June 20, 2024

Prisoner advocates feel more hopeless after civil commitment presentation

Board of corrections ‘can’t actually change anything’ about process which opponents say delays discharges

Ken Pirc of the Iowa Department of Corrections speaks with the board of corrections about the state's civil commitment process for sex offenders during a Nov. 17 meeting in Des Moines.

Families and advocates of incarcerated individuals at Newton Correctional Facility had been waiting months for the Iowa Board of Corrections to provide some semblance of an answer to their questions regarding the state’s civil commitment program. It was finally put on the agenda. Open for all to see.

Although the department of corrections and its board members acknowledged their concerns, advocates left the meeting last month feeling hopeless.

Despite a presentation about the sex offender civil commitment referral process from its program manager, Ken Pirc, those in attendance were still left scratching their heads and questioning whether the code directing the process is adequate. Final words from board member Webster Kranto further solidified their anguish.

“What I’ve learned over the years on this board and the conclusion I’ve come to is that I can’t actually change anything. I don’t think we can change anything. As time goes on, the rules change constantly to give us less and less power, less and less access,” he said. “In real life I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”

At this point, praying is probably the best bet, Kranto added. He apologized for the hurt families are feeling, and he hoped some of their cases get the attention they deserve. Maybe some day things will change, he said, or maybe the codes followed by the department will be rewritten.

“We have people talking as if code is just word from God,” Kranto said during the board discussion portion. “And if the code is written that’s just what’s right. Forget about the goddamn code. The code is nothing. The code could have been written wrong. I understand that. Code means nothing. Sorry again.”

Probably fueling Kranto’s frustrations was past action in which the board voted on the hire of new wardens, but it was later discovered only the chair interviewed the candidates and that no other board members were contacted about the potential hires. Kranto blasted the “behind closed doors” practice.

“Becky (Williams) does not speak for this entire board,” Kranto said. “Things like interviews and only being—like, we’re not even informed… That does not seem right. She does not speak for all of us. We should be all in this process. There’s no way that makes any sense to me.”

Board member Trent Keller believes everyone is trying to do their best to make the department of corrections better. Yes, there are some flaws, he said.

“There are going to be some flaws. But we have to do better all in all. All of us,” Keller said before turning his comments to Kranto. “…Webster, I thank you for always being honest and voicing your opinion because there are things that people want to say and they’re afraid to say them.”

Another board member, Denise Bubeck, insisted the board is listening to the public and enjoys when they come to the meetings. But as board members and as a department, she added, facts have to come before feelings. Bubeck said it comes down to building trust with one another.

“I think we all need to work together to build trust,” Bubeck said. “…Let’s start praying that we can come up with solutions that will change things.”

John Nelson, a board member who previously worked in corrections for more than 35 years, believes people can change, but he also believes the department has an obligation to make sure it is protecting the public and the victims, especially with the civil commitment process.

“I understand if it was my family member I may not love how this goes, but the department follows the criteria laid out in the code,” he said.

Nelson said he is open to improving the process, but he is not going to lose sight of the victims in this either.

“And sometimes nobody talks for them.”

STATE EXPLAINS CIVIL COMMITMENT REFERRAL PROCESS

In the presentation about the referral process, Pirc said the multidisciplinary team (MDT) handling the referrals is supposed to identify potentially sexually violent predators that need a closer review by the attorney general’s office. When the attorney general is finished, a prosecution review committee reviews the cases.

From there the case moves to district court where a judge ultimately decides if an individual needs to be placed in the Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders.

The process officially starts upon admission, Pirc said. Every individual that comes through the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) or the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) is reviewed under the MDT criteria, which was last revised in 2015. Pirc said they look at four criteria:

• Whether the individual has more than one arrest or conviction for a sexually violent offense;

• Whether the individual has a sexually violent offense/sexually motivated disciplinary action while incarcerated;

• Whether the individual has a special sentence ramification with a sexual component; or

• Whether the classification team determines the individual exhibits concerning sexual predatory behavior.

“One of those four criteria upon admission is where the counselor and the classification team makes a decision if there is an MDT requirement. So that piece of that review is within the first 30 to 60 days upon admission,” Pirc said, noting if one of the criteria is met the MDT then reviews those individuals.

Offender services will be notified when an individual either completes treatment or is getting closer to the end of their sentence and they have not done treatment. When that department gets notified, offender services looks at the case and completes the referral packet for the MDT committee.

In the referral packet, offender services looks at current convictions, discharge date, prior criminal record, minutes of testimony, victims’ comments, length of sentence, institution disciplines (specifically if there are any sexual components), release plan, re-entry plan, risk assessments, treatment completion, etc.

“That referral packet is then given to the MDT committee, which is five members: myself, a sheriff, we also have a psychologist from CDC, a representative from CASA (Coalition Against Sexual Assault) and then we also have the sex offender treatment director,” Pirc said, noting a 30-day clock then starts.

By code, the team has 30 days to review the information. When the review is completed, the MDT votes on the case and then determines if it goes forward to the attorney general’s office or does not need to go forward and thus lets the prison process the release or re-entry.

MDT decision letters are sent to the offender through their counselor and then the attorney general’s office prior to the 30-day deadline.

“The (department of corrections) reviews between 500 and 600 sex offenders a year to determine if they meet that criteria. The MDT looks at about 80 or so per year to see if they meet that criteria,” Pirc said. “And then roughly 50 is probably the average the past five years of individuals referred on to the attorney general.”

Pirc said Iowa Code sees mental abnormality as not a serious mental illness, but rather a congenial or acquired condition affecting the emotional capacity of a person that is predisposed to sexually violent behavior.

Iowa Code states sexually violent predators suffer from a mental abnormality that makes it more likely than not they will engage in future acts of a sexually violent nature. But Pirc said mental abnormality does not mean a serious mental illness, but rather a congenial or acquired condition affecting their emotional capacity.

When it comes to anticipated discharges, Pirc said the MDT and the attorney general’s office must make its decision 90 days before an offender finishes their sentence. The department of corrections does it much earlier, he added; it tends to review the individual and submit their name upon completion of treatment.

BOARD MEMBER QUESTIONS PROCESS

Upon the presentation’s conclusion, Kranto brought forth several of the concerns shared by families and advocates over the past four months. The common complaint board members have been hearing, he said, is that individuals complete their treatment and score well on re-entry tests.

“At some point in the process, your team determines that is just not the case,” Kranto said.

John Benavidez has been incarcerated since 2016. He completed the sex offender treatment program, scored 4 out of 48 on the Sex Offender Treatment Intervention and Progress Scale (SOTIPS) indicating very low risk or next to no risk to reoffend and he finished an exit interview in September 2022.

Still, his case was referred to the attorney general’s office December 2022.

David Morrow is serving a 25-year sentence for second-degree sexual assault, and he is serving another sentence for burglary related to the same incident. Morrow is anticipating parole, and he was screened with a SOTIPS score of 3 out of 48, also indicating a low risk or next to no risk to reoffend.

Like Benavidez before him, the case was referred to the attorney general.

“They’ve completed the program with high marks, but somewhere in the process you deem them unacceptable for release or you’re extending sentences,” Kranto said. “What’s going wrong in that process from the training and the classes to you saying no that doesn’t count?”

Pirc said MDT is specifically looking at the code language to see if individuals meet criteria as sexually violent predators. The completion of treatment is a component, but Pirc said it is not the only thing that will get an individual cleared. Completing treatment helps but code dictates they look at other areas, too.

“We’re looking at history and what individuals are and if they’re motivated to possibly continue that behavior,” Pirc said. “So the MDT is not extending their prison stay. The MDT is looking at that and referring them on to the next step in the process. Which is the attorney general’s office.”

Kranto said essentially all of the classes are useless because they can be overridden, suggesting they have no incentive to get better.

“No, because there are several sex offenders, over 500 or so, that are getting out,” Pirc said. “So it’s not useless because it’s very beneficial to those individuals that are released … A small portion of them, though, have to stay and review to complete this process.”

By the way the code is written, Pirc said the department of corrections and the MDT and the attorney general’s office have until 90 days before discharge to review cases. Pirc said the department of corrections tries not to wait that long, noting they start when treatment is completed.

“As soon as they’re done completing treatment, (the department of corrections) starts our process, gathers the paperwork, gathers the referral packet and presents it to MDT as soon as we can and then make that decision,” Pirc said. “The fact that it takes longer after that we really don’t have control over that.”

NOT LOSING SIGHT OF THE VICTIMS

Board member John Nelson said it is important to remember 500 to 600 people complete the program every year. Of that, 50 are processed.

“And there is a reason for that,” Nelson said. “They’ve committed crimes and there are victims out there involved in that, and it was heinous enough that they met the criteria of code to get that far. I think we can’t lose sight of the victim in this, too, and what happened to them.”

Nelson said although individuals completed their treatment and may not have discipline problems, it “didn’t change the fact they victimized people out there in a terrible way.” And those individuals, he added, need to be reviewed to make sure it does not happen again.

Kranto said no one is losing sight of the victims, but he questioned the purpose of a program that shows an individual has been rehabilitated if the end results are ignored. Nelson disagreed with that interpretation, saying someone who completes a substance abuse program may not change their ways.

“That’s a choice they make, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t offer them programming,” Nelson said.

“Right, but they’re not given the opportunity to change,” Kranto said.

Kranto pressed Pirc about what happens when individuals are denied, specifically whether they are given information as to why they did not pass. Pirc said offenders are not given explanations or the content of the discussions, but they are informed of the decision.

“So they’re not aware of what to work on?” Kranto asked.

“No, because that’s not really our role in that process. Our role in that process, as the code is written, is to look at the offender and look at the case and then look at all of the aspects of it and make a decision if it moves to the next step,” Pirc said. “We’re not even deciding if they should go to CCUSO.”

Kranto asked if there is any stage where someone can tell an incarcerated individual what they can improve on or if it is just set up for them to fail.

“Sure,” Pirc said. “That’s the treatment process, the re-entry process with their case manager or counselor. That’s all the programming that’s done in the institution.”

Board member James Kersten asked Pirc if there are ways to improve the process by modifying the code. As far as he is aware, Pirc is not aware of any recommendations to change the code. Pirc said the department of corrections is trying to review cases within a month of individuals completing their treatment.

Michelle Alfano, an advocate for an incarcerated individual at Newton Correctional Facility, speaks to the Iowa Board of Corrections during public comment at the Nov. 17 meeting in Des Moines.

ADVOCATES PROVIDE FEEDBACK, SUGGEST CODE CHANGES

Michelle Alfano, an advocate for Eric Strenge, has repeatedly inquired to the board and the Iowa Department of Corrections about the inadequacies with the civil commitment processes. When it came time to address the board during public comment, she said she wanted to help make the department better.

However, the past three weeks have been difficult because Strenge had been sent to solitary confinement, which she alleged was in retaliation to their outspokenness about Newton Correctional Facility and the MDT process. Alfano called the use of solitary confinement “inhumane.”

“I’m glad you’ve taken a concern to learning about the MDT, but I want to emphasize to you when Ken Pirc refers to these cases it’s not based on what people did, because they’ve served their time for what they did, but it’s more on a hunch on what they might do in the future,” Alfano said.

This is a frightening amount of power, she added. Although Strenge was later found not guilty of the infractions cited for his solitary confinement, he was eventually sent back. Alfano later appeared on The Lightning Strike Radio Show hosted by Mohammed Faheem, recounting Strenge’s story.

“We want to focus on education, rehabilitation, counseling. Give people an incentive to work on getting better because after all people still need second chances,” Alfano said. “They need reason to say, ‘Yeah, I made a mistake but I want to try to get better.’”

Dave Bovenmyer, a pastor at Stonebrook Community Church in Ames, has been advocating for David Morrow, an incarcerated individual in Newton for some time. Morrow completed his sex offender treatment program and shows promise for re-entry. But his case was referred to the attorney general for civil commitment.

“The result is that David will most likely remain in prison for an additional 13 years since it seems to be the AG’s office firm policy to not address referrals until 90 days prior to release date,” Bovenmyer said. “…I appreciate the explanation of the MDT process but it’s clear there’s no opportunity for self-advocacy.”

Or advocacy from counselors or others who may be closely aware of the offender’s changes in thinking and beliefs. Large changes can happen in prison, Bovenmyer said, and faith in God can develop, wounds can be healed. Morrow has worked hard to repent, but “something is wrong with the process.”

Bovenmyer said, “Give a man his advocacy and opportunity to present himself and his story to the MDT so that fewer mistakes happen … I think a code change that could be helpful is to require the AG’s office to take up within a certain time period after a referral. Maybe six months or a year.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.