Column: The Prison Diaries — Sex Offender: A Lifetime Label

Christopher Reina is serving a five-year sentence in federal prison. In his writing he shares how he is surviving prison life as a gay inmate. Chris is paying it forward by donating his compensation for this column to a charity close to his heart.

Entry 7 — July 30, 2014

A word of warning - some of you reading this column should prepare to have your feathers thoroughly ruffled. Here goes: I take issue with the term 'sex offender.’ Murders have murdered, embezzlers have embezzled and drug traffickers have trafficked drugs. So sex offenders have sex offended? Nobody says that. Offended sex? That doesn't even make sense. There is no past tense for the term 'sex offender.’

This is more than just a trifle of semantics. Labels, for better or (mostly) worse, are important in our society. The suffix -er in sex offender locks that individual into the present for perpetuity as someone who 'is' or 'does.’ There is no allowance for 'was' or 'did.’ Once a drug dealer, always a drug dealer? Of course not. But once a sex offender, forever a sex offender. The term intentionally reinforces the myth that former sex offenders cannot or will not change. The term holds no prospect for redemption, offers no chance for rehabilitation.

Another problem with the term 'sex offender' is its indiscriminate characterization. Sex offenders are the 750,000 people and counting in this country who were convicted because they: exposed themselves or had consensual sex in public, raped someone, hidden video cameras or peeped into windows, created, distributed, traded or possessed child and underage pornography, rubbed up against someone inappropriately in public or molested or enticed someone underage.

In some states, men who have solicited a prostitute and mothers who have breastfed their child in public view have been required to register as sex offenders. My point is that the term 'sex offender' encompasses an overly broad range of crimes that carry a broad range of severities. Let's face it, ask the average person to imagine a sex offender and chances are good that they will picture a sadistic child rapist who kidnaps and murders his victim. However, statistics show that such a criminal represents only .05 percent of those prosecuted for sex offenses.

You might also find it interesting to know that the largest group of underage pornography producers today are the children and teens themselves, with their underdeveloped privacy boundaries and 24 hour access to cell phone and web cameras.

There are more than 4,000 children in the state of Texas alone who have been required to register as sex offenders before the age of 14. I don't bring up these facts in order to blame the victims. Rather, I am questioning the common sense of placing the label 'sex offender' on these not-yet fully formed human beings. A label which will follow them forever and bring with it a lifetime of punitive consequences.

I am not trying to down play the seriousness of sex crimes committed against children, or my part in committing one. These crimes shatter trust and can cause lasting, sometimes irreparable damage to their victims, and I am quite guilty of temporarily lacking compassion and empathy for those victims. And yes, certainly there are some former sex offenders who require close monitoring for many years.

But is it cost effective to spend those resources on the many former sex offenders who have been clinically evaluated to be at a low risk for reoffending? Sex offenders in general have a lower recidivism rate compared to other types of criminals, and are evaluated, monitored, counseled, lie detected, till the cows come home, not to mention rejected, scorned, isolated, and humiliated. Perhaps that's OK for the former offender as far as some of you are concerned, but what about the effects of such ostracizing on the partners and children who live with them?

I know that the years that I am spending in prison won't be retribution enough for society. When I am released I won't be allowed to live with the person I love most in this world. Restrictions on where I can live could make it more difficult to find employment and access the specialized medical care I need, not to mention the mental health and spiritual support my continued sobriety will require.

Does this make kids safer? The fact is that public registration of former sex offenders has had little to no effect on the number of sex crimes committed, according to a 2009 study by the New Jersey Dept. of Corrections and Rutgers University. For that .05 percent, the ubiquitous 2,500 ft. restriction imposed on former sex offenders around places children congregate doesn't do much more than give communities a false sense of security. Draconian laws haven't worked in the war on drugs, so why do people think they'll work for sex crimes?

Many would say that I lost my right to be upset about being labeled a sex offender and the harsh penalties that go with it when I downloaded that first illegal image. Be that as it may, it doesn't change the fact that as far as many, many former sex offenders are concerned, the current policies and laws are overzealous and misdirected. Social controls that spring from hysteria and hatred always are. Unfortunately, things won't change until people on the outside of this issue begin to call for reasonable reforms.

Christopher Reina

Reg. #50095-004

Beaumont Low FCI

P.O. Box 26020
Beaumont, TX 77720

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