2010 study found problems with state sex predator program

2010 study found problems with state sex predator program

May 26th, 2013 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

This is the home in the 8900 block of Lovell Road near Soddy-Daisy where Terry Releford killed his pregnant wife May 19. Law enforcement tracked Releford to a Georgia motel the next morning and were negotiating with him when he shot himself fatally in the head.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Terry Releford

An outside 2010 evaluation of the Tennessee Department of Correction's program to prevent inmates from getting raped by other inmates or staff members found the program was ineffective.

That's the same program that a 34-year-old rapist was enrolled in as an inmate classified as a high-risk sexual predator. A year after his release, he raped a teen and killed his wife on a single day.

"One of my biggest of criticisms of the program was it was just an educational program. It didn't have much of a mental health component," said Rosevelt Noble, a senior lecturer in the sociology department at Vanderbilt University who conducted the evaluation three years ago.

Inmates were given educational classroom material as part of the "self-actualization" program. Some of the programs included segments such as "Cage Your Rage," "Abused Boys, Wounded men" and "Recognizing Violence."

The program was provided to inmates to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

"The material, in and of itself, is not sufficient to effectively treat individuals who are classified as high-risk sexual predators," Noble wrote in the evaluation. "For instance, if the basis of a predator's motivation to sexually assault other inmates stems from some deeper psychological trauma or some other mental illness, the current program curriculum would not help this inmate."

He made 24 recommendations to make the program more effective. Asked last week if any of the recommendations were implemented, Noble said he wasn't "100 percent sure." But he did know that at some point, the Department of Correction ended the program altogether.

"Partly because of my evaluation, they busted the program up. It didn't look like they wanted to take those [recommendations] on."

Before that, Releford successfully completed the program and was issued a certificate.

"You can look the part ... and still walk out of there with a certificate of completion," Noble said.

Even if an inmate receives treatment early on, there needs to be some sort of plan to continue effective programming over the course of his sentence, Noble said.

"I think to make more of a concerted effort ... treat those core issues ... some type of sex treatment," he said.

Inmates were placed in the program because of how they were scored on a predator scale that was deemed inaccurate by staff members.

Many had to take the classes against their will.

Staff members said they noticed that sexual activity was constant.

"They're always exposing themselves in church services, ball field, classes, it's just all kinds of it. Anywhere there's a female employee, not necessarily an officer or volunteer, they're subject to inmates exposing themselves or masturbating. It's just a constant battle," said one staff member quoted in the study.

There also wasn't enough staff for the number of inmates enrolled, and no assessment was made to see if the program affected inmate behavior, the study found.

"If we could do a predator program and it's done well it would require more security staff, it would require more mental health staff and it would require more counselors. I mean you can't be staff deprived and expect results," said a staff member in the study.

An audit for prison rape elimination programming is scheduled to take place in August in Tennessee prisons.

In Releford's case, it's unclear whether a better program would have made a difference.

"I'm not sure that [a self-actualization] program would have effectively changed him if he's got that level of mental health issues," said Noble, "because who knows what the root cause is for this person to have this predatory behavior?"

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.