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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Mentally Disabled Predators Languish At Washington's Island Lock-Up For Sex Offenders

Washington’s Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island is home to 252 sex offenders. These are men -- and one woman -- who’ve completed their prison sentences but are deemed too dangerous to release.

The state is supposed to offer treatment to all of them so they can have the chance to get out. But advocates say a group of disabled residents are languishing in unconstitutional conditions that give them little hope of ever leaving the island.

To get to the Special Commitment Center, you take ferry from the picturesque town of Steilacoom in Pierce County. Twenty minutes later, you dock in the shadow of the mothballed McNeil Island prison.

At the center of the island, under the constant gaze of dozens of surveillance cameras and behind more layers of concertina wire than many prisons, is the Special Commitment Center.

Why the prisoners are here

Except the SCC isn’t a prison. It’s supposed to be a treatment facility for sexually violent predators. These are people who the courts have found suffer from a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes them likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence.

Daily life here plays out in various ways. In the central recreation yard, a resident stands and reads aloud from the Bible. Inside a gym, another resident pounds away at a speed bag. But within this 17-acre compound there’s a subset of residents who spend their days locked away.

Rachael Seevers is an attorney with the group Disability Rights Washington. She said many of these residents have a mental, cognitive or developmental disability.

They’re left on these units that look like the back wards of state hospitals that we thought were gone in the 1970s,” Seevers said.

One of those units is called Alder. The name is soothing. But it’s a stark place where the staff communicate with residents by intercom.

“The residents here are here because they have sexual deviancy and so they often tend to act out in a sexual way,” said Cathi Harris, the chief of residential life at Alder.

But Harris readily acknowledges the residents here are not getting the services, much less the personal interactions, they require.

“And it’s very frustrating and it’s very sad,” she said. “It saddens me that I know we could be doing more but we just don’t have the ability to pull it off.”

‘Their confinement has to be for the purposes of treatment’

Disability Rights Washington agrees. It’s prepared a lawsuit against the Department of Social and Health Services. The draft complaint alleges the state is violating the constitutional rights of these residents.

Seevers has made repeated visits to the SCC.

“To be constitutional, their confinement has to be for the purposes of treatment,” she explained. “So when we went out we were really looking for, ‘is this in fact treatment?’”

And the conclusion they came to is no.

“We’ve seen residents who are, due to disability-related behaviors, not allowed to participate in the treatment program there,” Seevers said.

Instead, she said, they languish, with little or no hope of ever getting released -- some locked in seclusion for weeks or months on end with nothing but a radio and a bible.

Other disabled residents do get treatment.

“But due to some cognitive conditions really can’t progress so they stay in the same level for years,” Seevers noted.

Seevers said DSHS has been warned repeatedly about the conditions at the SCC, but that change has been slow to non-existent. Slashed budgets, a staffing shortage and other challenges have plagued the facility.

Mark Strong, CEO of the Commitment Center, acknowledged shortcomings.

“We’re still falling short, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Strong pointed to a budget request into the legislature for 26 new full-time staff to address the treatment and care of residents with disabilities and serious mental health issues.

More obstacles to release

Arthur Smith has been locked up here since 2004.

“I’ll be turning 60 here next month,” he said.

Smith was committed to the SCC after serving a prison term for second degree rape. A court once wrote the details of his crime “are not fit to print in the public records.”

Smith is not one of the profoundly disabled residents in the pending case. But he said his ability to participate in sex offender treatment was delayed years because the state did not accommodate his learning disability.

“Without the access, I was pretty much dead in the water,” Smith said.

Eventually, the state provided him access to speech recognition software that allows him to complete sex offender treatment writing assignments.

“If I would have had the access back in 2004, definitely would have been a whole different ballgame for myself so I could show change,” Smith said. “That’s the name of the whole thing.”

Smith hopes to soon convince a judge he’s ready to leave the island. Disability advocates say every resident at the SCC should have the opportunity to progress to a point where they too might make the case for another chance at freedom.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."