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The Pedophile Next Door: Life behind bars

Last Updated Sep 15, 2015 at 8:32 am EDT

This is the first instalment of a week-long series called The Pedophile Next Door.

Pedophiles, drug dealers, thieves and thugs roam the halls of Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI). They’ve all be convicted and sentenced for their crimes – for some, it’s their fifth or sixth time behind bars.

But they aren’t wearing orange jumpsuits; they’re wearing grey slacks. They’re eating in a dining hall. They’re walking through the building unescorted by correctional officers; two inmates are even “fence-cleared” so they can help with grounds’ maintenance outside of the barbed wire. They’re taking part in gardening and recreational programs, completing daily chores, and even putting on pageant-style shows for family and friends. This summer, they held an institution-wide Pan Am Games with inmates competing against each other in a variety of sports. It was so successful that staff are trying to figure out OCI’s next big event.

It sounds more like a summer camp than a jail. But Bob – not his real name – a convicted repeat pedophile, says “it’s the toughest time you’ll ever serve.”

That’s because of the therapy, group sessions and peer reviews. Bob has been jailed repeatedly for sexually assaulting children, but since leaving OCI fifteen years ago, he hasn’t reoffended.

OCI first opened in 1973 as an offender-focused treatment facility. The Brampton jail has a capacity for 220 inmates, although as of September 11, 2015, only 145 were serving time here. All of the inmates are undergoing some kind of therapy; drug and alcohol counselling, anger management, good lives and/or the Sexual Offending Relapse Prevention Program (SORP). One third of its inmates are sex offenders.

“I didn’t think I could change at OCI,” says Bob. “I thought I could understand, that was the best I could do. But I changed.” The biggest thing, he says, is he learned how to feel. “I learned how to empathize with my victims and to feel empathy for children.”

“The process was to take you back to the beginning, like kindergarten, and remould you into who you ought to be.”

Its an approach that’s also used at the Bath Institution, a medium security federal prison just outside of Kingston. “There’s no program that can reduce the recidivism rate 100 per cent,” explains Reyhan Yazar, a psychometrist with Corrections Canada, “but a great program can reduce rates by about 50 per cent.”

Yazar has worked in facilities like Bath for 17 years. “Addressing cognitive behaviour and prevention is key,” she says of rehabilitating sex offenders. “Sex offenders have a 30-40 per cent recidivism rate; that’s without programs. Effective programs can bring that rate down.”

Sex offender programs at federal institutions tend to be more rigorous than those offered through OCI, and for good reason. Offenders serving time at Bath are often hardened criminals – murderers, serial rapists, pedophiles with multiple convictions- serving long sentences. About 23 per cent of Bath’s inmates are serving life sentences; the rest will be released – and half of those are sex offenders.

“I didn’t think I could change at OCI. I thought I could understand, that was the best I could do. But I changed.”

“For the most part, offenders want to get better here,” says Sandy Moran, a Correctional Manager at Bath. “Bath is unique, you can’t compare it to any other jail.”

Ignore the barbed wire, security checks and barking detection dogs, and it looks more like a university campus than a federal prison. Inmates live in one of five buildings, in dorm-like settings and walk freely from their “rooms” to sports fields, the activity building, classrooms and work. Yes, work.

Nearly every inmate at Bath works – as cleaners, caregivers for elderly inmates, cooks or as woodworkers at CorCan, an onsite-woodworking factory. Inmates there earn up to $6.90 a day while they design, develop and make furniture. Goods made here are sold across the country, much of National Defence’s office furniture was once on this shop floor.

“Work is an important part of the program here. Its part of rehabilitation,” says Gord Zuber, an Assistant Warden at Bath. About 30 per cent of their wage is withheld to cover their living expenses “just like in the outside world.”

But handling potential weapons like hammers and saws, and lugging heavy wood across a shop floor is only a small part of a sex offender’s time at Bath. They also take part in extensive rehabilitation programs, five days a week.

“We use STATIC 99-R (an internationally recognized risk assessment tool for sex offenders) to place inmates in the appropriate program,” explains Yazar. There are 67 risks that are specific to sex offenders, such as problematic sexual arousal, emotional identification with children, sexual preoccupation and negative attitudes towards women. Program officers use an inmate’s score and notes from evaluations to determine their risk levels.

 

“We teach them how to deal with issues like deviant sexual arousal, for example by teaching them to use an appropriate fantasy,” Yazar explains. “We also teach problem solving, managing negative emotion and how to promote supportive relationships.” She says Corrections Canada programs reduce sex offender recidivism by an additional 30-40 per cent.

“A big part of our program is motivation. Because you can teach up the yin yang, but if they don’t want to use it, they won’t.” Staff say they currently house several offenders who are serving their third, fourth and even fifth sentence at Bath.

“There are cases where we’ve had to release somebody who hasn’t been rehabilitated because they’ve refused to cooperate with the program,” explains Zuber. “Some sex offenders still have issues trying to hide their crimes. The sex offender hierarchy still exists.”

Bob hid his crimes and attraction to children his whole life. He says OCI taught him how to be honest, how to control his urges, to be part of a community and hold himself accountable for his actions.

“We start out in the group (therapy) sessions feeling like victims, we don’t leave that way.”

One of OCI’s most effective tools, he says, is the peer review. There are scheduled dates where offenders hear what others think of their crimes and behaviours. “There was a line-up to speak at the pedophile ones, nobody really cared about the thieves,” he explains. “The aggressiveness, the heat, the barrage — you think there’s no hope.” But he says there is. “No one in my unit left, or was discharged from my unit with any animosity towards me.”

“We start out in the group (therapy) sessions feeling like victims, we don’t leave that way.”

That’s tough to imagine. Pedophiles and sex offenders are at the bottom of the criminal hierarchy — not only are they often targets of violence, but attacking a sex offender can increase another inmate’s social status in jails. As a result, sex offenders are most often placed in protective custody, away from the general population. Not at OCI or Bath, where pedophiles and drug dealers and murderers share the same dorm.

OCI’s zero-tolerance approach to violence, under threat of relocation, has translated into very few fights over the past decade. While other institutions don’t have enough room in segregation to house misbehaving offenders, the five cells at OCI are rarely used. On the day of our tour, only one inmate was in segregation – for a non-violent offence.

Bath doesn’t even have segregation cells, but that hasn’t totally eradicated jail-house violence. On the day of our tour, three inmates had been shipped off to maximum security prisons for segregation. Staff say they are reviewing whether the men will be allowed back into the institution, or forced to serve their sentences elsewhere.

Although other jails in the province are frequently locked down, preventing inmates from attending programming, meeting with lawyers, family members or friends, there hasn’t been a lockdown at OCI in years. “There’s no better place than OCI,” explains Bob. “To try to escape, or to mess up your chance of being there, you’d have to be crazy.”

Inmates can’t be sentenced to OCI, they have to apply while serving time in other institutions. They have to acknowledge their crimes and detail what they aim to achieve at OCI. A committee evaluates their security risk, sincerity and ability to change. About 33 per cent of applicants are rejected.

Although OCI couldn’t provide detailed numbers on the effectiveness of their programming, staff say they conduct pre- and post- measurements of empathy and emotional, versus thought-based problem solving, and that there are notable improvements.

Bob says he’s the proof. “The program can’t work for everybody. It can work for you, but you have to buy into it.”