Can a rehabilitated sex-offender make positive change?

Ed is not from Kentucky. I believe he told me he is from West Virginia and from a very low-income family. At about 15, he was hit by a car and paralyzed from the waist down. He’s now about 30.

But for a guy in a wheelchair, he is nothing short of remarkable for what he gets done. He goes everywhere, either by his own strength or by bus, even on the hottest summer days.

“You’re getting another chance, Ed, and second chances don’t keep coming along in this life. I saw in the New York Times where a man from Virginia, about your age too, was given two, or maybe it was three life sentences for dealing in child pornography. That’s what you risk if you recommit.”

He’s deaf, but reads lips remarkably well — or he is the best faker of deafness I have ever encountered. I am not sure which is true.

“It won’t happen again,” he promises. “I don’t want to go back” (back to federal prison is what he means).

One day, in tears, he explains how it all began.

He says how his grandfather is his father, and his mother was 14 when he was born, and how his grandfather repeatedly raped him as a boy and used to give him to a neighborhood man for that man’s sexual pleasures.

In this same conversation, he tells me that he is a homosexual and that when he told his mother, she went into a rage, saying she didn’t want homosexuals around.

As for his grandfather, Ed believes he is still living, but he doesn’t know where he is.

He tells me he would like to get a used computer so he can play computer games, but a computer without a modem so he is not tempted to go online and re-offend.

He also admits he knew what he did, dealing in child pornography, was wrong. But those around him, family I guess he means, saw nothing wrong with what he did so long as it didn’t involve another person directly.

He claims he was not capable then of making the distinction.

Now he is.

He argues further that nobody was around in those years to show him where he was going wrong. He wants counseling now, and our agency has a division, a unit, for sex offenders, and he could be sent there for counseling. Yet he fears losing case management services, what I do, because he knows a good case manager can help him with things like housing and transportation and medical appointments. A therapist only dispenses therapy.

He knows how things operate, and yes, how to make the system work for him too. He very much wants to be trusted, and I can’t remember anybody I’ve met in this job who is as tenacious as this man. Yet he makes me uncomfortable — I mean, his charges, his offenses do, and I have not yet come to trust him. I may never trust him. I worry if the parole division does not monitor him as carefully as they should, and probably this will happen in time, he is capable of re-offending when he believes nobody is watching.

Still, I find myself fascinated by observing Ed in operation, and I try to understand what makes this guy tick. I know he lies. The other day when a second-hand chest of drawers our agency bought for him didn’t get delivered as scheduled, he told me the delivery man offered to refund the money we paid for the chest (less than $100), write a check to Ed on the spot right then and there.

“I wouldn’t take the money. I want the chest,” he told me. I didn’t say anything, but I knew any refunds had to come through me.

Later, when I saw the furniture man, someone I have dealt with before, he had a different story altogether, and it did not include offering Ed a refund.

But before this deal was over, Ed talked the furniture man into giving him a second piece of furniture because of the delay in delivery.

Ed’s apartment is a tiny hovel in a very unsafe complex that I wouldn’t say I like to visit.

When I told his federal probation officer how uneasy I am in that complex, he quickly noted, “You know, I feel that way too, and I am armed.” Ed complains of gunshots in the night. How a deaf man hears gunshots is a question I didn’t ask. I did wonder, though. I can believe guns are fired at night in that place.

Meanwhile, he is showing me a new computer he has bought (a newer one, perhaps). He is proud of his purchase and tells me he sold his much more limited computer for $140 and bought this better model for the same amount at a nearby pawn shop. He knows computers well and can repair them, and has been to flea markets where his skills in computers are of value. Already he has landed a few jobs repairing vendors’ computers.

I am blunt with Ed, and he understands me perfectly. “No bad stuff, Ed, with this new computer.”

I am sure the new computer has a modem — probably the old one had one, too. It is hard for me to keep up. I can tell he is proud of his computer skills. He is also proud of the new electric wheelchair he owns and managed to get Medicaid to pay for. It is clearly a state-of-the-art machine.

This guy is plenty smart, and a portion of me wonders how far he might go in a positive fashion if a few hurdles are removed. And another part of me wonders if he is truly worth the trouble. He may not be. He may prosper someplace else, in a better housing situation, in a better neighborhood, and then re-offend.

I wonder how it must feel to be so totally without friends, as he so often claims he is, telling me how every time a person learns of his background, why he was in prison, a barrier goes up, an insurmountable barrier. Does that really happen? I suppose it might, but he is a good talker, a convincing actor.

Yet when he sits in his chair (his new state-of-the-art electric version) with tears rolling down his face, I can feel sorry for him, for this guy who tells me, “I love my grandfather because he is my father.”

Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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