The house meeting begins promptly at 7 p.m. Mickey paces the living room with a clipboard in one hand, a cigarette in the other. His three newest housemates—Stephen, Hop, and Larry—sit before him. “When you all came to this house, you begged me to move you in,” he says. “Right or wrong?”
“Right,” the men mumble.
“I interviewed everybody, explained how we do things, the whole fucking works. The problem I got right now,” he continues, “I spent three hours cleaning the whole fucking house today. The kitchen was a fucking disaster. I don’t want to see that shit no more, because I will take the microwave, the dishes, the pots and pans, everything out of there, and I will lock it in the basement so we have nothing.”
The men slouch in their chairs and stare at the angelfish darting around a tank in the corner of the room. Mickey plunges ahead, railing against a litany of slovenly offenses. Only Hop offers a meek defense. “I’ve just been here a few days. I’ve always cleaned up after myself.”
At first glance, this could be a scene out of just about any place where strangers live together—a college dorm, a group home, an apartment full of roommates. But the ordinary feel of the meeting belies the strangeness of the situation; all of the men in the room are convicted sex offenders.
This house, in Coram, New York, sits at the center of the largest cluster of sex offenders on Long Island. As of mid-December, according to the state’s sex-offender registry, there were 45 high-risk sex offenders living in this hamlet, seventeen on a single block. And this house has the dubious distinction of holding the highest concentration of offenders in the neighborhood—seven of its nine residents have a sex offense on their rap sheet.
The men—all of whom asked to be referred to by their first names or nicknames for fear of harassment—don’t look particularly menacing, but their stories certainly are: Larry was convicted of raping a 4-year-old girl in 1983, Hop went to prison in 1982 for sodomizing a girl, and Stephen was convicted of rape in 1985. Mickey, 46, also did time for a sex offense. His rap sheet, which extends back to the early eighties, features mostly burglaries and DWIs, but in 2000, he was convicted of sexual assault for pushing a 16-year-old girl into the woods and trying to pull down her pants before she managed to escape.
These men live in this house because, for better or for worse, they have been cast out by society. The nature of their crimes guarantees that they will be identified as sex offenders—or, as they sometimes call themselves, “S.O.’s”—for the rest of their lives, their names, photos, and addresses, along with the particulars of what they’ve done, all available on the Internet. In Suffolk County, they are prohibited from living within a quarter-mile of a school or playground or day-care center. As long as they’re on parole, they can’t leave the county or move in with friends or family who have kids. And once they find a place to reside, the police start knocking on doors to inform neighbors that there is a sex offender in their midst, which often leads to their eviction.
Against this bleak landscape, Mickey’s house is something of a refuge—a place where sex offenders have banded together, trying to help themselves by helping each other. “We ain’t got nobody but ourselves,” says Mickey. “Nobody would help one bit. So we just did it on our own.”
This neighborhood of Coram has never had much to recommend it—just a dozen or so rooming houses that look like typical suburban ranches but for the smell of crack drifting from the windows. The area is better than it once was, but at night, especially when it’s warm, people still swarm the streets, hanging out, buying and selling drugs. “The first time I went out there, I thought I stepped into the movie Night of the Living Dead,” says a local law-enforcement officer. “I almost went for my weapon. People were coming out of the bushes with their arms extended, trying to make a drug deal.”
One thing the neighborhood did have was a landlady who would rent to almost anyone. Mary Dodson had moved to the area in the fifties, and over the years had accumulated so many houses—close to 35—in Coram and neighboring Gordon Heights that the area became known as Dodsonville. In a county with a shortage of low-income housing, her properties became magnets for welfare recipients, homeless people, anyone who needed a cheap place to stay. With these new residents, all sorts of social ills arrived, too—violence, mental illness, open-air drug dealing. Depending on whom you asked, Dodson was a good-hearted Christian taking in people who had nowhere else to go—or a slumlord who had run the neighborhood into the ground for her own financial gain.
By the time Mickey arrived in 2005, Dodson was near the end of her life (she died in 2007, at age 79), and her daughter Bernadette Parks, then 59, was running the family’s real-estate empire. When Mickey turned up at the house Parks shared with her mother, he was desperate for a place to sleep. Parks didn’t ask questions about his past; he looked okay to her. “I put him in his room—a shitty room,” Parks says. “Went back a couple days later. Mickey had it painted, cleaned, fixed nice.” Mickey stayed for a while, then moved to another of her houses. This one, too, they both agree, was a disaster. “A crack house,” Mickey says. “It was terrible. Robbing each other. Fighting. You wouldn’t believe the stuff that was going on.” When Mickey asked if he could take over the management of his house, Parks welcomed the help.
Mickey wanted to live in a house where nobody drank or used drugs. But how could he create a sober house in a drug-infested neighborhood? The answer, he decided, was to fill it with men on parole, who have to submit to regular urine tests. “I decided I’d make it a parole house and let them watch ’em.”
He didn’t set out to fill the house with sex offenders specifically. It just worked out that way because there were so many sex offenders who needed housing. “Parole didn’t know where to put them,” he says. (It’s so hard to find housing that county officials started putting homeless sex offenders in trailers; the plan was to move them from one undisclosed location to another, but since May, the main trailer has been relegated to a parking lot at the county jail.) Word about Mickey’s house spread quickly. It was the best of few options.
His sex-offender house is just down the street from where Parks lives, and though her grandchildren are frequent visitors, she seems undisturbed by its proximity. “Once a person does their time and makes amends, they deserve another chance,” she says. “We shouldn’t be afraid of the people we know who did this—we should be afraid of the people who didn’t get help yet, didn’t get caught yet.”
The fact is that Mickey has made Parks’s life much easier since filling the house with sex offenders. Nearly all of his tenants are on parole and closely monitored. It’s the drunks and drug addicts in her other homes who cause her grief. About her sex-offender house she says, “It’s the best house, because of Mickey. Because he puts down rules. I have some houses that are just the pits because nobody cares.”
Over the past two years, Mickey and Parks have become close friends, spending hours together in Parks’s backyard, sharing cigarettes and neighborhood gossip—which roommates aren’t getting along, who’s smoking crack again, who’s going back to prison. Other residents of her homes sometimes refer to him as “Bernadette’s son,” a line that often gets a double take, since Parks is African-American and Mickey is white. “I think she adopted me without my knowing,” he says.
Every man gets his own room in Mickey’s house—$330 a month if you pay with cash or check, $309 if welfare is paying the rent. The smallest room is not much larger than a prison cell, while the largest, Room 9, is known as the “king’s room.” Or at least that’s what Mickey calls it, and, of course, that’s where he sleeps.
Larry, Stephen, and Hop live at one end of the house. They’re all middle-aged, their sex crimes committed more than twenty years ago. Larry and Stephen are the only two African-American sex offenders in the house, and they’ve formed the beginnings of a friendship. Physically, neither one seems particularly threatening: Larry is a small man at five-foot-five and 110 pounds; Stephen’s most noticeable feature is the absence of his front teeth. “Me and the windshield and the steering wheel had a couple misunderstandings,” he explains. Larry, now 51, cannot read or write, and his illiteracy has made him sympathetic to some of his housemates—even though, as Stephen whispers to me, “he’s a child molester.” Stephen tries to keep tabs on Larry and make sure he meets his curfew, and when no one else is looking, Mickey reads Larry’s mail to him. The housemates know very little about his crime; Larry never talks about it.
Stephen, however, is more forthcoming about his past. His victim, he says, was an ex-girlfriend—he was angry with her because four years earlier she’d dumped him. “I was intoxicated,” he says. “I pushed myself on her, did what I wanted, and that was that. That was the only way, in my mind, y’know, to get even.” He hasn’t been convicted of a sex crime since, though the former heroin addict did make two more trips to prison—in the nineties for attempted robbery, and more recently for selling drugs.
Hop is the only one in the house who loudly insists he didn’t commit the crime for which he was convicted. “I’m an innocent man,” he says. “I no longer care if anyone believes me, to tell you the truth. My mother believed me. My family believes me.” He was arrested at age 17 for sodomizing a young girl and he spent most of his adult life locked up. He served seventeen years in state prison, did five years on parole, got sent back to prison after he stopped taking his psychiatric meds, and then wound up confined in the Manhattan Psychiatric Center for two years. More than most of the men here, he struggles with basic living skills, like remembering to take his pills; bottles of Lipitor sit atop the bureau in his bedroom, untouched. Some days he spends hours at a time alone in his room with the door closed.
This part of the house is rounded out by one other sex offender—a 40-year-old man who was arrested after an instant-message exchange with someone he thought was a 15-year-old boy but who turned out to be a cop—and two housemates who are not sex offenders: a security guard and a cook at Checkers. When asked what he thinks of his roommates, the Checkers cook has no complaints. “They don’t make no noise; they keep quiet,” he says.
Mickey shares his end of the house with John and Bill. John, 58, has been here since 2004, longer than any other sex offender. A former alcoholic and cocaine addict, he was convicted of sodomy in 1996 and spent eight years in prison. Now he’s the house success story, with a full-time job, a relationship with his kids, a shot at a normal life. He works as a forklift operator and sends $200 a week, or 40 percent of his take-home pay, to his daughter in college. A photo of her and his two high-school-age sons sits atop the microwave in his room. “If I didn’t have my kids, I’d be living in a garden apartment,” he says. “The only reason I’m here is because it economically works for me.”
The youngest person in the house is 39-year-old Bill. Before his arrest, he was married, earned $45,000 a year at a technology company, and belonged to an Evangelical church. Then, in 1999, his wife accused him of molesting their 2-year-old daughter. According to Bill’s therapist, Bill was angry at his wife, and the abuse was driven by a desire to get back at her. He spent six years in prison. The crime is a topic Bill doesn’t talk about much; when pressed, he discusses it in oblique terms. “You look back in your past, and there’s always 100 different things you could’ve done differently or better,” he says. “I was very passive-aggressive.”
With wire glasses, salt-and-pepper hair, and a slight paunch, Bill has the look of a computer nerd. And, indeed, there’s enough secondhand computer equipment in his room to power a small company: nineteen PCs, two Macs, and three printers. Though Bill’s crime did not involve the Internet, his parole officer forbade his having Internet access, something Bill finds frustrating. Even so, he spends hours in front of the computer, playing video games.
Though he left prison in early 2006, Bill has yet to find a full-time job. He interviewed for a manager position at Wal-Mart (dressing up in a suit for the occasion) and his prospects had seemed promising—until someone ran a background check. More recently, he secured a part-time gig at a store selling cell phones, but when he learned he’d have access to customers’ Social Security numbers, he had to quit.
“He got into a real slump over the job situation,” Mickey says. “When I’d come home, he’d just sit in his room and wouldn’t talk.” To pull Bill out of his depression, Mickey appointed him his deputy, giving him the title “house manager.” Without a full-time job, Bill has plenty of time on his hands, and he’s embraced his role. Evidence of his excess energy is all over the house. Every week or two, he rewrites the lists of rules that are posted everywhere. Each bedroom door features an elaborate color sign with the room number, tenant’s name, and, in most cases, a cartoon character. For Mickey’s door, he made a poster that reads DO NOT DISTURB MICKEY—HE’S DISTURBED ENOUGH ALREADY.
When the two men first met, Bill was at Parks’s house, waiting to see if he could get a room. “He was just sitting there, shaking like a leaf, because he’s never been in an area like this, and he didn’t know what was going on,” Mickey says. Bill didn’t look like a troublemaker, so Mickey told Parks, “I’ll take him.” Every night, Mickey cooks dinner for Bill and confides in him about his day; Bill, in turn, helps keep Mickey calm and sober. On the weekends, they run errands together—visiting the laundromat, shopping at the discount store with food stamps. Though they make an unlikely pair, Mickey refers to Bill as his best friend.
Two years ago, Bill and another roommate launched a countywide search for a therapist who would accept them as clients. They had little choice in the matter: Parole officers insist that all sex offenders participate in a treatment program—or else risk being sent back to prison. But when you’re a sex offender, it can be difficult to find a therapist willing to take you on. For weeks, the two men scoured the Yellow Pages and made calls. Eventually, they found a social worker named Bill O’Leary who agreed to treat them. His office is only a fifteen-minute drive from the house, but few of the men have cars. “It would take the guys three or four hours to get here for a one- or two-hour session,” O’Leary says. “As the winter came, I felt bad.”
Near the end of 2006, O’Leary started making house calls, running group-therapy sessions every Sunday morning in the living room. The turnout ranges from five to eight and usually includes Mickey, Bill, several sex offenders who live elsewhere, plus a former resident who comes back each week even though he’s no longer on parole. Mickey and Bill always put out a candy bowl and make a pot of coffee.
Some of the men in the house may have tried to forget their crimes, but part of O’Leary’s job is to ensure that those who come to group therapy aren’t able to rewrite their histories. When a new person joins the group, everyone has to tell the story of his crime—no making excuses or skipping over crucial parts. A central tenet of sex-offender-treatment programs is that sex offenders can’t make any progress if they don’t address their actions, motives, patterns of behavior. It’s not enough just to say that they’ll never do it again. “The problem is that you probably never thought you were capable of this in the first place,” John explains. “So if you say you’ll never be capable of doing it again, you’re wrong.”
“You probably never thought you were capable of this in the first place. So if you say you’ll never be capable of doing it again, you’re wrong.”
John doesn’t take part in group, but he participated in a six-month sex-offender-treatment program in prison, then worked as a peer counselor for another eighteen months. Of all the men in the house, he is the most candid about his crime. His victim was the wife of a co-worker. “I assaulted her, tied her up, and forced her to perform oral sex on me,” he says, repeating a sentence he’s said countless times before. The facts of his crime may be no more horrendous than those of his housemates, but discussing it so frankly with him—and realizing I was about the same age as his victim—made the conversation especially chilling. Yet the more we spoke, the more I realized that his willingness to discuss his crime so openly seemed to suggest a different sort of future.
Usually, the conversation in group is about the day-to-day problems of life as a registered sex offender. Some topics come up again and again: Mickey’s struggle to control his temper, Bill’s passive-aggressive tendencies, the frustrations of job-hunting, the challenge of finding a girlfriend, the difficulties of living by parole rules. Avoiding contact with minors, for instance, is not always as easy as it sounds. What happens when you go to McDonald’s and the person behind the register looks like she might be 16? What do you do if you’re exiting the bus and the woman in front of you asks for help with her stroller?
On a recent Sunday morning, O’Leary, 36, reclines in a chair in the living room, hands clasped in his lap, wearing jeans, sneakers, and a white thermal underneath a green T-shirt. Group is supposed to last just one hour, but often the men have so much they want to talk about that it stretches on for nearly three. On this morning, the conversation turns to a favorite subject: the lowly status of sex offenders.
“As far as I’m concerned, the worst criminal that should be watched is the drug dealers,” Mickey says. “They’re the ones who are turning the 16- and 17-year-olds into prostitutes.”
“Does a crime define a person?” O’Leary asks. “You know drug dealers that you met in prison that you felt good about—and there were others you felt were dirtbags.”
“I don’t like none of them,” Mickey insists.
Of course, they know that they are liked even less. “You ask the question to an average Joe: ‘How do they feel about sex offenders?’ And: ‘Oh, I hate ’em. Kill ’em, kill ’em,’ ” says another sex offender.
“I always said this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Mickey says.
The topic of how sex offenders are perceived by the public provides fodder for debate all week, continuing long after the therapy session ends. The residents, especially John, monitor the news closely for any mention of sex offenders. “I can’t blame society for wanting to register sex offenders. C’mon,” he says. “But I think they should also register drug dealers, guys who do drive-by shootings, arsonists. Let’s be honest. There are a lot of things that are dangerous to children. But what scares people is that they feel vulnerable to us. They really feel like they can’t have their kids go out on the street because one of these guys might grab them. Because what do they see? They don’t meet me, Mickey, guys who are living fairly normal lives. All they see is the news: This guy tried to pull a kid into a car, this guy murdered a little girl. This is all they see.”
In fact, the “stranger danger” notion is mostly a myth (in about 90 percent of child-sexual-abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone the child already knows, like a family member or friend), as is the idea that those who commit sex crimes are typically repeat offenders (only one in seven violent sex offenders in state prison had a prior conviction for a violent sex crime). It’s also not true that all sex offenders are child molesters—or even that all child molesters are pedophiles. Experts have identified two types of child molesters: “situational” and “fixated.” Situational molesters are those who may have romantic relationships with adults but who, under certain circumstances, will commit a sex crime against a child. (Bill, for instance, would fall into this category.) In contrast, fixated molesters are those who meet the definition of an exclusive pedophile, a person who is sexually attracted only to children.
Even in this house full of sex offenders, there is a hierarchy of criminals, with pedophiles at the very bottom. Mickey doesn’t use the terminology of psychiatry, but he does grill prospective tenants about their sex crime and whether they were high or drunk when they committed it. “I want to know what was really in their heads when they did this. Whether somebody is drunk, high, or sober, it’s inexcusable what they did. But you look at the chances of somebody doing it again—the way I look at it is, the one that did it with a clear conscience is the one I got to watch out for the most, and a lot of them I won’t let in the house.”
Mickey started interviewing potential housemates about their crimes after he discovered that one of his tenants had three different criminal cases and at least seven victims, all under the age of 10. “I’m really hoping I don’t do it again,” he said. Mickey’s response: “I’m hoping you don’t do it either, but you’re taking your shit and getting out of my house right now.” Part of his dislike of pedophiles stems from the same sense of revulsion the rest of us feel. But there is another, more personal reason, too: “Those are the people who make the whole S.O. thing as crazy as it is.”
The ever-growing list of rules dictating where sex offenders cannot live has led, not surprisingly, to their clustering in those few places where they can find housing. Near St. Petersburg, Florida, 94 sex offenders live together in a mobile-home park, two and three to a trailer. In Miami, twenty sex offenders are living beneath a bridge, where a probation officer visits them nearly every morning. And as of mid-December, there were 82 sex offenders living in the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Manhattan, according to the New York State registry.
Over the months I spent visiting this house in Coram, I found myself ricocheting between a sense of revulsion and concern. It was impossible to meet these men and hear their stories and not find myself awake at 3 or 4 a.m., wondering which of them had truly reformed themselves and which were merely trying to convince me of this. But it also seemed obvious that turning these men into modern-day untouchables and relegating them to the fringes of society is not the best idea, either for the men themselves or as a strategy for improving public safety.
A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch found no evidence that residency restrictions reduce crimes against children, and further noted that the sex offenders who are most likely to stay out of jail and not reoffend are those who are not segregated but have “positive, informed support systems—including stable housing and social networks.” This is one of John’s concerns about relegating sex offenders to one particular area. “Isolation is not a good thing,” he says. “One of the things that creates a lot of sex-offender behavior is isolation.”
Mickey has tried to foster a sense of community among the sex offenders in his home, but it’s not always easy. Mickey and Bill rely on each other’s support and friendship, but John, who leaves the house at 5:30 a.m. and goes to bed early, doesn’t have much time for conversation. As for the newer tenants—Larry, Stephen, and Hop—Mickey has tried to befriend them, but Bill keeps more distance, not knowing how long they’ll be around.
Close friendships or not, the men in the house are linked by a shared sense of vigilance. One of the fears about sex offenders living in such close proximity is that they’ll encourage each other’s worst tendencies. But nobody in this house has to be reminded that just one tenant’s committing another sex crime could bring so much negative publicity to their residence that they’d all be homeless once again. The recidivism rate for sex offenders is lower than one might imagine—less than the odds that a car thief or drug dealer or burglar will reoffend. (A 2003 Department of Justice study found that 5.3 percent of sex offenders were arrested for a new sex crime within three years of leaving prison.) And although plenty of tenants have been taken back to jail for violating parole rules, nobody can remember anyone here getting arrested for a new sex crime. Still, the roommates keep an eye on each other.
Several months ago, when a sex offender here stopped taking his psychiatric meds and started acting bizarrely, talking to himself and wandering outside in the middle of the night, Mickey convinced the man’s brother to take him to a nearby hospital so that he could be committed. And one afternoon, when a new housemate who goes by the nickname T jokingly suggested that he and I go out to dinner together, Mickey went ballistic. After I left, Mickey and Bill chastised him for an hour about the inappropriateness of his comment. That night, Mickey called me, then passed the phone to T. A sheepish voice came on the line: “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
At the moment, the tenant Mickey is watching most closely is Larry. Twice he’d caught him sneaking a prostitute into his room in the middle of the night. One night, after he heard the house’s alarm go off, Mickey ran outside with a flashlight and spied a pair of legs sticking out of Larry’s window. One more time, Mickey warned, and Larry would be evicted.
Mickey has a habit of feeding his tenants, especially the new ones. On a weekday evening this fall, he puts his shirt on—he doesn’t usually wear one around the house—and gets ready to pedal off to his drug program. Before he leaves, he leans into the bedroom of his deputy. “Take out the roast beef,” he tells Bill. “You’re going to have to mash the potatoes, drain the carrots.” And he should also look out for Hop: “Check if he ate. I think he’s been starving. If he didn’t, hook him up with a plate.”
Not long afterward, Hop is sitting in the narrow kitchen, hunched over a plate heaping with meat and mashed potatoes.
“It’s good,” he says, shoveling food into his mouth.
“You’re sure? Not too dry?” Bill asks.
“Not with gravy. And they’re real potatoes, too.”
Just then Stephen ventures in and surveys the scene: “I see you guys cooked a wonderful dinner.”
The hint does not go unnoticed. “You can eat some if you want,” Bill says.
Stephen joins Hop at the table and the two men talk about their days (Hop visited his brother, while Stephen went to get a state identification card), about people they knew in prison, about the house. “If you’re doing the right thing in this house,” Stephen says, “nobody will ever let you go hungry. This is paradise.”
But that’s not a bargain all of the roommates are prepared to keep. Larry wasn’t home that night for dinner because he hadn’t made it back from the parole office. On Wednesdays, most of the men in the house make the three-bus trip to Farmingdale to check in with their parole officers. Larry had flunked his drug test that week and been carted back to jail.
His roommates weren’t surprised. He’d been missing his 7 p.m. curfew and hanging out in the neighborhood. It was one of the housemates who’d tipped off the parole officer to give him a drug test.
Inside the house, opinion about Larry was mixed.
Bill: “Larry was bugged. He had something missing upstairs.”
Stephen: “He needed help. He had a good heart.”
Mickey: “He’s what you call a serious crackhead. That’s the only way to put it.”
That night, Mickey searched Larry’s room for drugs, but he didn’t find anything. Then he started sorting through his possessions—underwear, socks, flannel shirts, cassette tapes, CDs—getting them ready for Larry’s relatives to pick up. As he worked, he made a point of closing the door—partly to ensure that no one tried to snatch any of Larry’s belongings, partly so that nobody would see him cry. Nearly every time he cleans out another man’s room he gets emotional. He’d grown attached to Larry over all those hours spent helping him decipher his mail; he thought he’d be able to help him. But there wasn’t much time for tears or regrets. He had to get the room cleaned out. Another sex offender would be arriving soon.