This is the first story in a two-part series about 93 men currently held at the federal prison in Butner under the Adam Walsh Act. Read the second part here.
The federal Bureau of Prisons claims that 93 men it holds in Butner Federal Corrections Complex 30 miles north of Raleigh are too “sexually dangerous” to release even though their sentences are up.
The men are testing their “civil commitments” in the federal courts, claiming abuse of power and indefinite detention. The lawsuits started in the federal court in downtown Raleigh, but now the decisions have been sent up to the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court and the Supreme Court.
Some of the 93 went to prison for sex crimes, including child abuse, rape and making or owning child pornography. Others have never been convicted or charged with a sex crime. Paul Aldrich hasn’t had a sexual offense on his record since 1989.
“No convictions in 20 years, now they’re saying he’s sexually dangerous,” Mark Sigmon, who served as Aldrich’s attorney, said in an interview. If the government still considers him dangerous, Sigmon said, “Will it ever consider him safe?”
The federal Bureau of Prisons asserts that as civil commitment under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 is intended to prevent future offenses, the prisoners’ rap sheets are irrelevant. The law gives the Bureau the power to commit anyone under its authority by showing “clear and convincing evidence” they’re a sexual threat. The Bureau must make its case before a judge, but only two of the 93 prisoners have received a hearing to date.
Gerald Timms has a case before the Supreme Court. Photo courtesy Karen Adkins.
“Butner is Gitmo for Americans,” one man, Sean Francis, told the Record. “American citizens have been held for years with no due process of law whatsoever.”
“There are a lot of guys up here who are tired of this,” Gerald Timms, another of the 93 said. “They’ve been up here almost five years … detainees are not prisoners, yet we are treated just like if not worse than criminals convicted of crimes.”
The federal court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in Raleigh has found the civil-commitment procedure unacceptable in three separate rulings — “U.S. v. Comstock,” “Timms v. Johns” and “U.S. v. Broncheau.” With multiple cases, multiple legal rulings and multiple levels of the court system involved, the situation, Sigmon said, “is more Byzantine than most.”
Sexual danger and civil commitment
A number of state governments already use civil-commitment procedures to keep sexual offenders behind bars. The Bureau’s authority under the Adam Walsh Act goes further, however; in the words of the district court in Comstock, “a criminal history of sexual violence or molestation is not required … Individuals convicted of and serving time for bank robbery, mail fraud, tax evasion, drug dealing and sexual abuse of a child in the special maritime or territorial jurisdiction of the United states are all equally subject to certification and commitment.”
If either the Bureau or the U.S. Attorney General certifies a prisoner as sexually dangerous, the Bureau can detain the prisoner until the commitment hearing. To prove its case to the hearing judge, the Bureau need only present convincing evidence, rather than proving the threat beyond a reasonable doubt.
As the act doesn’t define “sexually dangerous,” the Bureau has developed its own two part definition:
• The individual has either engaged in child molestation—defined as “sexual exploitation” or illegal sexual conduct with anyone younger than 18—or “sexually violent conduct.” The latter covers illegal sex acts accompanied by the use of force or intimidation; drugging or knocking a victim out; and sex with a victim incapable of understanding or refusing.
The definition originally included individuals who knew they had a “potentially life-threatening” STD but didn’t tell their sex partner. The Bureau dropped that clause from the final draft of the rule.
• A finding by a Bureau mental-health professional that the individual will have serious difficulty refraining from further sexual offenses if released.
“There must be some documented evidence of sexually violent conduct or child molestation for an inmate to be reviewed and considered for potential certification,” the Bureau of Prisons’ Traci Billingsley told the Record.
“The limited psychological review,” Aldrich said, “consisted of me walking into female psychologists office and telling her that ‘I have nothing to say and that my lawyer recommended that that I say nothing.’ I was in and out of her office in less than 5 minutes.”
In the Broncheau case, District Judge Terrence Boyle stated that the only evidence the Bureau offered to justify certifying Donald Broncheau—imprisoned for lying to an FBI officer, a federal crime—was the decision of the Certification Review Panel’s interim chair.
If the judge at the commitment hearing finds the evidence convincing, the act directs the Bureau to turn the prisoner over to his home state’s prison system. If that isn’t practical, the Bureau must keep him in a designated facility until such time as the judge reviews the case and determines he’s no longer a threat.
Billingsley said the reason so many prisoners have wound up assigned to Butner is because it has a treatment program in place for sex offenders. Francis, Timms and Aldrich said they’ve yet to receive any sort of treatment; Timms said he’ll request treatment if a judge ever commits him under the act, but not until then.
The delay in holding hearings, Billingsley said, is because the process went on hold after the first ruling in Comstock that the hearings were unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court rejected that challenge in May 2010. Sigmon said that at this point, as he understands it, the Bureau is waiting on the other court cases to work through the system, but will schedule a hearing if a prisoner requests one.
The attorney in Timms v. Johns has requested the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case, following the Fourth Appellate Court overruling District Judge Terrence Boyle. In U.S. vs. Broncheau, Boyle ruled the Butner prisoners should be set free; the appeals court stayed the release until it could review Boyle’s decision.
Sigmon told the Record that some prisoners, rather than wait for the court cases to play out, are applying for commitment hearings. He said there have been prior Adam Walsh cases where the government decertified and released the prisoner shortly before a scheduled commitment hearing.
“It’s indicative how much the government is overreaching in these cases,” he said. “I think it’s tragic if someone spends two years of their life in jail only when it comes time, the government says ‘Okay, we really can’t prove it.’”