David Kaplan had a problem. He was hurtling toward the end of a three-year sentence in state prison, and he had nowhere to go. He wanted to return to Philadelphia to be near his teenage son, but he was terrified at the prospect of navigating Philly’s homeless shelters without the promise of a bed, worried he would end up sleeping on the street. With a sex offense on his record, the former addict says, “I couldn’t take that chance.” He wrote to every shelter in Philadelphia, practically every one in the state.
Only one wrote back: a place called Just for Jesus, in the tidy, one-stoplight town of Brockway, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in Jefferson County.
So, this past July 24, Kaplan left prison and found himself at a ragged complex of buildings and trailers marked by crooked, hand-painted signs reading “Welcome to the Streets of Nazareth.” Clinging to the edge of a hill about a mile outside the center of town, the farmstead happens to house what’s probably Pennsylvania’s highest concentration of unincarcerated sex offenders, hailing from all over the state.
Deep in Pennsylvania’s Bible Belt (and, nowadays, shale country), this place is the brainchild of an evangelical and some would say radical preacher, Bishop Jack Wisor of the nondenominational First Apostles’ Doctrine Church. A former homebuilder and recovered alcoholic, Wisor found Jesus — literally: he testifies to having picked him up while driving along a desolate roadway in his 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass — and about 10 years ago turned his woodshop into a church and his house into a homeless shelter.
Planning the shelter, says Wisor, “I started feeling like Noah building the ark.” There were, after all, few homeless people or homeless services in Jefferson County. But once he opened his doors, “Within two weeks, I had 30-something people in my home that needed help.” The place filled up so fast that Wisor himself had to move out.
By 2007, Wisor was flooded with letters from state prison inmates requesting approved home plans, the stable residences that are required for parole. And in 2009, the sex offenders began arriving. Wisor welcomed them: He’s developed a 12-step program based on scripture and a printed guide to spotting sexual abuse. As long as they can follow the rules, almost no one is turned away.
A few weeks into his stay at Just for Jesus, Kaplan — a former restaurant manager who pleaded no-contest to aggravated indecent assault in 2010 — still looks shell-shocked. This is, after all, an unlikely place for a guy brought up Jewish in Northeast Philly. (He initially thought he was applying for a berth at someplace called “Just for Jews.”) He’s now living alongside about two dozen other sex offenders.
And many in Brockway, a town of 2,000, don’t share Wisor’s welcoming spirit. A group called Concerned Citizens has organized around shutting down the shelter — holding meetings, printing up T-shirts, rallying on Facebook. Brockway residents regularly post photos of the offenders under car windshields and in store windows around town. And Wisor has made a nemesis of local state Sen. Joe Scarnati, a Brockway Republican who in 2011 introduced legislation preventing more than five offenders classified as sexually violent predators (SVPs) from living at the same address. The law, he told the Punxsutawney Spirit, partly targeted Just for Jesus, which housed six SVPs at the time. After protests broke out around the arrival of paroled murderer Ernie Simmons in 2010, home plans stopped being approved at Just for Jesus altogether. Wisor believes Scarnati put a moratorium on home plans there, though Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole spokesman Leo Dunn says the board doesn’t play politics. It does, however, take into account factors like complaints about a facility from offenders and feedback from the local police — with whom Wisor admittedly has a fraught relationship.
But into this standoff, the sex offenders continue arriving, to the increasing hostility of the neighbors.
How Kaplan and so many others have washed up here, of all places, can be traced back to a simple underlying problem: Pennsylvania has given little thought to what to do with its thousands of sex offenders, how to house them or reintegrate them into society. Instead, a web of confusing and often contradictory laws and policies has kept hundreds of sex offenders in prison for years even after they earn parole, made life increasingly difficult on the outside and spawned strange, unpredictable results — like dozens of sex offenders winding up in a shelter on the outskirts of a small town like Brockway.
And that web is about to get way more tangled.
The state’s prisons are overflowing with sex offenders, and many are due (if not overdue, after years of tough parole policies) to be released. At the same time, new, tougher laws are eating away at the limited options available to them on the outside. Meanwhile, City Paper has learned that recently (and somewhat secretively) relaxed parole policies could mean hundreds more sex offenders hitting the streets in the very near future.
Pennsylvania has spent much of the past 16 years trying to figure out what to do with its sex offenders. Gov. Tom Ridge first enacted the state’s version of the federally mandated Megan’s Law back in 1996; it’s since been repealed, re-enacted and amended into its current iteration. Although most people think of Megan’s Law as applying to child predators, it’s now an increasingly broad umbrella: statutory rape, sexual assault of an adult, viewing of child pornography, invasion of privacy and exposing oneself in public (including to urinate) can all get your mug shot on the online registry.
In recent years, adding more tough-on-crime amendments to Megan’s Law has been a popular pursuit for legislators.
“In this session in Harrisburg, there were 53 bills related to sex offenders,” says Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “It’s almost like open season. Anybody who can dream up anything to make [offenders’] lives more miserable puts a bill in. It’s society seeking to purge their collective guilt by scapegoating sex offenders.”
The latest twist, a sweeping new law set to take effect this December, could make a bad situation perilously worse. The state’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) — Pennsylvania’s answer to the demands of the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which requires that states impose tougher laws or risk losing some federal funds — will, among other things, require more people to register for longer and check in more frequently with state police.
Nicole Pittman, who is researching the impact of SORNA laws around the country for Human Rights Watch, says that SORNA laws elsewhere have proven devastating for sex offenders trying to reintegrate with society — and Pennsylvania’s version looks to be among the harshest.
She points out that, for many, the cycle of punishment will begin anew: “People who were looking at a year or two of registration [remaining] are now going to be reclassified as 25 years or life.”
Despite all that, Pennsylvania is not, in fact, the most restrictive place in the country for sex offenders to live — at least not yet. That’s largely because the state Supreme Court last year struck down local residency restrictions for offenders in Allegheny County, calling hundreds of similar ordinances around the state into question. However, a bill creating statewide residency restrictions is currently in committee in the Pennsylvania Senate; it has 10 sponsors, including Philly’s own Larry Farnese and Anthony Williams. Such legislation could bring Pennsylvania in line with Florida, where restrictions preventing offenders from living near parks, schools, bus stops or day cares famously force many sex offenders into exile, living under bridges or in sugarcane fields.
In the meantime, state officials have found a way to restrict where many sex offenders live anyway.
Even though there are technically no residency restrictions in Pennsylvania, for hundreds of offenders coming out of state prisons, de facto restrictions are already in place — through the state Board of Probation and Parole.
The board typically rejects sex offenders’ home plans if they’re too close to a school, day care or playground. As a result, says Love, almost all sex offender home plans are denied.
“Most sex offenders are going to max out,” or serve out their maximum sentences, rather than be paroled, he says. The Pennsylvania Prison Society estimates that there are about 1,000 sex offenders who have earned parole but are still in state prison because they can’t get home plans approved.
That comes at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $33,000 per inmate or, altogether, $33 million a year.
Ann Schwartzman, policy director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, says there’s also a greater cost. Inmates who are released on parole are monitored by a parole officer and may be required to undergo therapy. But those who “max out” and leave prison without parole or probation go completely unsupervised — a much more dangerous proposition.
“These are people that need assistance,” says Schwartzman. “For public safety, we want to make sure that they get the assistance they need, that they are monitored and they are watched.”
However they’re implemented, residency restrictions may do more harm than good, says Ted Glackman, executive director at the Joseph J. Peters Institute, which provides counseling to sex offenders in Philly. “There’s no clear evidence at all that those residency considerations either protect children or reduce recidivism,” Glackman says. What does reduce recidivism — from 15 percent, he says, to under 10 percent — is treatment, of the type often mandated during parole.
CP heard from more than a dozen Philly men unable to secure home plans after several years of attempts. Among them: Kevin Keith, a West Oak Lane janitorial supervisor now serving a 3½-to-17-year sentence. Keith became eligible for parole in 2008, but all of his proposed home plans — among them, to his sister’s place, an ex-girlfriend’s house, a Kensington boarding house and Just for Jesus — were rejected. In all likelihood, he could stay in prison, at our expense, until the end of his sentence, still nine years away.
That Keith is, quite possibly, set to spend an extra 13 years in prison might not bother you. But, there’s another twist, already under way, that complicates things.
It’s this: Parole guidelines were quietly relaxed starting in June, according to the Rev. John Rush of Reading’s New Person Ministries, another program with a high volume of sex offenders. Before, forms he received from the state indicated that anyone who had committed a crime against a minor could not live within 1,000 feet of a day care, school or playground. The new guidelines leave it to the parole officer’s “personal discretion,” says Rush.
Rush says, as a result, the number of sex offenders awaiting approval of home plans could soon drop precipitously: “Now, because of that policy change, in the next several months, a number of people will be getting out.” He expects about 500 to be released before long.
In the meantime, the newer, vaguer rules also put the state parole board conveniently on the right side of the state Supreme Court decision on residency restriction ordinances. “It may seem like we’re doing something like some of these ordinances are,” says Dunn, the Board of Probation and Parole spokesman, “but we’re following best practices for sex-offender supervision.”
Dunn confirmed that the policy had been changed, and says the board now takes things case by case: “Everything is specific to that offender and that neighborhood.”
Pittman, however, has another way of describing it: “a very arbitrary situation.”
Inmates still receive all sorts of reasons for home-plan denials. When it comes to Just for Jesus, “no ties to the community” has become a common explanation for denial.
Rush, on the other hand, often does get home plans approved for his New Person Center. He manages that through a cautious and cordial relationship with the regional parole district, rejecting about 95 percent of those requesting his help and agreeing to various conditions and demands — like refusing to accept offenders from Philadelphia.
“The average parole agent in our experience doesn’t want to rock any boats and wants his pension someday,” Rush admits. “It’s no skin off of his back if the person is greatly inconvenienced or has to live under a bridge or stay in jail.”
Just for Jesus’ Wisor says that while ministries like Rush’s do good work, they don’t necessarily help his cause. “The cherry-picking [of more palatable cases] is what makes it very difficult.”
This past Monday, the Daily News ran the headline “Suburban park listed as sex predator’s home,” atop an article about community outrage in Upper Darby, where an SVP is registered as living in a park used by “hundreds of kids and families.”
What the story didn’t mention is that some 2,000 sex offenders live, work or study in Philadelphia — including many in various states of housing instability. A law enacted in February made it legal for Megan’s Law registrants to list themselves as homeless; before that, those without addresses were summarily hauled back to jail. Today, while only a handful of sex offenders in Philadelphia are registered as homeless transients with no fixed address, dozens more move in and out of the city’s homeless shelters, which, unlike many others across the state, do admit sex offenders and SVPs.
Iraina Salaam, social services supervisor at St. John’s Hospice, a men’s shelter at 12th and Race, gets drifts of letters every week from sex offenders. The shelter accepts many of them (10 are registered there), though some cases are rejected because of the number of children who volunteer there.
“Almost every letter, somewhere or other in the letter, it says something about a sexual offense,” says Salaam. “I have a stack sitting right next to me. I didn’t know this many prisons existed in Pennsylvania. Frackville and places I never heard of before: Marienville, Huntingdon, Somerset, Albion, Huntsdale. I never heard of all these places, and I’m writing to these guys all the time.”
Salaam does sign off on many inmates’ home plans — with a caveat. “We’re not a hotel. I never know when a bed’s going to be available,” she says. Occasionally, a parole officer will make an exception, but “most of the time, [the home plans] get rejected because of the indefinite availability of our beds.”
That conditional acceptance is more than most other shelters can offer. Jason Miller, associate director of clinical services at Our Brothers’ Place at Ninth and Hamilton, says he is “bombarded with letters from current prisoners” but does not sign home plans, since all guests must go through the city’s central homeless intake.
Once sex offenders do arrive at the shelter (generally after maxing out their sentences), getting them out is even harder. “They’re some of the hardest men to place,” says Miller. Seventeen offenders are registered at Our Brothers’ Place. “These men face so many issues with poverty, lack of work, drug and alcohol issues. And when they have a criminal background, it becomes very difficult to move them on. A sex offense adds one more level.”
Both Miller and Salaam say the end of cash assistance for people with low incomes — eliminated from the state’s budget this summer — will make it even harder for offenders to save up enough to move out of the shelter. Miller often tries to place them with family or friends: “You have to get very creative.”
A better option, with more supervision, might be a halfway house — but many halfway houses will not accept sex offenders. And homeless shelters are not rehabilitation programs: Therapy is optional.
Meanwhile, the city-run prisoner-re-entry program, the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders, does not accept sex offenders. One program that did, the Prison Society’s Philly ReNew, shut down earlier this summer.
“Re-entry programming would be really helpful for that classification of folks,” says the Prison Society’s Schwartzman, who gets constant phone calls from desperate families of inmates. “It’s more and more difficult for them to really be able to make it once they’re on the outside.”
Rush says allowing offenders to fall into desperation is exactly what state and local agencies should be looking to avoid. “I’m not sure what’s more dangerous,” he says, “than a hopeless person that has nothing to lose.”
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.”