TUCKED INSIDE THE McNeil Island Correctional Center near Tacoma is the state-funded Special Commitment Center (SCC), a facility that houses the sex offenders who prosecutors across the state of Washington have deemed the most dangerous. These offenders have been "civilly committed," involuntarily sent and held for treatment at the center after serving their time.

The sex offenders at SCC have been complaining for years about a variety of problems at the center. Thanks to indifference from the state legislature, the general public, and the Department of Social and Health Services, they've gotten nowhere.

These days, however, the SCC residents have an important ally -- U.S. District Judge William Dwyer.

Last November, Dwyer cited SCC in contempt of court for failing to provide adequate mental-health treatment to the sex offenders there, as required by federal law. If the center doesn't fix its long-standing problems, by May 1 it will be fined $50 a day for every resident at SCC. With 108 residents at the state-funded facility, that means taxpayers will be shelling out $5,400 a day for the center's persistent incompetence.

The SCC doesn't seem particularly interested in rehabilitating anybody, Dwyer notes. The involuntary participants of SCC are treated more like prison inmates than mental-health patients. "There is still a failure to meet professional minimum standards and to afford constitutionally adequate mental-health treatment," Judge Dwyer wrote in his 23-page contempt ruling. "[These shortcomings] exist, and have existed, despite uncontradicted professional opinion.... Such a long delay is unacceptable in view of the time already allowed."

One of the root problems concerns jurisdiction. Even though it's run by the Department of Social and Health Services, the SCC is located within the confines of a remote prison run by the Department of Corrections. That means that the DOC has control over the movement of SCC residents. Consequently, they're viewed and treated like prisoners instead of patients.

It's been a protracted, controversial court battle. The convicted sex offenders housed by the center are fighting for individual rights that no one is particularly interested in granting them. More than a third of the residents at the center have been refusing treatment of any kind until the lawsuit in Dwyer's court can be resolved. Many of the residents who are receiving treatment from SCC staff are suing in a different court over the quality of their treatment.

Judging from the past six years of litigation, the center has a long list of shortcomings. The center doesn't employ an adequate staff, both in terms of numbers and experience. The center doesn't do nearly enough to try to work with the residents to rehabilitate them. The center continues to infringe upon the personal rights of the residents housed there; for example, it does not provide adequate family visitation rights.

Just last week, another legal complaint was added to the list: The Stranger was denied face-to-face interviews with four residents. John Wentworth Phillips, an attorney representing several residents, has written a letter to the state Attorney General's office demanding that the residents be allowed to talk directly with reporters.

Overwhelming evidence against SCC has emerged from a number of sources, from staff testimony to outside experts. For example, the court has employed psychologist Janice Marques as an independent investigator to report her findings about SCC directly to Dwyer. After 16 consecutive reports in the past five years, Marques has continued to find a multitude of problems at the center.

Ask any SCC resident, and he will quickly say the staffers at the center treat him as if he were less than human. Court testimony has revealed that staffers have deliberately provoked residents. The staffers can then enforce a number of punishments against residents, including solitary confinement, or worse -- delaying the time the residents can be released from the center.

Herman "Butch" Paschke says he received better treatment when he was in prison. "When I have a visit with my wife [at the center], I'm allowed to kiss her once when she comes and once when she leaves," he says. "I'm allowed to hold her hand. But if I peck her on the cheek during the visit, then I'll be pulled out of my seat, and with any more actions like that they terminate my visit." The center only stopped strip-searching SCC residents during visitor hours because the court ordered it to do so.

With a mere month before Dwyer's next court hearing, SCC residents -- many of whom are involved in litigation against the center -- don't think SCC officials have lifted a finger to fix the problems.

"They're scrambling," says Mitch Gaff, who has now spent five years at SCC. "We've seen them scrambling, but we've seen no significant change in the program. We've heard rumors, but nothing's changed." The center may be doing what it does every time Dwyer issues an order: It essentially ignores the ruling for several months. Then, just a few weeks or even days before the next court hearing, center administrators make a few cosmetic changes to try to appease the court. It's a problem Dwyer complained about in his contempt ruling.

For example, just two weeks ago, the center finally provided the residents with something they've been demanding in court for years: unmonitored telephones in their living quarters.

Readers may be skeptical of the sex offenders' claims, but few can contest the charges that Dr. Robert Smith has leveled against the center. Before he quit last August, Smith was SCC's clinical director. In a deposition submitted to the court, Smith outlined the way center director Dr. Seling operated SCC.

"Whenever I needed anything, I had to go and beg for it," Smith testified. "And those things which I did request, I very rarely got. Did I ask Dr. Seling for the things we needed to run the program? The answer to that is yes. Did I get those things? Very rarely."

Smith also testified that Seling was "busy spending resources on [developing] this long-term institution that would be comfortable for people who don't want to go anywhere." The SCC residents, however, have made it clear through their lawsuits that they want to be released as soon as possible. Both Dwyer and Smith note that the center has done little to create transitional procedures for the release of SCC residents (i.e., a halfway house and outpatient therapy).

Seling could not be reached for comment. He did give a tour to Mike Carter of The Seattle Times, but residents say it was a tightly controlled visit, conducted on Seling's terms. According to motions submitted by the state Attorney General's office in defense of the SCC, however, it's clear that the center doesn't think the federal court should be meddling in its affairs. "The states enjoy wide latitude in operating their [civil commitment] programs," one motion points out. In response to contempt charges, another motion asserts, "There is no evidence that defendants have intentionally disobeyed any of this court's orders."

In the end, the crisis at SCC encapsulates a dilemma that the U.S. Supreme Court created when it said states have the right to civilly commit sex offenders. The high court ruled that as long as the civil commitment centers were places of treatment rather than places of punishment, they were constitutional. Washington state has been left trying to figure out how that can work, considering that anyone held at an institution against their will is -- by the average person's definition -- a prisoner. More important, with the treatment they are getting, the situation at SCC is even more farcical.

Attorney Phillips summarizes the problem: "We want to treat [sex offenders]. We want to cure them. But it seems odd in American society that, after someone has completed their criminal sentence, they can be held indefinitely in what amounts to a jail."

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