Because I am a Sex Offender

It’s April of 2014. I’ve just turned 30 and I’ve had to leave New York City and move back to my hometown and in with my parents. My hometown is a small college town with a population of 20,000. The neighborhood I’ve just left had a population four times that. I’ve failed at my dream. (I moved to NYC to go to acting school and be an artist)  I have no idea what to do or where to turn. I’m riddled with anxiety and dangerously depressed. My parents made the suggestion that I get certified to be a substitute teacher. Nearly everyone in my family is or has been a teacher at some point and there has always been a pressure on me to teach in one form or another. I rejected the idea over and over until I was too desperate to not take the gig. I started working as a sub for the local school district. K-12, but I most often subbed for grades 1-5.

One day like any other, I’m subbing for a 1st grade class and there’s a knock at the classroom door. It’s the principal, and two police officers. They say they want to speak to me, and to come with them. My mind is racing. I’m worried something has happened to a family member. As we exit the building, but before we get into the car, one of the officers says to me “Just cooperate and everything will be just fine.”

We get to the police station and it’s two officers in a small room. They tell me that they’ve found child pornography on my computer.

Let’s backtrack a bit, shall we?

I started looking at pornography when I was 12 years old, but it didn’t become an addiction until college. Everything became an addiction in college. Around the age of 19, the depression and anxiety that would color the rest of my life knocked at the door and I let it in. I had been a moody child and teen, but this was different. This was darker. This was dangerous. After failing all of my classes one semester, I dropped out of school. I had zero healthy coping mechanisms. All of my ways of coping were toxic. Drink to cope, sleep to cope, eat to cope, get high to cope, sex to cope, porn to cope, etc. I was desperately grasping anything around me to fill a void. I was just trying to not feel miserable for a few seconds. This behavior lasted well over a decade. If I’m honest, while 90% gone, I still struggle with the impulse to reach for those unhealthy coping mechanisms.

I streamed porn. I downloaded porn. I collected. I categorized. I wanted it all. I had my computer set to download porn 24/7. While I was at work, my computer was at home, downloading porn. At some point, I think probably my freshman year of college, I started using file sharing software to download pornography. Limewire, Kazaa, BitTorrent, etc. I did this because of the sheer size of the torrent files. With one click, I could download multiple Gigabytes of pornography. Now, any of you that have used file sharing platforms such as these knows that torrents aren’t always the most reliable. You download a torrent titled “Beatles – Abby Road” and you might end up with Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits. It’s not typical, but it does happen. Apply that to pornography and imagine what can happen.

Cut back to the officers in the small room.

The officers inform me that once my computer finished downloading a torrent file, it “seeded” (it started uploading to everyone else who had clicked on that particular file to download) directly to the detective’s computer. They then searched my residence, seized two laptops, and an external hard drive. They searched the computer and found the file. It’s worth mentioning that the torrent in question was over 8GB. That’s why I chose to download it. That’s a lot of pictures and videos, after all. The name was a string of jargon with XXX in the middle. (For example: !@)^#$@$&@)%}{:”?>!?><>Q%@%$@***XXX***#$%)&_*!@%”}{@“$:{:^^^&). They then informed me that many of the images and videos in the torrent were of children. By this time, I had assumed that’s what they were going to say. Not really knowing anything about the law, other than what I had seen in movies and television (which I knew was probably false), I waived my Miranda rights and spoke to them – My reasoning being “Well I can certainly see why you are concerned – let me clear this up.”  I tell them that yes, I downloaded that file, but no, I did not realize there was child pornography on it, however, in the past I have come across material like this due to files being mislabeled on BitTorrent.

I thought they were going to say “Well BE CAREFUL. That stuff is out there.”  I figured I’d get a fine, and they’d send me on my way. If they were smart, they would have mandated pornography addiction treatment for me, lest it get truly out of control. Instead they took me straight to the local jail. When I finally am able to communicate with my family (They denied me a phone call), I find out that in the local paper they printed that I told officers I had been downloading child pornography pretty much my whole life.

The prosecutor set my bond at $500,000 cash only. Let me remind you that my income was that of a substitute teacher’s. My parents are both retired educators. One of my sisters is an elementary school teacher, and the other is a retired elementary school teacher. How the hell is that bond not excessive?  How the hell does that not violate my 8th Amendment rights?

I sat in county jail for 10 months, during the course of which the prosecutor denied my attorney access to my computer, or to have it forensically examined by a third party. I was denied bond reduction. We found out that the warrant used to seize my property was obtained illegally. We found out that the recordings of the police interrogation mysteriously disappeared. The prosecutor wanted to give me 23 years.

My attorney told me that we had enough evidence to take the case to court and to win; however, all that was going to do is piss off the prosecutor, and piss off the highway patrol. (The detective worked for the highway patrol.) They could then report the case to the feds, and I did NOT want that to happen. Again, not knowing much about the law and faced with an impossible decision, I took a plea bargain for 10 years. It is only in retrospect that I suspect my attorney being “in bed,” so to speak with the judge and the prosecutor.

I spent 5 years and 4 months (My attorney told me I’d only serve 2-3 years) in various state correctional facilities as a sex offender. And I am not a fighter. I am a nerdy/sensitive, artsy-type. So yes, it was hell. From the violence and the prison gangs to the ineptitude and corruption I saw with the staff. In my experience, approximately 15% of the prison staff were good, honest, fair, hard-working people who were there to do their job with a modicum of dignity and then go home. The other 85% were either painfully inept, dangerously unstable, horrifically evil, or a mix of all three. Whenever I try to get across just how poorly Missouri prisons are run, people think I’m exaggerating. If you picked an inmate at random, and put a hidden body cam on him for 24 hours, there would be footage that would spark national outrage. I guarantee it.

So I was finally released. Freedom, right?  Not so fast. Missouri has a “tiered” sex offender registry. All throughout prison, I was told I was a Tier 1 offender. My institutional parole officer told me that, my Missouri Sex Offender Program (MOSOP) therapists told me that, and when I went to the law library and did research, that’s what all my research told me. However, when I went to register the first time, I was told I was a Tier 3 offender. (This makes a huge difference as a Tier 1 Offender can petition to be taken off the registry after 10 years. Tier 3 Offenders have to register for life.)  After a back and forth of people calling other people and getting back to me after a few weeks, I was told ‘Yeah, we know that’s not what the statute says, but that’s how we do it anyway. I suggest you get an attorney if you have a problem with it.’  That’s just one of many similar examples.

I have to pay $30 every month for the state of Missouri to keep me on Parole. I have to pay $10 when I register every 90 days. I have to pay $35 every week to my Sex Offender (SO) therapist. My release orders state that I must see a different therapist as well for my mental health (which, I would have done anyway, but again – another cost), and I have to pay those fees. I have to pay $256 just to be evaluated for the need of drug treatment. If it turned out that I did indeed need that treatment, I would have to pay for that regularly as well. I am currently attending graduate school and need computer and internet access and the only way for me to do that was to go through a company with which the Department of Corrections (DOC) is contracted. And they charge $110 to install the software and $105 every month for me to use it. This software opens my computer up to malware; if damage is sustained, I will have to pay for the computer to be repaired. I have to pay $250 every year for a polygraph examination. In order for me to go pretty much anywhere besides my house, two of my family members had to pay $240 to my SO therapist in order to become “chaperones.”  They also had to do this in order for me to be able to see anyone in my family that was 16 years old or younger.

The SO therapy is either outdated, or pop psychology nonsense. At best it’s worthless, at worst it’s harmful. The particular therapist I see calls himself a psychologist, but on multiple occasions he’s admitted he doesn’t read the current research in the field because he doesn’t agree with the results. He inappropriately brings up politics at almost every group meeting. In a one-on-one session, he told me that racism was not a problem in America anymore and that minorities are suffering from a mass delusion.

When Covid struck, he refused to wear a mask until it was mandated – even mocking the idea of doing so. It should be noted that there are eight people in the group I attend, and we all sit around a table, knees practically touching, in a small, unventilated room. He has the capability to practice tele-health, but he just doesn’t. We were under a mandatory stay-at-home order for a while, but he refused to cancel group, claiming it was medically necessary.

And there’s no one in which to safely voice these concerns. No one locally, no one in the Department of Probation & Parole, no one in the Department of Corrections at large. I am a sex offender. That is all they need to know. As soon as they find that out, they shut down. I am obviously either mistaken with my tiny sex offender brain, or I am purposely trying to cause trouble, as we criminals are wont to do.

Here’s the thing, though – I’m not claiming I’m innocent. The story and details that are written about me in my file are false, but that doesn’t mean I’m blameless.  In the many years I scoured the internet for pornography I saw many things. I saw things I wish I hadn’t. I saw things that were illegal. And what did I do?  I looked the other way. I deleted a file and poof! it didn’t exist anymore. Never mind that the human beings depicted in the images or videos were still suffering and would undoubtedly suffer for the rest of their lives. Would reporting it save them?  Maybe, maybe not. But it would have been the right thing to do. And I chose not to. Why?  Convenience. Desensitization. Denial.

I have made huge strides with my personal therapist toward reducing my impulsive behavior and developing healthy coping mechanisms. After two semesters of graduate school, I have a 4.0 GPA. I am employed. I have a savings account that I add to at least monthly. My depression and anxiety are lower than they’ve been in over 15 years. By most measurable standards, I am more useful to society now that I was before. I’m also pointed in the right direction and slowly accelerating.

But it’s not enough. It will never be enough. I will always be a second-class citizen. I will always be reviled, viewed with suspicion, and restricted.

Because I am a sex offender.

The Nightmare I Can’t Wake Up From

Written by Debra Grund, Vice President.

It’s a nightmare I can’t wake up from. It’s been 5 years and I still worry, 9 more to go. I’m grateful he’s alive and meeting the everyday challenges life in prison creates. Probation, Parole, Sex Offense Registry, all this is coming his way the day he walks out after successfully meeting all the requirements levied by the judicial system. Next they will put on his shoulders, around his ankle and tucked into his pocket life time oppression and lifetime stigma. Gone is the young man with an honor roll status in high school. Gone is the young man with an honor-roll status at college

Debs Son Graduation

Who would have thought that the power of words and the manipulation of an undercover detective/professional groomer could levy so much damage to a young man’s life? He had big plans; nurse anesthetist, newer car, bigger apartment and maybe a warmer climate. The registry will dictate where he will live. He will have to ask permission to move to another state. The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, SORNA, will determine that he has to register in the county where he resides in and again in the county where he works in. I’ve heard so many stories from others who are living with this nightmare after their release from prison. Some have violated their registration requirements because it’s easier to live in prison than to fight the stigma on the outside. Some have told of getting pulled over for a traffic violation and then asked to produce their cell phone (so the officer could check for pictures and question their appropriateness, even though the pictures may be of your own children); and yet others who needed a hospital escort to visit their sick child in the ICU. Nothing you do will ever be private, personal or without explanation. The free world is not free for someone on the registry.

So for now, I give my son the love and support he needs through visits, phone calls and post cards. I am on a mission to change the laws before he serves all of his time. I have been heartbroken listening to grown men and women cry in pain and frustration because of the Sex Offender Registry. Many have been on the registry since they were 18 years old, more than half their lives. The registry is a result, and a symptom of fear and ignorance. It is unjustly ruining lives after “time served.” Now is the time for common sense laws and fiscal responsibility. I hope you will join me; I’m just somebody’s mom trying to right a very wrong system.

A Club I Never Wanted to Join

A blog by Melissa McFadden, President
Until a few years ago, I had no clue what true family trauma was. We had our ups and downs, of course, but, by all accounts, life was good. I had a wonderful job, four kids, a husband, a couple of dogs, and a nice 2-story house in a safe neighborhood. My oldest child was in college a couple hours from home, we had a lot of amazing friends and had close relationships with our extended families. Then our world turned upside down.

While home from college for summer break, my oldest son, Tony, was babysitting for a woman whom he had previously babysat for her child. He had previously babysat and performed other odd jobs around her home. But this was the first and only time that anything sexual occurred between Tony and his employer. The next couple months began the worst time of our lives. She said it was rape. He said it was consensual. There was no evidence of a crime, but she said. He said something different. We learned that “she said” holds a lot more weight. He was held on $100,000 cash only bond despite having no previous criminal record and being a Dean’s list student in college. He remained in county jail until his trial 15 months later. Being the first time in a situation like this, we hired attorneys without doing our homework. He was found guilty by an all-white jury, and he is currently serving 15 years in a maximum-security prison.

My son will be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life for a crime he didn’t commit. Never mind the 15 years of imprisonment that will forever change the trajectory of his adult life. I was afraid of “sex offenders”. I looked at the registry when we moved to our neighborhood to see who we needed to protect our children against. Now I know that he said she said is real. I know that “statutory rape”, which is essentially consensual sex between two teenagers will land you on the registry for life. Peeing in public is apparently unforgiveable. The unfair reasons for registry go on and on.

Men and women who have a felony conviction and have served time in prison have a hell of a time finding jobs, housing, and romantic partners (most of us women tell our girlfriends, “you better Google him”). Tack on a lifetime of registry and so many chances are eliminated for these people who are either wrongfully convicted or are being judged, literally for life in many cases, for the worst thing they’ve ever done.

The least I can do is to try to help a small number of men who, like my own child, are being judged for the worst thing they’ve ever done or have been accused of doing and have so many barriers to overcome. I can’t allow these men to be set up for failure. It’s not right. We can’t help everyone, but we can make a difference for some. That’s what we intend to do. That’s what we must do.

This is not where I saw my life going or where I thought any of my kids would be. However, we are here. We had better do the best we can with the situation we are in.