California thinks it has found a way to deal with recidivist paedophiles by putting them in a comfortable mental hospital. Indefinitely. But is this the answer, asks Louis Theroux.
I'd been at Coalinga a couple of days when Mr Rigby showed me his dormitory. He'd been a high school sports coach before being convicted of molesting some of his students.
He told me he was a great appreciator of the male physical form.
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Louis Theroux: A Place for Paedophiles is on BBC Two on Sunday, 19 April, at 2100 BST
Above his bed were photos of classical statues of male nudes. These gave me pause, since I knew some paedophiles like to justify their proclivities by citing the ancient Greeks' famous enthusiasm for pederasty.
There was also a reproduction of a painting of young male ballet dancers, which had a definite erotic overtone. I asked one of Mr Rigby's social workers, who was standing by, if it was okay for patients to have mildly sexual imagery on their walls, especially since it seemed to me it was in the area of the patient's offences. He said it was - "as long as they're of age".
Mr Rigby's room, which he shared with three other men, was airy and spacious. There was a large window with no bars on it. Mr Rigby had told me he was married with two sons, but that he'd also been in a physical relationship with another of the men at Coalinga, who was also a child molester.
This too, apparently, was not in violation of hospital rules. Mr Rigby's therapists told me he'd been making good progress in his rehabilitation. In theory, if he carried on with counselling and group sessions, he might be back outside in less than a year.
One of the striking things about Coalinga, given that it houses 800 or so sex offenders, is how nice everything is. There is a large open indoor area - called "the mall" for its resemblance to a shopping mall - with a barbers shop and a cafe and a small library.
The staff treat the patients with an occasionally over-the-top decorousness
You can spend time in the well-appointed gymnasium, where loud music plays over an indoor tennis court and a variety of exercise machines. You can drop in on an art therapy class or visit the music centre. All in all, you'd be forgiven for thinking it might be the newly built premises of a posh boarding school.
In fact, Coalinga is something quite different - a maximum security hospital containing some of the state of California's more serious paedophiles and rapists.
Coalinga is the flagship of a relatively new programme created in response to public anxiety about the release of sexual predators from prison. All the men at Coalinga have completed their custodial terms, but instead of being released they've been diagnosed as mentally ill, and locked up again - this time indefinitely and not in prison but in hospital.
The niceness of the surroundings at Coalinga is part of the package. The patients are not there to be punished. They have had their punishment in prison. The purpose of Coalinga is to try to make them mentally well.
In a sense, in creating Coalinga and other Civil Commitment Centres, the authorities have exploited a legal loophole. The public demanded that the state should lock up sex offenders for longer. But since they've done their time, the only way to keep them confined past their sentences is by hospitalising them.
Many of the patients do not agree to have therapy
On the one hand, the patients are legally classified as "sexually violent predators". They are behind high barbed-wire fences in a remote area of California.
On the other hand, the staff treat the patients with an occasionally over-the-top decorousness. The approved term for the confined men is "individuals", since the word "patients" is considered demeaning. In conversation, they are called "Mr".
No one can leave, but otherwise, the rules are surprisingly relaxed. Patients can vote in elections - one mentally ill rapist, who'd amputated his own toe in a protest against hospital policy, told me he'd voted for Obama. They can view pornography. There are no rules against watching TV shows with children in them or receiving DVDs on a children's theme.
One of the ways the hospital tries to foster a healthy ambience is by allowing regular social events. One night I attended the Coalinga Halloween party. I was treated to the surreal scene of 15 or so serious sex offenders singing the theme tune to the Addams Family. The following week was a talent show - billed as "Coalinga Idol".
The therapists and social workers have their work cut out for them. Using therapy to overcome phobias, anxiety, and addiction, is one thing. But the men at Coalinga are some way beyond that.
Though no consensus exists as to whether paedophilia is genetic or environmental in origin, therapists at Coalinga agree that it can't really be cured. There is evidence to suggest that a sexual attraction to children may be an "orientation" and no easier to reprogramme in a person than, say, heterosexuality.
The hospital is bright, airy and comfortable
For the patients involved in therapy, their time at Coalinga is a regimen of group meetings and counselling - something like a twelve-step recovery programme for alcoholism. Those in the early stages of recovery make a full account of their sexual offences, including those never reported to the authorities.
They learn to acquire a sense of empathy for their victims. They also monitor their ongoing thoughts and learn techniques for redirecting their thinking away from areas that are likely to lead to fantasising in unhealthy ways. The therapists challenge their "cognitive distortions" or delusions - the big one being that children actually want sex with adults.
Patients have lie detector tests and a form of sexual test called a plethysmograph. This is a device which is put around the subject's penis to measure his sexual arousal as he's shown a variety of images.
Some are pornographic images of consenting adults, while some are deviant such as violent sex or suggestive images of children eating fruit and running around in bathing costumes. Then there are non-suggestive images to establish a baseline of non-arousal (photos of the Canadian city of Toronto).
At least one of the men I met, Mr Lamb, gave the impression of being a reformed character.
The main problem Coalinga faces is that the vast majority of patients are refusing any kind of treatment
In his late forties, he had been an inveterate molester of teenaged boys, some of them playmates of his two young daughters.
He admitted that even prison hadn't shaken him out of his old ways and said he'd only begun to change on the Sexually Violent Predator programme. He valued the therapy, but said the turning point for him was being castrated, which freed him from intrusive paedophilic thoughts. Castrations are not part of the therapy at Coalinga, but patients can volunteer for them.
One of the first men I spoke to at Coalinga was Mr Price, an ageing Vietnam vet with an extensive history of abusing small girls, many of whom he met through his local church where he taught Sunday school.
Mr Price was deeply committed to his therapy programme, keeping tabs on his own thoughts by "journaling" at great length in a notebook. He repeatedly deplored his own offences.
But the main problem Coalinga faces is that the vast majority of patients are refusing any kind of treatment. This is mostly because they feel they shouldn't have been sent to Coalinga in the first place.
They feel that they aren't mentally ill, that they committed crimes, for which they've done their time, and that they should no longer be locked up. They view the therapy programme as a charade, designed to keep them locked up indefinitely.
I spoke to several men not involved in therapy. They were indignant at the idea that they might have psychiatric problems. When I asked one, Mr Yahn, if he had considered treatment, he said: "Would you get treatment for a headache?".
Another patient, trying to excuse his transgressions, blamed the fact that he'd molested children on an alcohol problem - as though paedophilia was something anyone might be capable of, given a few too many drinks.
Men like these are clearly damaged. But one part of the argument is on their side. The record shows that in the more than 10 years the SVP programme has existed, of the hundreds that have come to Coalinga, only 13 have ever graduated and left the hospital through the therapy route.
And so there is a kind of stand-off at Coalinga - with mistrustful patients arrayed against a therapeutic establishment. Despite the therapeutic language and the kindly atmosphere, for the vast majority of men at Coalinga, the hospital might as well be a prison or a warehouse or indeed a pod in outer space for all the good it's doing them.
American taxpayers are funding a lavishly appointed hospital in which hundreds of child molesters and rapists can idle their days away. The annual cost to keep one person at Coalinga is about $200,000. Multiply that by the 1,500 men who would be in the hospital at full occupancy.
Whatever the hopes nurtured for the hospital as a therapeutic institution, it has become a well-upholstered holding pen for keeping America's least wanted out of sight. The men can vote, take tennis lessons, watch their porn videos, throw parties, have sex with other men at the hospital, play bass in a jazz combo. They just can't leave.
More states have signed up to the Coalinga model - including, recently, New York. If a lifelong country club-style internment is the price of keeping paedophiles off the streets, many appear to be willing to pay it.
Send us your comments using the form below.
I agree, they ARE ill. But isn't this too much coddling? Remove the pictures, the "mall-like atmosphere," and all the frills. They've altered young lives and they should be hospitalized and treated with the appropriate medications, etc. But not rewarded with all the comforts of home.
Just my opinion, San Jose, CA, USA
These men are caught in the never-never land between jail and full release. We have a few hundred near here. Their sentence is over but they cannot be released. So they are in more or less house arrest for life.
Michael g Jackson, Olympia, WA United States
If these people are being locked away due to illness then I wonder if the same thing is being done to people who confess to being attracted to children but haven't committed any offence as they would also be defined as mentally ill. Also, you cannot go around forcibly castrating people, that is totally absurd, what if a person is found to be a victim of misjustice and they have already been forced to have the chop! Mental hospitals can restrict materials (porn, pictures, and videos) belonging to inmates and this should be done at Coalinga as well.
Adrian, Lancaster, England
It's a tricky situation. We clearly don't understand all the motivations and behaviours which crop up in the human population but I believe we have a responsibility to act humanely at all times.
For me this means balancing the responsibility to protect children with the responsibility to treat even paedophiles with compassion because after all they are human and afflicted with a condition they haven't chosen.
But at an annual cost of $200,000 for one single person? Is that not an outrageous amount? I live off less than $20,000 annually as a graduate student, which I earn myself at a cafe job, and have seen little from government aid. Is this not an unfair distribution of tax money and financial aid? A disparate amount is given to the one with consistent, egregious, immoral offense in comparison to individuals of good civic standing who intend to further education and contribute to the community.
Joshua Ramos, Dallas, TX USA
I believe viewing paedophiles as individuals with an illness, instead of simply being 'evil' or 'criminal' is a huge step forward. I also fully agree with Paddy Flynn - having an occupation is an essential part of keeping well and healthy (especially when coming to terms with a mental illness). It is great to hear art therapy is offered, as well as one of the men keeping a journal amongst other things. I can't help but wonder if female paedophiles are being considered in this movement? I'm looking forward to being enlightened...
Hazel, London, England
If this is what the compromise between both the offenders' and the childrens' human rights is then I guess maybe such a large price tag should be expected and may be considered reasonable. But surely the "individuals" can pay off at least some of their own living costs by doing something constructive in Coalinga? Surely a few hours a day of some light manual labour would be fair and would ease the cost on the taxpayer?
Martin, London, England
As a victim of a paedophile who went on to molest other family members I welcome the thought that these people cannot be inflicted back on society. Everybody has a right not to be molested and that should be prioritised above any rights that molesters have.
Liz, Southampton, UK
I find it reasonable that some people are so that they should never be reïntroduced to society. My wondering is why we can not, in their segregation, their apartheid, put them to any use at all? I get the impression these chaps have nothing to do but twiddle their thumbs, whereas there are plenty of (menial, everyday, whatever you like) jobs we could have them do without posing a threat to children as they go.
Kris Paul, Cambridge
There are so many abusers who never get caught, who are in our communities and we don't know who they are. The ones who are in prison or on the SO register are easier to deal with - at least we know who and usually where they are. I'm not convinced looking at the extreme end of the spectrum gives us that much help in dealing with the vast majority of sex offenders who have committed less extreme abuse and who can't simply be jailed indefinitely. I'd really like to see a programme looking at alternative and reportedly effective approaches, like Circles UK, which appears to be doing a decent job of helping low-level abusers not to repeat their offence.
Having experience dealing with predatory paedophiles and how the British legal system repeatedly fails to protect the innocent, I can see how the the therapy/incarceration loophole appeals to some. Personally, knowing that most of these vile persons are fully aware of their actions and have the same mental capacity to decide upon their own fate as, say, a motorist who chooses to speed. Then I am inclined to agree that it is not an illness but an "orientation" which should never be allowed to be granted freedom once convicted. I do also agree that the convicted persons should be paying their debt to society by contributing to it by being put to work. In turbulent times like today, the country can ill afford to be further wasting tax resources on these burdens, for most part, these people have never contributed monetarily to society, so they should be forced to work to help fund their incarceration. Rant over...
Andy, Newcastle, England
It makes a lot more sense to me to provide these people with the chance, however slim, of rehabilitation than the more barbaric 'solutions' regularly bandied about. Moreover, if there's a chance of a sick person being a serious danger, the moral solution is comfortable internment in as 'free' a situation as is reasonable and practicable. People don't deserve to be locked up for things they can't help, and if they are going to be, the only right way to do so is by giving them as much comfort as possible.
Huxley, Leicester, England
The safety of children seems much more important than the rights of child molesters. This seems the most humane way to protect both groups. I think it is a great idea.
It's sickening to know these people are living such lives at the taxpayer's cost. It seems there is a trade-off between our children's safety and the morality of providing such horrible people with such comfortable lives, in which they have easy access to images of children and pornography. In my opinion they need far longer jail sentences and castration should be compulsory for those who don't show signs of remorse and/or recovery. Obviously this is an extreme measure, but as one of the men above has shown, it works.
Tom, Brighton, England
If paedophilia is a mental illness, and we accept that paedophiles are sick individuals who cannot control their actions, then we have to come up with a long-term solution to keep them away from children without locking them up in prison. We should consider how we treat murderers. If a murderer is insane, we don't put them in prison, we lock them up in a secure hospital. If they are incurable they stay there for life. It's not really a punishment, as you can't punish someone for being ill. Putting them somewhere safe and reasonably comfortable where they can't harm anyone seems like a fair solution for insane criminals of any kind who are a public danger. I shall watch the show with interest.
Rev Sue Scottley, London, UK
Instead of pampering these violent sexual predators, they should be castrated, like Mr Lamb. Therapy isn't going to cure these men's' sickness, as it's a part of their make-up. It's like trying to cure being hetero or gay - it just can't be done. People cry "human rights", but what about the right of the victims not to be assaulted in the first place? Repeat offenders have no desire to stop themselves, as demonstrated in this article, so it becomes the legal system's responsibility to stop them.
You have to consider how much a child's innocence is worth. It may seem outrageous to spend that much on a seemingly lavish lifestyle for repeat offenders with no signs of repentance after serving a jail term. People do not choose their sexuality, but it is also about controlling urges that are not acceptable. Surely the biggest worry is that most offenders do not realise or see anything wrong with what they think and do. Government schemes and policies already in place are failing our children, so maybe this is the only way forward.
Natasha Buthee, Northampton
Are these men put to work in any fruitful way? Sloth is not good for anyone. If they do have a productive utility, the system could mitigate the costs incurred. I am glad they are kept off the streets.
Paddy Flynn, Fort Lupton, CO, US
It seems there is a trade-off between our children's safety and the morality of providing such horrible people with such comfortable lives, in which they have easy access to images of children and pornography. They need far longer jail sentences, and castration should be compulsory for those who don't show signs of remorse and/or recovery. Obviously this is an extreme measure, but as one of the men above has shown, it works.
Tom, Brighton, England
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