting Static-99R scores underscore the weaknesses of an inherently flawed approach to dealing with sexual violence.

Given that most sex offenses are committed by men who have not previously been convicted, Knight, of Brandeis University, argues that it would make more sense to concentrate on trying to prevent sexual violence in the wider community. Civil commitment is astronomically expensive. A 2006 survey of programs across the United States found that they averaged $97,000 per inmate per year — almost four times the cost of prison.

Civil commitment is also under renewed legal challenge. The U.S. District Court in Minnesota — the state with the highest per capita rate of civil commitment in the country — is considering a case brought by 14 civilly committed men. They argue that Minnesota’s program is effectively a life sentence, used for punishment rather than to provide offenders with treatment and to protect the public, and that they are being detained in violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

California’s program, meanwhile, was sharply criticized in a March report from the state auditor. Psychological evaluations of sex offenders, the audit found, were not consistent from one case to the next. “We noted that gaps in policies, supervision, and training may have contributed to the inconsistent evaluations,” it stated.

The audit also found that Coalinga State Hospital, where committed sex offenders are held, had not performed yearly evaluations of offenders as it is supposed to.

“When Coalinga fails to promptly perform these evaluations, it is not fulfilling one of its critical statutory obligations,” the audit stated, “leaving the State unable to report on whether the [sexually violent predators] continue to pose risks to the public and whether unconditional release or release to a less restrictive environment might be an appropriate alternative.”

On a blisteringly hot morning last July, I went to the Coalinga State Hospital in California’s Central Valley to meet Hersey Lelaind.

Photograph by Dean J. Birinyi, Architect of Record, KMD Architects

The hospital was completed in 2005. The photos on its website depict a modern medical facility, and it is — except hospitals aren’t usually built in the middle of nowhere, ringed by tall fences covered in razor wire.

After the lengthy process of getting me and my notebook — initially deemed an unacceptable item — through security, I was let into the visiting room. After a short wait, the door opened and Lelaind was ushered in by a guard. He is 6 feet tall, but looked smaller — somehow drawn into himself, as if distanced from his surroundings. We shook hands, sat down, and talked about his daily routine.

Typically he sleeps until noon. He does some janitorial work, and for fun plays video games, watches sports on TV, and shoots hoops on the basketball court. He is allowed to use the phone, and he told me that he speaks regularly to a girlfriend, and sometimes with his younger brother.

Mostly, Lelaind told me, he keeps to himself. He complained about the manipulative behavior of fellow patients, and recalled his revulsion when one unrepentant pedophile stood up and announced loudly to staff and other patients that God had told him to love children. “It’s not the place for me,” Lelaind told me, shaking his head.

Lelaind didn’t look much like the other patients who filed in and out of the visiting room. They were all middle-aged or elderly men, each clad in the hospital’s khaki uniform. Leiland was then nearing his 34th birthday, but looked younger, and had embellished his institutional garb: Perched over a black du-rag he wore a baseball cap, which together with two orange, black, and white necklaces proclaimed his allegiance to the San Francisco Giants.

As we talked, Lelaind’s mood shifted between hope and frustration. He brightened as we discussed his plans to leave California and get a warehouse job, in the unlikely event of his release. “I can drive forklifts. I can do shipping and receiving.” Maybe he’d take computer classes. “I want to be somebody. I don’t want to be running the streets. I don’t want to be remembered for being in a hospital.” The last word was spat out, with palpable disgust.

We returned to the offense against his young relative. “I get angry with myself. I have to live with it for the rest of my life,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt nobody else.” He took off his glasses, wiped his eyes on his undershirt, and whispered, “I miss my family.”

Lelaind sees little chance of leaving Coalinga, short of a change in the law that put him there. He hasn’t enrolled in the voluntary sex offender treatment the hospital provides because he sees no evidence that the patients who do so are on a path to release. “It’s like looking down a tunnel, and usually you can see the light at the other end,” he told me. “But I don’t see no light.”

Toward the end of my visit, the reality of indefinite civil commitment came crashing home. The door opened again, and an elderly man in a wheelchair was pushed into the room to meet his visitor. He wore a helmet, in regulation khaki, to protect him from injury should he fall. His body was limp, and his face blank.

Later, I spoke with Lelaind’s younger brother about Lelaind’s situation. “He’s watching the other inmates die,” his brother told me. “I think he’s starting to realize that could be him. I think it absolutely terrifies him.”

















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