Like it or not, it looks like more sex offenders will be coming out of prison soon, and they’ll have to live somewhere. The question is whether they’ll be able to resume some semblance of a normal life — and it’s in the interest of public safety that they do so.
Lack of stable housing, unemployment, dearth of social supports, public hostility — these are all factors that research has shown contribute to recidivism among sex offenders. Yet those are exactly the conditions that Megan’s Law and now SORNA tend to cultivate.
Leroy Malseed, an SVP wearing an “I Heart Jesus” hat, has been there. After he got out of prison in 2010, he spent five months homeless in Harrisburg, first on the city streets and then in a tent city, fishing in dumpsters for food and bathing in the Susquehanna River. “I went to every church in Harrisburg and every shelter. No one would take me in.” His homeless “transient” status made the evening news. “They put my picture on TV for three days,” Malseed says. “One time I was walking through town and some people threw dog shit, piss, trash, everything at me because they knew that I was a sex offender.”
Malseed has been staying at Just for Jesus for the past two years and is ready to move on. But getting housing is another story, he says, unfolding the latest one-sentence rejection note from a prospective landlord.
“The SVP label throws a monkey wrench in all parts of your life,” says Ron Payne, an SVP and Just for Jesus resident from Quakertown in Bucks County. He adds that job applications have been slow going — especially in a town where everyone knows exactly who he is. “I understand that I did an awful crime and I hurt somebody I cared about and I should pay for it,” he says. “But I’ve done my time. Now, it’s like double jeopardy. When I get out I have to do time again, because people … don’t want to give you a chance.”
Unemployment is estimated at more than 50 percent for sex offenders. “The average registrant cannot get a job,” Pittman says. To make matters worse, newly tough SORNA laws around the country are now requiring that the employer’s name be included on the registry. When that happens, “they’re going to lose that job in very short order.” As a result, Pittman says she’s met numerous ex-offenders who are constantly living on the brink. One man she met had 30 different jobs by age 30: “He tries to just get one or two paychecks at every job before [his new work location] goes up on the [Megan’s Law] website and he gets fired.”
The majority of sex offenders are themselves victims of abuse; consequently, many also have a history of an addiction. That’s part of what makes turning a sex offender into a homeless person so dangerous.
Raymond Taylor, a Philly native who was convicted of indecent sexual assault, says he was a crack addict and an alcoholic before he went to prison. He was high when he committed his offense. In 2011, after maxing out his 10- to 15-year sentence (his application for a home plan in his mother’s Section 8 apartment was denied: sex offenders, like those with drug convictions, are barred from federally subsidized housing), he could have gone to Philly’s Ridge Center. But the last time he went straight from prison to Philly’s streets, he got in trouble all over again. So this time around, he says, “I chose Just for Jesus because it has a support system, and would ease me back into society.”
Now, Taylor has an apartment of his own near the ministry and is weighing his options. He hopes to find work and maybe make his way back to Philadelphia. “Start a new life and no more victims,” he says. “That’s my goal.”
But back in Nazareth, or the version of it clinging to the edge of a hill outside Brockway, community outrage still burns fiercely.
Just for Jesus residents aren’t allowed out without an escort, Wisor says, “for their own protection.”
“The individuals in a faith-based ministry trying to get help, those aren’t the ones we need to worry about. It’s those out there,” he insists, that should concern us.
Meanwhile, he says that the state government — the same one that’s throwing obstacles in his way — is also putting increased demands on his services. He gets frequent calls from prison chaplains and social workers, asking him to take on offenders.
Other times, men who have served out their sentences but have nowhere to go are put on buses or dropped off at the post office or police station of a small town, somewhere in the vicinity. That’s what happened to Bobby MacMillan, a man who was convicted of possessing child pornography and who suffers from severe depression, bipolar disorder and psychotic episodes. A prison guard drove MacMillan to the Reynoldsville, Pa., post office late one night. Local police called Just for Jesus to come and pick him up.
The people in Brockway don’t like Wisor’s solution, and you might not either. But he says it’s just about the only solution anyone is offering, and it could be coming to a church near you.
Wisor wants to take his ministry statewide. He’s actively looking for abandoned or underutilized churches in Philadelphia and elsewhere that he can take over, transform into shelters and rehabilitation programs first and deal with permission (and permits and First Amendment-based legal actions) later. “I can pretty much move in overnight,” he says. He just wants the government to stay out of his way.
But, he says, there also needs to be a secular solution.
“You’re letting them live illegally out in the cities and the streets and you’re ignoring it,” he says. “Those who don’t want God in their life, the state needs to provide a place for them.”