Published September 30. 2012 4:00AM
Town resisted it, but seven months in, experts say January Center's approach is successful
Montville - Seven months after a residential sex-offender treatment facility opened to the dismay of many people here, those who work at the facility say they have seen evidence it is helping offenders reintegrate safely back into society.
The January Center, on the grounds of Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution, uses intensive therapy to treat moderate and moderately high-risk sexual offenders.
It is the first of its kind in the state. The staff and even a state victim advocate say it has provided a place for sex offenders who otherwise likely would be homeless and present a risk to communities.
One goal is to create an environment where sex offenders can feel a sense of a therapeutic community as they receive treatment, said Martina Kardoll, a therapist who works at the facility. Another is to house sex offenders as they prepare to rejoin society.
"This provides them an initial period of stability," said Eric Ellison, a parole manager with the Department of Correction who helps determine which offenders are recommended for the program. "We think we're having very favorable outcomes with our model. This program is really giving offenders an excellent start on their transition into the community."
The January Center is run by The Connection Inc., a subcontracted human services agency, and is funded by the state's Department of Correction and Court Support Services Division.
It cost $1.7 million to build, according to the DOC, and the state spends $135,676 per month to run the facility, which works out to about $5,653 per client per month. That's about twice as much as the $2,880 per month it costs to house an inmate in a state prison, according to the DOC.
The January Center's name was crafted to reflect the theme of "new beginnings." From the outside, it is difficult to picture the facility, open since Feb. 14, as a residence for 24 men. It is rather small at approximately 5,000 square feet. Sitting on a hill above Corrigan, it is surrounded by 12-foot chain-link fences topped with razor wire.
All doors are equipped with security alarms, and cameras are mounted throughout the facility and its grounds. Those entering a front gate must first be cleared by security personnel. Inside the front door, everyone must pass through a metal detector and the belongings of all the "clients" are searched.
Separate hallways lead to two wings where clients sleep. One is for those finishing their prison sentences and the other is for those on probation.
Men sleep two to a room and have twin beds and modestly sized living areas. Some rooms have computers but Internet activity is prohibited, staff said.
A separate wing is equipped with meeting rooms where clients gather for therapy and group sessions. A poster hangs on a wall with the message, "Each and every step you take must move you toward your goal." The words are separated by a picture of a ladder pointing upward.
There is also an open common area that doubles as a cafeteria where the men eat three meals each day and participate in leisure activities.
A large flat screen TV is mounted on the wall in the common area. On a recent afternoon, one client used a computer while another sat at a round table reading "Towers of Midnight," a fantasy novel. All entertainment - reading material, DVDs, video games, music - is pre-approved by staff.
The clients prepare and cook their own meals and staff speak highly of the baking skills of a few men. On a recent afternoon, three men were preparing kielbasa and potato salad for dinner.
Clients also are required to perform other "community tasks," including cleaning, outdoor maintenance, laundry, gardening and inventory of supplies.
More intensive treatment
Sex offenders are interviewed six months prior to their release from prison, and DOC staff assess their risk of repeating sexual offenses. The state also assesses their future living situations and, if no shelter or other accommodations can be found, the January Center becomes an option.
Staff interview potential clients four months before their release from prison to identify those who likely would be receptive to the program. Treatment is designed on an individual basis, and the people who run and monitor the program said procedures and protocol mirror an outpatient model used across the state.
It calls for the parole and probation offices to work closely with Connection Inc. staff and other state agencies to prevent future sex crimes among convicted sex offenders.
The main difference is The January Center allows for more intensive treatment. Clients stay an average of three to six months. Each has therapy three to seven times per week, said Kardoll, the therapist. She said offenders outside the program might have treatment only once a week after their release from prison.
The January Center also aims to provide an environment that will allow clients to open up about their pasts and sexual offenses.
"I think it's easier for them to talk about their offenses while they're here," said William Anselmo, a sex offender specialist and chief probation officer with the state who works closely with The January Center, "as opposed to receiving in-patient treatment while they're in (prison). There is not that wall that they put up. … They know everyone else here has done something similar."
Program manager Melissa Bonafe said clients meet once a week with case managers who work on identifying housing and employment options in their home communities. Clients also are supervised when taking their medications and are escorted by staff to psychiatric and medical appointments. Otherwise, they are not allowed off the center's grounds.
Staff said The January Center system allows for close monitoring in the initial months after an offender is released from prison. Many professionals consider this to be the most likely period in which offenders would commit a violation of probation or repeat their crimes.
Dr. Jan Lyons Walker, a clinical director, said the center uses polygraphs to identify risk factors. For instance, if a client lies about past sexual experiences during the polygraph test, that would indicate the client needs more time in the program.
Some who work with the victims of sex offenders also have been encouraged by The January Center's early work. Tina Greaves, the director of victim advocacy for Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, said she has been impressed with the structure the program provides.
She said the efforts of the staff to connect clients with family who will take them in upon their release also is a benefit.
"What I see as a success is this program extends to their family members and into their support systems, so they're not thrown out into the community and everyone is floundering," Greaves said. "That's what is really crucial from our perspective in reducing future victimization."
A 'heavy stigma'
One offender who has been at The January Center for about six months compared aspects of the program to an Alcoholics Anonymous group, indicating he has been more comfortable with people with similar pasts and circumstances.
Staff have helped him coordinate one visit with a girlfriend, the only loved one with whom he still keeps in touch. He said none of his family members or his children speak to him.
He said that he worked as a mechanic before going to prison and that if he had been released without first going to The January Center, it would have been a difficult road.
"Without this, I'd be hitting the streets with a big label across the top of my forehead," he said of the assistance finding housing and work. "I would go and my (parole officer) comes along and says, 'Hey, this guy is a sex offender. Do you want him to work here?'
"You didn't put me here. I did. I'm fully aware of that. I'm just explaining some of the obstacles. I carry a heavy stigma."
Staff arranged for The Day to speak with three sex offenders at the facility but did not allow photographs. The three men are among 30 or so who have been through the program. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
The state sex-offender registry, reachable through the state Department of Emergency Service and Public Protection website (www.ct.gov/despp), lists all clients of The January Center and their crimes. Some have been convicted of first-degree sexual assault, sex offenses with minors under the age of 13, and illegal possession of child pornography.
Two of the men interviewed said therapy sessions helped them identify other problems within their lives that may have been contributing factors leading up to their sexual offenses, such as gambling problems and relationship issues.
DOC commissioner 'lied'
A public act passed by the state General Assembly in 2008 mandated that the state create 12-bed staff-secure residential sex-offender treatment facilities. Eventually it was deemed more economical to open a 24-bed facility.
Residents and officials in Montville fought the sex-offender treatment facility for more than a year before dropping a lawsuit filed against the state. The town eventually reached a memorandum of understanding with the state that runs until at least June 2013 and outlines security parameters.
Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel Jr. said The January Center and the state have honored the terms of the agreement. He said he has been pleased with the client information shared by the facility with the town's police department.
Town Councilor Dana McFee, however, said that DOC Commissioner Leo Arnone lied to town officials about the level of sex offenders who would be housed at The January Center.
In a meeting last year in Hartford, Arnone told town councilors and the town attorney that the facility would not house "the worst" sex offenders. McFee said that the sex offenders residing in The January Center prove Arnone's claim to be false.
"There's nothing we can do until one of those sick bastards breaks out," McFee said.
Brian Garnett, a spokesman for the DOC, said in a statement: "As was promised to the town of Montville, the facility has proven itself safe and secure with a careful vetting of the offenders." Garnett added that the state has no plans to duplicate the facility elsewhere.
Facing their crimes
As of Jan. 1 of this year, there were 5,397 registered sex offenders in the state, according to a report by the state Office of Policy and Management.
Of those, 2,273 offenders were supervised by the state probation sex offender management unit. Another 223 were supervised by the parole sex offender management unit. That leaves roughly 54 percent of the state's registered sex offender population without supervision, and 929 offenders were out of compliance with the registry's requirements. It is also widely accepted that sex offenses are the least-reported serious crimes.
Those who work in The January Center are well versed in these statistics. And while they realize it's difficult to change public perception about the work they do, they see the new sex-offender treatment program as an innovation that will help prevent future sex crimes.
"We can't change minds. But we can do the work that we're charged with," said Ellison, the parole manager. "We want these offenders to come here and face that offense and that history and what they've done to their victims."