What We’ve Become

What We’ve Become

Three thousand Americans, imprisoned for being "sexually dangerous," are locked up not for what they’ve done but for what someone fears they will do.


This psychiatric examiner concludes with a reasonable degree of professional certainty that Mr. Johnson does have a mental abnormality.   —Jacob Hadden, PhD, evaluating a prisoner for the State of New York’s Office of Mental Health


When Mr. Johnson was 18 to 20 years old he had a lot of sex. He thought about sex a lot, too. He met girls on the street or partying. They got it on at Motel 6 or in rooms in apartments with mattresses on the floor, sometimes near another couple. He didn’t ask about age. Everyone was young, usually poor, usually solo and scared for a sea of reasons that might vanish at least for a while in a kiss. One girl was 13, another 15. Mr. Johnson "used charm and coercion to secure sexual contact," and boasted about his conquests, sometimes dramatically. Call that Exhibit 1 in psychiatric examiner Hadden’s conclusion that Mr. Johnson is a sicko who requires indefinite civil confinement now that he has completed a criminal sentence.

Exhibit 2: Until he was 20, Mr. Johnson "led a nomadic lifestyle," was reckless and impulsive, had no long-term plans and "changed locations and relationships often" in New York City and upstate. He has "no formal work history," having made a living selling drugs until a bad deal and a guilty plea on that and two counts of statutory rape and reckless endangerment sent him up. Abandoned by his parents as a child, too much for his grandmother to handle, he had been thieving, surviving on the street and in and out of correctional institutions from age 9. He once said he didn’t think he’d live past 24.

Exhibit 3: Mr. Johnson went to strip clubs "once or twice." In prison he "looked at Buttman (hard-core pornography magazine), but now doesn’t." At 33, he "doesn’t currently masturbate, but did years ago." It’s unclear whether Examiner Hadden thinks Mr. Johnson is a sicko because of overindulgence or manly restraint. In an unsolicited, notarized response, Mr. Johnson wrote, "You had a lot of officers that used to sell [porno] years back in the prison system. I don’t masturbate and never told [Hadden] that I did years ago."

Exhibit 4: After thirteen years in prison Mr. Johnson "is sexually preoccupied." He "may have deviant sexual interest in pubescent females, but this is not clear given that he was relatively young at the time of his offenses." Still, because he insists he didn’t know the two girls were underage—and once stated, "If they’re old enough to be in the street and smoking dope, they are old enough to fuck"—"he is prone to further sexual contact with underage individuals because of deficits in his emotional capacity to understand why this is wrong."

Exhibit 5: Mr. Johnson is married. His wife, by whom he claims four children, ages 12 to 20, is a certified nursing assistant who lives in Richmond, Virginia. Examiner Hadden notes that Mr. Johnson says "he loves his wife," but she is of interest to the psychiatric examiner primarily as an accessory to his sexual obsession. "He claimed that his wife ‘says she wants it all the time.’" Mr. Johnson denies he said that but agrees that fulfilling her sexual desires "is my obligation as her husband."

Mentally abnormal because he was a randy youth, because he had sex with randy minors, because he lived by the logic of the street and the lockup, because he fought and lied, because he might fantasize, because he wants to please his wife: any way he turns, Mr. Johnson is a sicko.

Most important, he is HIV-positive. "Mr. Johnson" is an alias, one of many used by Nushawn Williams, whose name became notorious in 1997 when health officials in upstate New York plastered it, his face and HIV status on posters calling for his former sex partners to get tested.

The state claimed Williams deliberately tried to infect women. No evidence supports that claim, but Williams was labeled "the devil," because he had been informed he was HIV-positive and didn’t tell. His sex partners didn’t tell their status, either, or look out for their own safety or his—that part of the sexual equation was ignored. To officials, the women, many white, were all victims of Williams, who is black, and their numbers mushroomed in a media panic to hundreds without basis beyond say-so. Thirteen women tested positive, though the source of infection cannot be pinpointed. His guilty plea involved three individuals.

Now every past bad act equals a personality disorder in the present, as the facts, half-truths and fabrications of 1997 merge in the state’s filings to keep Williams locked up under Article 10 of New York’s Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act, passed in 2007. Williams should have been a free man on April 13, but he entered State Supreme Court in shackles on May 6, when a judge ruled there was probable cause to hold him as a sexually dangerous person.

Williams’s attorney has filed a motion to dismiss. If the judge punts, a six-person civil jury may decide whether the state has demonstrated by "clear and convincing evidence" that Williams has a mental abnormality that might, hypothetically, predispose him to commit a sex crime at some unknown future time. If yes, the jury will punt back to the judge, who will decide to confine him to a mental institution or to house arrest, GPS monitoring, etc., perhaps punting back in deference to Examiner Hadden and other medico-scientific hacks on the state’s payroll.

The insidious nature of panics is that they exceptionalize the ordinary, and then make ordinary the legal machinery supposedly instituted for extraordinary circumstances. Civil libertarians and the left mostly don’t get too exercised about the punishment industry’s capacity to roll out a new product every few years when the qualifying offense involves sex. Williams was made into a monster without much dissent, but some 350 people have been prosecuted for HIV-related "offenses" whether or not anyone got infected. Thirty-two states specifically criminalize nondisclosure, handing down sentences of twenty-five, thirty years, even dangling the prospect of the death penalty. New York and others tweak existing law, with similar draconian sentences. To follow legal developments on criminalhivtransmission.blogspot.com, assembled by the international civil libertarian Edwin Bernard, is to peer into the cold, dead heart of the society we’ve become.

If New York succeeds in confining Williams to the bughouse, he will join about 3,000 Americans quietly put away not for what they’ve done but for what someone fears they could do. About the only organized opposition is from advocates for the garden-variety mentally ill, who worry about stigma by association. In the recent Comstock case every Supreme Court justice accepted the underlying fact that some government has the power to order the civil commitment of "sexually dangerous" persons, and Elena Kagan argued the case.

The best that Williams can hope for is release with lifetime monitoring. His wife, Nina, had been learning about sex offender registry requirements from Virginia State Police when news came that Nushawn wasn’t getting out. "He’s had plans for the future," she told me, "happy thoughts, pleasant thoughts. He’s seeing a different way of doing things. And to hear he might be civilly committed, it’s, like, wow, someone’s gonna come in and say, ‘After all these years you’re the same old cat that you was when you were thrown in prison.’ It crushed him; it really did. He’s a tough person, but he cried. He has emotions, you know."

In his unsolicited response to Hadden, Williams apologized to those he hurt. "I’m in search of redemption," he wrote, quaintly.

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