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Tracey: “I lost my family. I lost my job and I lost my home. I spent 14-and-a-half years in the Department of Corrections.”

PUSHED TO THE MARGINS

What do you do when you law prohibits you from living within a reasonable distance of any of society’s communal spaces and social services? That’s the question thousands of sex offenders find themselves with, and the perpetually-liminal existence they inhabit.

ABSENT DEBATE

I’ve not written about sex offenders — imprisoned or otherwise — very much on this blog. This is due in most part because I’ve not a wealth of knowledge. But it is also because it is an easy population to ignore. This is my failing. Sex offenders are a group that receive little-to-no sympathy or understanding. And, this, despite their crimes being massively different from one another and their pathologies and psychological profiles dictating their offence but not, by any means, their potential improvement and contributions into the future. Prison Photography has lazily sidelined the issue as to maintain a safe distance from one of society’s trickiest topics within criminal justice.

Sofia Valiente‘s photographs of ‘Miracle Village’ a community of registered sex offenders in Florida give me the opportunity to tackle this. Valiente has just released a book of the project with FABRICA and the work was featured on The Marshall Project this week.

Miracle village was founded in 2009 by Pastor Dick Witherow, whose ministry helps sex offenders reintegrate into society by providing them with onsite housing, employment, and counseling.

Valiente’s book contains writings by 12 sex offenders who live in the isolated community in West Palm Beach County, Florida.

A (VIRTUALLY) IGNORED ISSUE

Firstly, I should say that this is not the only work of this type. Danish photographer Steven Achiam made images of sex offenders in a trailer park, also in Florida. I’ve known this work for years but, again, never quite dared to bring it up.

Secondly, I will say that the laws against sex offenders living in proximity to children differ state-to-state, are almost arbitrary, mostly unenforceable and rarely consider whether the crime was against a child in the original case.

Furthermore, exclusionary zones put off-limits ludicrous amounts of roads and public thoroughfares. For example in Revere, Massachusetts, the Prison Policy Initiative mapped out what proposed laws would look like and found that 99% of the city would be off-limits.

Finally, I take my information from those I trust most. Laurie Jo Reynolds — an incredibly effective campaigner, serial grant winner, darling of the anti-prison movement, and hero of mine — has long argued against sex offender registries which put individuals on the list as risk and do not improve public safety. Reynolds also says that registries do not prevent crime only pile expensive punishment, admin and enforcement on top of a severely misunderstood problem.

All that said, we need to approach the issue of sex crimes with less fear and judgement and realise we have not yet found the most sensible, safe, restorative, economical or humane ways to deal with this tough, tough issue. Maybe Sofia Valiente’s images are an invitation to do so?

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Richard: “Up until the age of 18, I had a terrible stutter. I hated talking. I was always a good student and often knew the answers to the questions asked in class. However, I never raised my hand because I dreaded being called on. My stutter was bad, and when I was talking to a girl it was even worse. When I discovered Internet Chatt in 1988, and I could communicate without having to talk, it was the greatest thing ever.”
“Living in Miracle Village is quiet, peaceful, yet isolated. When people call me about jobs, they never know where Pahokee is.”
Paul on his porch. “I don’t know when I started making bad choices.”
Gene in his El Camino.
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Matt exercising in the back shed in the village with David and Lee. “Growing up with my mom was enough, I’m ready to move on. All I did was go to school and take care of the house. It was like living in boot camp. She was the one that called the cops on me in order to protect her job or so she said.”
Ben taking a walk around the sugarcane fields that surround the complex.
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Objects on Rose’s refrigerator include a photograph of her children (their eyes were obscured by the photographer to protect their identities).
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Lee laying down inside his room. Lee went to prison when he was 18 and served 12 and a half years of his 15 year sentence. He is serving the other 2 and a half years on conditional release. His restrictions include a 7pm curfew, no driving other than for employment purposes- not alone, no internet, monthly urinalysis, no contact with minors even family members, GPS monitoring and paying the cost of his supervision. He must register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life. “You can clean me up, put me in the ‘right’ clothes and give me an honorary membership, but I will still be that outsider and that is that.”
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Gene laying down with his dog Killer for a nap. “As a sex offender I can not trust anyone…. All they have to do is call 911 and say that a sex offender has bothered them and Bang! I am in jail. No questions asked.”
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Doug after a day of working outside. He helps out in the community by doing occasional lawn work and other maintenance jobs. Doug lived in a tent in the woods prior to coming to the village. Because of distance restrictions he was unable to go home after serving his time and had difficulty finding a place to live. “After I got into trouble I became homeless and couldn’t get a job so I lived 2,500 feet into the woods.”
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