Labels Can Really Kill a Person

GPS Ankle Bracelets, Lupron, Father Donald Weeks, Ostracism as a Useful Social Tool, Recidivism Rates, New Jersey’s “Megan’s Law,” The Hospital at Atascadero, The Lincoln Avenue Rapist, Predictable Outbreaks of Public Hysteria, Moral Panic, Sexual Etiquette and the Edifice of Ritualized Restraint, Penile Plethysmography, The Absence of Diagnosable Mental Illnesses, “Neutered Animals Still Bite,” Preventative Detention

Labels Can Really Kill a Person

Ben Ehrenreich
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Nestled among the many mythic folds of American optimism, somewhere between equality of birth and it all coming out in the wash, lies the faith that everyone is perfectible, or at least redeemable, that there exists no sin so black that it cannot be scrubbed away with enough hard work and good old-fashioned penance. It’s the spiritual analogue of the Horatio Alger fable, cousin to our strangely persistent belief in our own openhearted inclusivity: the lion, if given half a chance, shall one day lie down with the lambs. No outcast, no murderer or thief wanders the roads and fields of our fifty states who cannot one day be brought back into the fold, dunked in the river, and made anew. There’s a place for everybody in America.

Everybody, that is, except Cary Verse.

Which is why he finds himself in a dingy seven-room runt of a motel in a section of San Jose apparently overlooked by the tech-boom renewal—just down the road from an aging drive-in, a gravel yard, a trailer court, and a transmission shop delightfully named “The Tranny Man.” Cary Verse arrived in San Jose on the fifteenth of March, six weeks after his release from Atascadero State Hospital, where he had been confined for six years after a Contra Costa County court declared him a Sexually Violent Predator, a legal category created by the California legislature in late 1995. He had passed the previous six years at San Quentin, Corcoran, and New Folsom state prisons, serving time for three felony counts of sexual assault after beating, tying up, and nearly raping a man he had met in a Richmond homeless shelter. He never killed anyone, or even came close, but while murderers are often paroled without a murmur, outcry has dogged Verse at every step.

Sitting at the head of the bed in his beige-walled motel room, Verse expects he will have to pack up the few belongings scattered on the TV cabinet and the bedside table—a portable DVD player, a tape recorder, a Rubik’s cube, stuffed animals, clothes, toiletries, a few inspirational books—and leave within a week. “Pretty quick,” he observes with a laugh.

It is hard to avoid the term “mild-mannered” in describing Cary Verse. He is thirty-three, with light reddish-brown skin, sleepy eyes, and a small mustache. He is a tall man, but his body language is self-effacing and his smile warm enough. There is nothing immediately off about him, except perhaps a certain flatness to the rhythms of his voice, which may be the fault of Depakote, which he takes for bipolar disorder (a diagnosis he once actively disputed but now resignedly accepts, though he still has his doubts), or the numbness induced by so many years of institutionalization (Verse has been incarcerated for most of his adult life), or perhaps just the fatigue of talking to too many inquisitive strangers. He does not seem a particularly unhappy man, except on the telephone, and then only when he says good-bye, and his voice flattens out unbearably, as if in retreat from itself.

Every phone conversation and every visitor Verse has, every television program he watches,every stroll he takes to the mini-mall for a donut must be recorded in a daily log that he submits to his state-contracted monitors (employees of the Pennsylvania-based Liberty Healthcare Corporation—no local contractors were willing to take the job).

“I went to pick up the papers this morning at 7:30,” Verse says, adding an entry to a Xeroxed log form on the bed in front of him.“I forgot to put that on there. And I gotta put you down here.”The log should conform to the hour-by-hour schedule he prepares at the beginning of each week. “It’s mostly to make you accountable for your time,” Verse explains. “It can be beneficial therapeutically, to show if you’re doing anything wrong, or isolating yourself in a room all the time, so they know what your risks are.” His monitors can stop by unannounced at any hour to search his room or make Verse submit to a polygraph test, or to test him for drug and alcohol use, though Verse says he has never had a problem with either.

Verse lifts the leg of his sweatpants to show me an ankle bracelet strapped over his white tube sock. “This stays on twenty-four hours a day. It’s waterproof and all that.” It communicates with a Global Positioning System tracking device, which sits in its charger on the window ledge beside the door, a metal box about the size of a thick hardcover novel, but with a canvas carrying strap and a short rubber antenna. Verse must carry it with him everywhere he goes. If he is ever more than a hundred feet from the GPS box, “phone calls start going everywhere.” If he walks too close to a school, the box beeps and its LCD readout tells him to move on. “If I’m in a building too long and the satellite can’t get to it, it’ll say ‘Go outside.’”

Verse shrugs, “It’s not that big of a burden to carry it around. I really can’t exercise with it the way I’d like to, but I can still walk a lot. I walk for miles to different shopping malls around here.That’s how I get my exercise.” He rolls up the sleeve of his turquoise T-shirt and points to a spot on his upper arm, beneath which a surgical implant slowly releases the anti-androgen drug Lupron into his system, preventing his body from producing testosterone and effectively wiping out his sex drive. “You still see people as being attractive,”Verse explains, “you just don’t have the arousal. The need to want to go and meet them and talk to them is just kind of gone.”

Lupron can severely and permanently diminish bone density, and Verse has to take daily calcium and vitamin supplements and give himself an injection every day to stave off osteoporosis. “I didn’t really care for it for the first few  years” at Atascadero, he says with characteristic understatement, “because it really sounded intrusive.” Now he looks at the bright side. Lupron, he says, “is helping me to focus on other things while I’m dealing with getting integrated back into society. It’s actually been a great feeling in a lot of ways, because when I pray and stuff like that, there’s no intrusive sexual thoughts.”


Despite these extraordinary precautions, fear and hysteria have followed Cary Verse everywhere he has gone this year. Because he is only the second man designated a Sexually Violent Predator—a label which, understandably, makes people more than a little nervous—to complete the state hospital’s sex-offender treatment program and be released, the press has tracked his every move. His first day in San Jose, he was sitting outside a shopping center reading a newspaper when a passerby recognized his face from TV. She called the police. The police alerted the media, and picketers were soon marching outside his San Jose motel. The next day the city council passed a resolution declaring that Verse was not welcome in their town. Sharline Reid, the motel’s owner, told him he would have to leave. She has since recanted, and allowed him to stay. Reid was afraid of incurring the city’s wrath, she tells me through the clouded plexiglass window of the motel office, but “he’s not causing any trouble.”

Compared to the other towns in which Verse has been briefly permitted to lay his head, San Jose has been quiet. Verse’s exodus began in early February. Before he left Atascadero, his handlers told him they had found him a place to live in San Francisco, but the landlord backed out at the last minute. (This was nothing new—after a judge ordered his release in May of 2003, Verse waited for eight months while over a hundred landlords refused to house him.) When he learned he would instead be going to Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge in affluent, liberal, sheltered Marin County, Verse chuckles and shakes his head, “I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be good.’”

It wasn’t. He moved into a motel just off the 101 freeway. In the twenty-four hours before he was required to register with the local police, he stocked up on food, which turned out to be wise. The next day the Marin County sheriff sent out a press release announcing Verse’s presence. Verse spent the next five days trapped in his room by protesters and television cameras, by newspaper reporters who took notes each time he peeked out from behind the curtains. The San Francisco Chronicle published his room number.“That was the most difficult time,” Verse says.“I felt like the whole world was hating me.”

The motel management got tired of the fuss and evicted Verse after one week. His state-contracted monitors decided on a residential hotel in downtown Oakland, not far from where Verse’s mother lives. He checked in the day before Valentine’s Day. The next day the Chronicle printed the hotel’s name and specified the floor on which Verse was staying.The hotel owner, who had been paid a full month’s rent, told Verse he had to go. He plastered the walls with Verse’s photo to warn the neighbors. Residents passed out fliers on the street.

Verse stayed until his month was up. Then, at the invitation of Father Donald Weeks, a sixty-year- old priest of an obscure breakaway Catholic sect, he moved into St. Patrick’s Abbey, a halfway house for ex-cons and addicts in the Fruitvale section of Oakland. Within a day, the camera crews and politicians caught up to him. Oakland police gave his photo to the administrators of the elementary school across the street. Dozens of angry parents marched in protest outside the abbey. Verse, who had been refusing interviews and dodging the media since his release, gave an impromptu press conference. He promised “to live a Christian life” and never to commit another crime. “I will continue to pay my debt for the rest of my life, because I know that my victims are still paying for it,” he said. “I apologize to the victims and their families, but getting bounced around like this doesn’t work.”

Ignacio De La Fuente, an Oakland city councilman with mayoral aspirations, swore to reporters he would “do whatever the hell needs to be done to get him out.”

He did. Four days after Verse’s arrival, city officials served Weeks and the men under his care with an eviction notice, citing zoning violations. Late that night,Verse’s handlers moved him to San Jose. The day before I met Verse in his motel room, Oakland police arrested Father Weeks, charging him with twenty-four counts of sexually abusing a minor. He suffered two heart attacks shortly after his arrest.

Three weeks later, citing insufficient evidence, the city dropped all charges against him. In the meantime, a Chronicle columnist wrote an article singing the praise of ostracism as a “useful and underrated social tool.”


It is a tool that has been growing in popularity in recent years. Beginning in the late 1930s, most states passed some variety of what were then called “sexual psychopath” laws, which essentially medicalized deviant sexual behavior. Although the relationship between mental illness and sex crimes has always been blurry at best—at the time homosexuality was considered pathologically deviant—for most of the last century, sex offenders, and sometimes those simply suspected of sexual deviance, were not sent to prison, but committed to state mental hospitals for indefinite terms. The laws fell out of favor over time. By 1990, most had been repealed, and few of those remaining were enforced.

In July of 1994, in a nation already obsessed with criminality (That year California passed its “three strikes” statute; Cops still made for hot prime-time programming) a seven-year-old girl named Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender living across the street from her New Jersey home. Although the recidivism rates for sex offenders are in fact far lower than for most other types of criminals (The more reliable studies have them hovering between 10 and 20 percent; the rate for non-sexual assaults, for instance, is over 40 percent.), the specter of the sex-offender-among-us proved a powerful political force. States quickly lined up to pass legislation modeled on New Jersey’s “Megan’s Law,” which requires sex offenders to register their addresses with the police, and requires the police to share them with the public. In September, California passed a “one strike” law; mandating sentences of twenty-five years to life for certain sexually violent crimes which in the past would have been punished with sentences of only a few years. Realizing that this would not protect their constituents from sex offenders who had been sentenced under the old guidelines and who would soon be released with few restrictions, legislators soon drafted another statute, modeled on similar bills passed in Kansas, Washington, and a handful of other states, creating a new class of criminal: the Sexually Violent Predator.

On January 1, 1996, the state began sending teams of evaluators into the prison system to interview all inmates whose parole dates were approaching who had been convicted of violent sex crimes involving at least two victims. If the evaluators deemed the convict to be suffering from a mental disorder (a sufficiently hazy category under the law that it can be interpreted to be more or less equivalent to being guilty of a sex crime) and to be likely to offend again, they would recommend that he— all but one of California’s SVPs have been male—be classified a Sexually Violent Predator. Instead of being paroled at the completion of his sentence, the prisoner would be returned to the county where he was originally convicted to be tried before a jury and committed to the state mental hospital at Atascadero. Every two years, he would come up for trial again. Unless he could convince a jury that he was either no longer mentally ill or no longer likely to re-offend, he would be sent back to Atascadero. Because jurors generally find the crimes in question so repugnant, and because the term mental disorder is so broadly defined in the law, very few of the men tagged as SVPs prevail at trial.

Thus the fifty-year-old hospital at Atascadero has been gradually filling up. The state has hatched plans for a 1,500-bed secure facility adjoining a prison in the impoverished Central Valley town of Coalinga, which anyone who has ever driven the length of California on Interstate 5 will remember for its heat and endless stockyards, and the thick scent of manure that hangs over the freeway.The new hospital will cost upwards of $325 million, and is scheduled to open in 2005.

Until then, the 467 men who have already been declared Sexually Violent Predators, as well as another 163 who have not yet been formally committed to Atascadero, will likely remain at the hospital, or at county jails awaiting hearings. Since the SVP law’s enactment eight and a half years ago, thirty-six men have managed to win their release in the courts. Nineteen have died at Atascadero of disease or old age. Only three have been released after successfully completing the hospital’s treatment program: Cary Verse, Patrick Ghilotti, once known as the Lincoln Avenue Rapist for a series of rapes committed in Marin County in the 1970s and 80s, and Brian DeVries, a convicted child molester who had himself surgically castrated in 2001. Ghilotti, who has also been castrated, was released in May, and, despite a minor media frenzy and months of community outrage, moved to the town of Vacaville, about forty miles northeast of San Francisco, to live with his wife, whom he met while she was employed at Atascadero. State officials were unable to find a landlord willing to take DeVries, so he is living for now in a small trailer inside the fence at the state prison in Soledad, California. He keeps a vegetable garden, and rarely leaves the prison grounds.

A handful of bills is currently circulating in the state legislature to deal with the outrage that has accompanied the release of Verse, DeVries and Ghilotti. One would make it more difficult for SVPs to be released; two would reduce the number of prior convictions required (from two to one) for child molesters to be declared SVPs; one expands the number of “one-strike” sex crimes that send offenders away for life; and three require that released SVPs be housed in the county in which they were convicted. One of those explicitly passes the responsibility for finding them housing from the state to the counties.

When I ask Nora Romero, the spokesperson for the California Department of Mental Health, what the state is doing to prevent predictable outbreaks of public hysteria from dogging each released SVP, she answers, “We’re just following the legislative proposals.” As for taking steps of its own to directly forestall these crises, fully eight years after the SVP bill went into effect, Romero says, the department is “just in the brainstorming stages.”


The mass anxiety and often-unexamined rage that have come to surround the issue of sex offenders fits fairly tidily into the sociological category of the “moral panic”—a social crisis which, to quote the British cultural theorist Stuart Hall, results when among other things,“the official reaction to a person, groups of persons, or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered.” (Stanley Cohen, who created the term, has added an introductory section on “Child Abuse, Satanic Rituals and Paedophile Registers” to the latest edition of his 1972 study Folk Devils and Moral Panics.) Despite the immense political appeal of tough-on-crime rhetoric, the public rarely makes much fuss when murderers go free. They must endure the uncertainties and occasional humiliations of parole, but otherwise have paid their due. They are not required to register their addresses on Internet databases, to surrender a body part, or submit to bone-destroying drug regimens to rob them of aggressive impulses. Killers are not such monsters.Violence is human. People make mistakes.

But the rapist, the child molester, the sexual sadist can expect no quarter. Even behind prison walls, where a murder rap will, if anything, win an inmate the wary esteem of his peers, a sexual-assault conviction will endanger a prisoner’s life. Cary Verse only managed to survive, he says, by lying about his record.“Labels can really kill a person,” he observes.

I asked Verse why he thought sex crimes provoke such outsized horror. For about a month I asked everyone I could.Verse answered at first from a victim’s perspective (like many sex offenders, he was abused himself): “Because of what it takes away from a person.There’s a sense of loss, a sense of internal damage. It just takes away a lot of a person’s inner spirit to have that kind of damage done to them.”

But homicide takes away far more. Sex crimes, nearly everyone  I asked averred, are so intimate, so painfully personal. Murder can be all-too intimate as well, but killers are not equally reviled, so perhaps we mean something different by those words, that sex crimes come too close, that they somehow implicate us. In Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, the literary and social critic James Kincaid argues that our social constructions of childhood innocence and of sexual desirability (think smooth skin and sweetness, spontaneity and mischief) have come to overlap all too neatly. “To the extent that we learn to see ‘the child’ and ‘the erotic’ as coincident, we are in trouble,” and we deal with that trouble by pushing it outwards, packaging our conflicting desires in the monstrous form of the molester. Nonetheless, Kincaid writes, “the stories we tell of the monsters are also stories of home and family.”

Other social theorists explain the panic over so-called predators as an outgrowth of anxieties sparked by the American family’s recent shape-shifting, or of the shaky ground on which traditional masculinity now rests. Perhaps it is also just that sex is such a messy business, that even our tamest and tenderest couplings flirt with domination and surrender. Perhaps it is that all of our social relations still spin somehow out of sex, out of desire, which can never quite be contained. Perhaps any violation of sexual etiquette, especially one as vast and bold as rape, threatens not just its victim, but the entire fragile edifice of ritualized restraint. If the acts we prefer to associate with love and procreation and pleasure mutually exchanged can go so devilishly far awry, perhaps we are all more primitive than we would like to think. Perhaps we fear ourselves, and punish Cary Verse.


I will tell you Cary Verse’s story as he relayed it to his doctors in a nineteen-page autobiographical statement he prepared while at Atascadero, and as he told it to me. It conveys little of Verse’s faith and stubborn optimism, his almost maddening insistence on finding the bright side of everything, even the bracelet clamped to his ankle, even Lupron. Verse told me that he is happy: “I look at things differently than most people do. I have a close relationship with God—to me that overcomes everything, and I think he has provided for me. He’s provided shelter, clothing, and food, the three basic needs. I can’t complain. I’ve been humbled a lot. Being called a Sexually Violent Predator would humble anybody.”

Later, waving his hand through the stale air, Verse indicates the room around him, his gesture encompassing not just the room’s bare walls and the GPS box on the windowsill, but the other rooms like this one, the ones he’s left and the ones he hasn’t seen yet, a possibly endless chain of worn carpets and stained bedspreads. “This is not really a life, you know?”

Verse’s story, predictably, is not a happy one. His mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, as Verse now is too. The stepfather who raised him was in the Navy, and by his account a stern, hard man. His family was not, he laughs,“too gay-friendly.”When Verse was five years old, living on a military base in central California, a friend’s father began to abuse him sexually. The abuse lasted all summer, until the family left the base.“I started to feel isolated and alone,”Verse writes. “I became a quiet child.”

When he was eight or nine, Verse first found himself attracted to another boy. He was horrified.“I became obsessed with getting rid of those evil, gay thoughts that ‘good’ Christian boys didn’t have,” he writes. He failed. When he was eleven, he talked a six-year-old neighbor into an empty garage and fondled him. About a year later, he tried to force himself on a ten-year- old friend. Both boys complained, but no charges were pressed.

In high school, Verse became something of a track star. He made the varsity team while still a freshman and began working out with four older boys. He fell deeply in their thrall. Verse trusted one of these friends enough to confess that he was attracted to him, and to their other friends. Not long after that, the four boys he most loved and respected gang-raped him in a locker-room toilet stall. “At that moment in time,” Verse writes, “I learned to hate and despise God, life and my existence.”

His parents separated, and Verse moved in with his stepfather to distance himself from his assailants. In  his new school,Verse started dating girls and was voted captain of the track team. At seventeen, he befriended a fourteen-year-old runner and soon, he writes,“felt in my heart that I had fallen in love with him.” After weeks of self-torment, Verse invited the boy to spend the night at his house.They played video games for hours, then began wrestling. “I pinned him,” Verse writes. “Using a pre-hidden kitchen knife, I forced him to allow me to kiss and touch him. As I continued to assault him, I could see the anger and fear in his eyes… I stopped the assault…. I begged his forgiveness and tried to explain my actions.”

This would become a pattern in Verse’s later crimes. As he puts it, “That’s one of my MOs. I always stopped and apologized.” Verse’s assaults were all against people he knew. “It was terrible thinking, but at the time I was doing it, it was almost romantic more than anything else. I knew it was wrong. There was physical violence and sometimes even weapons involved, but the idea I had was if this starts then the person will like it and then it will become a sexual affair. It was obviously screwed-up thinking.”

The boy went to the police. For that and later crimes, Verse would be incarcerated for the better part of the next sixteen years. Now,Verse says, “My life is in my hands again. I have choices to make. I’m putting God first in my life, and it’s a blessing to follow his standards.”


Before his eventual reconciliation with his faith, in the years after that first assault—when, as he says, “I was gone from Christ, I was gone from God, my family didn’t like me anymore, I didn’t like myself, and when you get to that point you just don’t care”—Cary Verse committed four other sexual assaults.

The day after we meet in San Jose, I drive north to the small, almost creepily tidy town of Martinez to ask Brian Haynes, a deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County (where Verse was last convicted) about the details of Verse’s later crimes. He speaks to me in a florescent-lit conference room on the fourth floor of the old marble-columned Martinez courthouse.The table is piled high with law books, the walls painted the same gloss beige as Cary Verse’s motel room.

Haynes is a thick-set man with clear blue eyes and a neat goatee. He twists a pen in his hand as he talks. For the assault on the fourteen-year-old, Verse was sent to the Alameda County Boys Camp. Six days after Verse’s eighteenth birthday, “He and another young man escaped from the juvenile camp. Mr. Verse physically attacked that young man. No weapons were involved. After he physically attacked him, he orally copulated him. Mr. Verse was sentenced to three years’ probation and a year in the county jail for that offense.”

While in county jail, Verse attacked a cellmate. He “forcibly held that inmate down and rubbed his penis on the victim’s abdomen… He only received a ninety-day sentence for that offense.” Shortly after his release, Verse attacked a fourteen-year-old he met through a bowling league. “In that event he did hold a knife to the young boy’s neck and fondled him. He was sentenced to three years in the state prison for that offense. All I’m aware of from looking at the file was a knife to the young boy’s neck and some fondling of the boy’s genitals.I  don’t believe the offense went past that,” says Haynes, clearing his throat.

In 1992, twenty-one years old and barely a month out of prison, Verse and a man he met at a homeless shelter snuck out after curfew. “Mr.Verse made a sexual advance toward the man.The man was not interested,” says Haynes, his voice grown clipped and tight.“Mr.Verse beat him, choked him with a metal pipe, and then tied his hands with a rope. Mr. Verse orally copulated him and inserted his finger into the man’s rectum. Mr.Verse also spread some sort of lubricant, I believe it was a Vaseline-type substance, on the young man’s rectum but was unable to achieve an erection. Mr. Verse actually began to cry. He apologized to the young man, untied him, and they went back to the homeless shelter together. The young man later reported the event to the police. [Verse] was convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison for that event.”

As revolting as his behavior was, compared to other men at Atascadero who have far more, and far more heinous, crimes behind them, Cary Verse is in many ways as sympathetic a sex offender as you are likely to find: he had relatively few victims; he never attacked small children, at least not as an adult; and he never successfully committed rape. His actions were grotesque, heartbreaking, and surely traumatic for his victims. But there is nothing in them that defies the understanding—just awful human weakness, aloneness, and despair.


The town of Atascadero lies about midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The name, appropriately enough, translates from Spanish as a bog or mire, a dead end.The hospital grounds are almost pretty. Deer rest in the shade of the pine trees that line the long drive in. If it weren’t for the razor wire and the cyclone fencing, the beige, institutional buildings could pass for the campus of a large suburban middle school.

Cary Verse arrived here in 1998. While still in prison, about six months before he was to due to be paroled, he learned that he faced commitment to the state hospital as a Sexually Violent Predator. He had heard about the SVP law, but since no one had ever suggested he was mentally ill, he didn’t think it applied to him. State evaluators nonetheless diagnosed him with paraphilia, a catch-all term for sexual deviancy (the bipolar diagnosis came later), and the court declared him an SVP. He had repeatedly sought out treatment while in prison,Verse says, realizing that, as he puts it,“I definitely had issues to deal with.” But no counseling was ever offered, he says.“So to me, and I think to most of the guys at Atascadero, to wait to the end of your sentence really does seem wrong. Why am I mentally ill now, but when I was sentenced I knew what I was doing?”

At that time, an overwhelming majority of the men confined as SVPs at Atascadero were sufficiently enraged by being forcibly committed after serving out their prison sentences that they refused to participate in the state’s five- phase treatment program, risking lifelong detention while taking their chances with the courts. More than 60 percent of the 467 men committed there now are still rejecting treatment, but in the early days, Verse says, the tension at the hospital was high. Consenting “to do the phases,” Verse says,“was like walking over a picket line.You were seen as a traitor. But I couldn’t see just sitting there. I had to do something with my life.”

In a cluttered, linoleum-floored office in the hospital’s administrative wing, Dr. Gabrielle Paladino explains the goals and methods of Atascadero’s treatment program. She wears blue jeans and an embroidered denim shirt with a pink ID badge pinned to her collar. Her brow is knit, her curly hair pulled neatly back.She answers most of my questions by first correcting the terms with which I ask them. Old-fashioned talking therapy for sex offenders, she says, “went out with Patty Hearst. The cuddly pet-the-little-teddy-bear, one-to-one approach doesn’t work.”

The hospital instead takes a cognitive-behavioral approach. Patients, Paladino boasts, receive “the gold standard of care.” Phase one is “treatment readiness,” a once-a-week lecture series that informs patients about the law and what they can expect from treatment. In phase two, patients are required to “dissect the past.” They write autobiographies and,“dissect every single one of their known crimes,” as well as any history of antisocial behavior inside the hospital. (For instance, says Paladino,“if a patient says ‘F— you’ to a supervisor—you and I, we wouldn’t say that to a police officer. Or to the governor.The whole idea is for them to self-regulate.”) Phase three focuses on the present. Patients keep diaries and develop coping strategies. The last to be completed inside the hospital, phase four involves “discharge planning,” preparing for life outside, learning to avoid high-risk situations. “What do they do if the only seat on a crowded bus is next to a child? Let’s say a child is hit by a car in front of them—should they pick the child up?” (The answer, Paladino says, is no.) The fifth and final phase is CONREP, as the bureaucratic jargon has it, the conditional release program currently being pioneered by Cary Verse, Patrick Ghilotti, and Brian DeVries. If, after a year in the world, a judge deems them ready to rejoin society without restriction, Verse, Ghilotti and DeVries will graduate from California’s SVP program.Verse will be free to shed his ankle bracelet and Lupron implant. If he stays in California, he will be required for the rest of his life to register his address with the police every ninety days, but he will be free to live wherever he likes, or wherever he can find a landlord willing to take him.

I ask Paladino if, given that the SVP law was not written with clinical goals in mind, but was drafted by legislators with starkly political motivations, she ever feels any conflict between the demands of the law and what she knows to be best for her patients.“We just viewed it as another assignment,” she answers blandly.“When this law was passed, my response was that this is another clinical challenge for us that the hospital will meet.”

Paladino explains that as forensic psychiatrists, she and the other doctors at Atascadero have a dual obligation: to treat their patients and to relay information about them to the courts. “We have a duty to report what the patient is thinking and what the patient is doing.” Thus the staff at Atascadero administers polygraph tests, as well as something called penile plethysmography—a method of physically measuring sexual arousal to various “paraphilic stimuli.” I ask Paladino if she worries that lack of confidentiality might get in the way of effective treatment. “If you’re asking if I have a problem with how the law is enacted at the hospital,” she answers, “the answer is no. I don’t have an ethical dilemma.”


The findings of the American Psychiatric Association suggest that perhaps she should. In 1999, the group commissioned a task force to study the growing number of civil commitment programs for so-called predatory sex offenders. The report’s conclusions could scarcely have been stronger:

To evade constitutional protections against ex post facto laws, to impose indeterminate confinement, and to take advantage of relaxed procedural safeguards, drafters of sexual predator commitment statutes have attempted to cloak their quasi-punitive intent in the language of medical commitment… Sexual predator commitment laws represent a serious assault on the integrity of  psychiatry.

The APA task force argued that many sex offenders, while they may “show traits of personality disorders,” have no diagnosable mental illnesses and that “the statutory category of ‘mental disorders’ has been defined in a manner that bears no relationship to the usual…predicates for compulsory psychiatric hospitalization or treatment”—in other words, that there is no legitimate medical reason to confine sex offenders at all. The report further claims that while some forms of treatment appear to be more effective than others, “treatment efficacy is controversial in every approach.”

Dr. Fred Berlin, who runs the sexual-disorder clinic at Johns Hopkins University, points out that recidivism rates for sex offenders are considerably lower than they are for other types of criminals. “There’s some data showing that treatment can affect recidivism, but not in terms of long-term institutional care.” The sort of care provided at places like Atascadero, Berlin says, is based on an outdated model for treating addictive and compulsive behavior. Closely supervised treatment in a community setting—such as that offered by a Washington state program in which sex offenders are lodged together in a Spokane halfway house—Berlin says, is now generally considered most effective. But California’s SVP program “wasn’t set up out of a concern for treatment, it was set up to make people feel safer.”

The tension between the caretaker and cop roles performed by psychiatrists like Paladino, Berlin adds, will undoubtedly have some effect.“When it feels to the person in treatment that the people looking after him are jailers, there’s little motivation or chance of success.”

Many of both Berlin’s and the APA’s arguments have been reported in the pages of Echoes of the Gulag, a feisty, hand-Xeroxed newsletter published monthly by patients at Atascadero (“Dr. Berlin Tells It Like It Is” exalted a bold, front-page headline in February’s issue), which in its earliest issues coined the neologisms hosprison and hosprisoner, as in,“This editor is aware of at least two Psychiatric Technicians at this hosprison who brought laser devices into this facility specifically to amuse themselves by laser targeting mental patients and then laughing at [their] frightened and tormented reactions.”

The Gulag combines information on legal developments, advice, reports of patient abuse (such as the aforementioned laser-pointer incident, in which a patient was allegedly blinded in one eye; one of the technicians involved is elsewhere further accused of “making fun of retarded mental patients by making retarded facial expressions accompanied by odd body movements while clapping his hands and barking like a seal”), grievances against unpopular doctors and staffers (in early issues, Paladino came in for a great deal of abuse), and general gripes about Atascadero: By far, the majority of “treatment” for SVP committees [sic] consists of Bingo “therapy,” popcorn “therapy,” television viewing “therapy” (lots of that), playing the football pool “therapy,” taking a nap “therapy,” etc, etc. These activities are euphemistically labeled as “Rehab Groups”… How many of us were sent here because a jury felt our Bingo skills were wanting?

In another issue, the Gulag tracked down the transcript of a 1999 deposition Paladino gave to a Yuba County court: “The program at Atascadero State Hospital has been immensely successful because it has kept repeat recidivists out of the community where they would most likely have created more victims.” That’s not the sort of statement that inspires patients with much faith in their doctors’ sincerity.

With very few exceptions, officials at Atascadero and at the state Department of Mental Health have done all they could to keep their patients in their care, initially opposing the release of Cary Verse, Patrick Ghilotti, and Brian DeVries. When a Santa Clara County court ordered DeVries released in February of 2003, Dr. Stephen Mayberg, director of the California Department of Mental Health, expressed precious little confidence in the efficacy of his department’s efforts. He wrote to the court to convey his “grave concerns” that despite the fact that DeVries had “from a clinical point of view, completed the inpatient phase of his treatment,” he “continues to be an adjudicated Sexually Violent Predator… Even with the most stringent measures of care and supervision while on outpatient status, it cannot be guaranteed that he will not re-offend.”

The year before, Mayberg went to extraordinary lengths to prevent Ghilotti’s release. After four years of treatment and positive evaluations from three independent psychologists, Ghilotti was the first SVP to be deemed by a judge to have been successfully treated. Facing a court order demanding his release from Atascadero, the state had to scramble to design an outpatient program for Ghilotti.Though six years had gone by since the law passed, they had apparently not considered the possibility that anyone might actually complete the program. It didn’t matter in the end: Mayberg insisted that his own judgment overruled the opinions of the three evaluators. Ghilotti took the case to the California Supreme Court. The state fought it all the way, and won. After nearly two additional years of treatment at Atascadero, during which time he had himself castrated to placate the public and curry favor with the court, a judge again ordered Ghilotti freed this February. City officials in Vacaville fought hard to keep him out, and Ghilotti remained at Atascadero until his release on May 20 when, in what had by then become a familiar ritual, news crews gathered and police distributed Ghilotti’s photograph door-to-door. For their part, Ghilotti’s new neighbors bought handguns, installed alarm systems, and hung signs outside their homes reading, “Neutered animals still bite” and “Experiment with rehabilitation somewhere else.”


From behind his desk in his San Jose office, Brian Matthews, the Santa Clara County deputy public defender who represents Brian DeVries, speculates in a soft, low voice that the state never intended for anyone committed as an SVP to ever see the light of day,“which is why I think these guys who are getting out on conditional release are particularly compelling.They are putting the lie to the law.They’re saying, ‘Hey, we can make it. We’ve done everything everybody’s asked us to do and climbed incredible hurdles to get where we are.’ And people still don’t want to let them out. It shows just what this law is all about.”

I ask Matthews if his office has prevailed in any of the dozens of SVP cases that they have tried. “We’ve lost every case,” he says with a tired smile. “These cases are very, very difficult to win.The prior crimes are usually pretty bad and most jurors are afraid. Instead of thinking, ‘What happens if I vote to commit this guy and he never would have offended again?’ they’re thinking, ‘what if I vote to let this guy go and he molests some kid or rapes somebody?’ Which is not the legal approach, but it’s a pretty normal human approach.”

The majority of the patients at Atascadero, though, are still refusing treatment, hoping to one day convince a jury that they’re not mentally ill and not likely to offend again, or, better still, that the law that keeps them confined will one day be overturned. “The odds,” Matthews says,“are not good.”

Matthews takes me through the constitutional challenges to SVP laws. In late 1996, Kansas v. Hendricks, a challenge to a Kansas sexual predator statute, made it to the United States Supreme Court. In a five-four decision, the court upheld the Kansas law, which is almost identical to California’s. Since then, only smaller procedural and definitional challenges have been possible. (The Ghilotti case, for instance, hinged on the definition of the word likely, as in the definition of a Sexually Violent Predator as a person for whom “it is likely that he or she will engage in sexually violent criminal behavior,” which the state now understands to mean something closer to possible.) But Matthews takes some hope from a concurring opinion penned by Justice Kennedy in the Hendricks decision in which he cautioned that if civil commitment could be proved to have “become a mechanism for retribution or general deterrence… our precedents would not suffice to validate” the Kansas law.

If the ostracism goes on and the state fails to come up with a way to place the released SVPs still under its care into a meaningful treatment program, Matthews says, and if the state continues to keep SVPs at Atascadero simply because it can’t figure out where to put them, the law’s opponents would have a sound argument that Kennedy’s condition has been met: “If there is not a reasonable outpatient program available to these guys, then it becomes preventative detention. If you’re going to create this class of people that are pariahs, if you’re going to give them this Sexually Violent Predator label, and if the state, the politicians, and the Department [of Mental Health] won’t make it such that they’ll be able get out and have a chance to succeed, I don’t think the law is constitutional. I don’t think they get to keep their law if they’re not going to let it work.”

If Verse’s exodus continues for much longer, Matthews says,“Cary Verse could be the case” that brings down the law.


Cary Verse and Jerry Howard met in 2000, when Howard was sent to Atascadero after unsuccessfully fighting his commitment for two and a half years from a cell in county jail. The two men became friends, and still are, though Verse is not allowed to speak to Howard on the phone. Wearing state-issued khakis and tortoise-shell glasses, his elbows propped on a table in Atascadero’s visiting room, Howard, at thirty-nine, is a handsome man, tan and fit, his long blond hair tied back. Beneath the mirrors and video cameras, over the hum of invisible fans, he talks about Cary Verse. His voice swings between acid resignation and wakeful, vibrant anger. “I believe what he went through is a sham,” Howard says, referring to Verse’s successful completion of the hospital’s treatment program. “He is the same person I knew from the start. He already had the commitment never to re-offend. I had the same commitment. But because he is able to jump through hoops, he’s out and I’m still here.”

Howard is one of the more than 200 men at Atascadero refusing to “do the phases.” In 1987, when he was twenty-one, Howard was convicted of having oral sex with a thirteen-year-old girl and intercourse with a sixteen-year-old. Both acts were consensual, Howard says, but “it was wrong and I knew it was wrong.” He was later convicted again, this time for molesting two girls, aged eight and nine. He denies being guilty of those crimes, but he took a plea bargain that he says he now regrets. In May of 1997, two days before he was due to be paroled from San Quentin, he learned that he had been declared an SVP and would not be going home.“I knew about the law, but I never dreamed I would fall under it. I was devastated. My wife was devastated.” (Howard is no longer married. With no release date in sight, he says, his wife wanted to move on. “She didn’t stop loving me. She just stopped being my wife.”)

“I knew in 1997 I would never take part in treatment because I do not have a mental disorder,” Howard says. (Doctors diagnosed him with paraphilia.)  Because he won’t admit to his later convictions, he says, “They say I’m in denial.” And because one of the requirements of the treatment program is writing detailed dissections of all past crimes, Howard says, “that would require me to lie.To me that’s not healthy. To write stories that would repulse me, I won’t do it.”

Only Howard and his accusers know if he is innocent or guilty, but his story is not outlandish. After protesting his innocence for over a decade, a convicted child molester named James Rodriguez eventually realized that Atascadero’s treatment program was, in Cary Verse’s words,“the only game in town.” He began lying to his doctors, admitting to pedophilia in the hope that he might one day be considered successfully treated. Rodriguez was released in April, after his supposed victim recanted and told Rodriguez’s prosecutor the original molestation charges had been fabricated.

I tell Howard he must know he’s taking a huge risk, that treatment may be the only way out, that he could easily spend the rest of his life here. “The risks are the same,” he answers. Whether he does the phases or not, he has little faith that he’ll ever get out.“Even if I was to go into treatment, I have a stopping point that I will not go beyond. I have no other victims, and I won’t pretend to.”

Besides, Howard says, the program offers little cause for optimism. Going along with the treatment program is no guarantee of release, even for the most earnest “phasers.” Far from it:“There’s guys here who’ve been on Lupron for years. They’re still here and they’re still phase four. Their bones are deteriorating.You see their medical problems every day.” “They keep saying that the program is state-of-the-art. It’s not. They don’t have a track record of releasing treated sex offenders. They’ve released two.” (I interviewed Howard several weeks before Ghilotti’s release.) The abbreviated freedom won by Cary Verse and Brian DeVries is hardly enviable. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Howard says. “There’s not even any conceivable light.”

Howard brings several tiny sheets of notepaper with him to the visiting room. Scribbled on them are lists of reasons for refusing treatment that he has collected from nine other patients. He’s not allowed to hand me anything here, so he sends me a typed version in the mail.The lists don’t vary much. Most include some version of the phrases “No trust” and “No realistic out date.” All but one say, “No mental disorder.” (That one lists “Didn’t do crimes” instead)

Howard estimates that “maybe 20 percent need to be here. Eighty percent of us, we’re not mentally disordered and we’re not going to commit a new crime.” As hyperbolically high as those numbers seem, they shouldn’t be that surprising given the American Psychiatric Association’s conclusion that SVP laws “have the effect of defining ‘mental illness’ in terms of criminal behavior.” Thus in perfectly circular logic, the fact of a past conviction, sometimes more than a decade old, becomes evidence of a current mental disorder which in turn forecasts future criminal acts. Dr. John Podboy, a  psychologist who resigned from the state evaluating board that advises the courts on SVP commitments, is only slightly more conservative than Howard. “Some of them were really scary people,” he says,“no doubt about it.” But Podboy estimates that “being very generous, you might find that 25 percent of them do have a diagnosable mental disorder.”

Most of them, though, will never leave Atascadero, except perhaps to move to Coalinga, when the state hospital opens there. The state spends $120,000 a year on each of them. “It’s great,” says Howard with a bitter laugh. “I work out six days a week. I sunbathe. I work at the grill.” He writes to pen pals and to his kids.“I read a lot. I watch TV. I have a Gameboy that my ex-wife bought me.” He takes correspondence classes with names like “The Way of Happiness.” He’s taken classes in anger management, interpersonal skills, and all the computer courses the hospital offers.“There’s a stamp club I go to. I go to yoga. If I never get released, this is all I have. I’m doing everything I can to keep myself sane in this place.”

Howard is not unrealistic about his chances. “I have no confidence I will win a jury decision,” he says.

I ask him if he has any hope at all.

He shakes his head, “That’s all I have.”


When I check in with Cary Verse on the telephone in May, he has been in San Jose for over three months. “It’s nice and quiet here,” he says.The protests have died off. The media’s attention has shifted to Pat Ghilotti, who will arrive in Vacaville in just a few days. Until about two weeks ago,Verse says, a lone city councilman was still picketing the motel, pacing the parking lot in his suit and tie. “He looked lonely,” Verse says. Even he’s gone now, and Verse doesn’t expect to stay much longer. His monitors have found a landlord willing to take him, but he doesn’t know when he’ll be leaving, or where he’ll go next.“They don’t really tell me what’s happening.”

Despite this relative stability, or perhaps because of it, Verse is beginning to chafe at the restrictions of his new life. Last week the team of bureaucrats and psychologists governing his program denied his request for an extension to his curfew (Verse can’t go out between eight p.m. and six a.m.) “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I should’ve pushed for nine when I was still in the hospital. Eight didn’t seem so bad then, but with day-light savings, it’s really early. I can’t even go to the store.”

This morning another request was denied.“Yesterday they took a vote that I can’t ride a bicycle.”

And he relates the news, conveyed to him by Jerry Howard’s lawyer, that back at Atascadero another patient from his unit, an elderly man, just died. “Nineteen dead and two released,” Verse says. “Not very good numbers.” And then he says good-bye, his voice once again suddenly deflating.


At around 10 p.m. on June 19, Cary Verse was arrested in his room for having failed to register as a sex offender with San Jose police, as he is required to do every ninety days. Verse spent the next four days in an isolation cell in the city jail, waiting anxiously to hear if he would be charged with a felony, a potential third strike for which he would face a mandatory sentence of twenty-five years to life.

It was, it turned out, the most technical of technicalities: on May 19 the motel owner had changed the number on his door, and Verse called the police to notify them of this sudden change of address. He asked them if they needed him to come down to register, and they told him not to bother. Verse thought his ninety-day registration clock had been reset. San Jose police apparently felt otherwise, although as usual, they knew exactly where he was.“The whole thing was a little fishy,” Verse says. In the end the DA chose not to press charges, and Verse was back in his motel room by nine on Monday night. The message, though, was clear enough: after four months, Cary Verse shouldn’t get too comfortable in San Jose.

One week later the news leaked out that Verse would soon move to Merced. Days before he was due to arrive, protesters were already gathering on the shoulder of a Merced highway, yelling “protect your children!” to passing cars. ✯

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