Sex Offender Treatment Class: Four Years, $10,000 and No End in Sight

    Recently, my wife and I were having a quiet dinner at home when armed officers arrived without warning. They ordered me to stand against the wall so they could take a mug shot. While my wife and I sat on the couch, they looked through my phone, photo albums, computer, car—whatever they wanted.

    These shakedowns occur once a month without warning. The mug shot was to keep the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry (SOR) up to date. 

    In 2009 I took a plea deal and spent the next 10 years in prison. I knew I had hurt people I loved, and accepted my punishment. During my decade behind bars, I held a steady job and had no disciplinary write-ups. I knew that upon release I’d have to register as a sex offender. But I thought my pound of flesh was paid, and that I could move forward with rebuilding my life.  

    Once a week, I attend my community-based sex offender group treatment class: a program sort of like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Participants are legally mandated to attend the classes, and your treatment provider can say the word and make your life miserable or possibly get you sent back to prison, so no one wants to upset them. So nobody asks the questions we’re all thinking, but are afraid to ask: Does anyone assigned to this treatment program ever complete it? Do the classes ever end?

    Every week for nearly four years, I’ve walked into class and handed $50 cash to the treatment provider. This has cost about $10,000 to date, but in my experience there’s little to no feedback about how we’re progressing, or what we should work on if we’re not progressing. No one really knows if there’s an end in sight, or if we’re staying in the same place and will be doing this forever. Treatment varies from person to person and from state to state, but often these programs are expected to take a year or two.

    If your treatment provider and parole officer agree, you can progress to Level 2.

    “Sex offending cannot be cured and at best, can only be controlled,” states Tennessee Sex Offender Treatment Board (TSOB) policy. “Treatment is to be stressed as lifelong. Completion of a treatment program does not cure sexual deviance.”

    But if there’s a way to complete treatment, it hasn’t been explained to us. The TSOB did not answer Filter’s inquiry about progression of treatment.

    I’m in the Level 1 groups, which meet weekly. Treatment is supposed to restructure our thinking and eliminate any “deviant” sexual urges. When we walk in, the first thing that happens is always roll call and having our money collected.

    We’re instructed to talk openly about any new stressors in our lives, but if anyone mentions anything that could be considered a high-risk situation—like drinking alcohol—their treatment provider will report it to their parole officer. Those two stay in close contact.

    If your treatment provider and parole officer agree you’ve completed significant portions of the treatment, you can be moved to Level 2 and meet every other week. After an estimated two years at Level 2, you can be moved to Level 3, the maintenance program that just meets once per month. There’s no suggested time period for how long people stay at Level 1. 

    Every six months, we pay $250 to take a polygraph test. The TSOB philosophy of sex offender treatment states that we are “master manipulators,” who are fundamentally “secretive.” So even if we’re open about our pasts and appear to be taking accountability, providers are told not to believe us, especially in this first phase of treatment. If we look like we’re making progress, providers are supposed to assume that we’re just trying to deceive them by “attempting to ‘act normal,’” or that we’re trying “to become the best client to avoid dealing with [our] problems.”

    “As the saying goes,” the policy states, “‘You are only as sick as your secrets.’”

    Without knowing whether or not we’re making progress, we’re unsure of what more we could be doing.

    It doesn’t seem like the providers have any reason to advance us to Level 2 or 3. We pay more money the more frequently we attend the classes, and the process never gets questioned. No one wants to give anyone a reason to say we’re in denial about needing treatment.

    “[C]onvicted offenders who deny should be considered high risk,” the policy states, “and eventually returned to the court authorities if denial persists beyond a reasonable limit.”

    I do agree that when someone who has caused harm hasn’t accepted responsibility for it, they should be considered high-risk for causing harm again. But part of accepting that responsibility is doing the best job we can at the treatment. Without knowing whether or not we’re making progress, we’re unsure of what more we could be doing.

    Parole for people on an SOR is very different from parole for everyone else. Instead of re-integrating into our communities, we’re kept apart from them. Many of us have accepted and worked hard at the treatment assigned to us because we want to once again be contributing members of society, as they say. We know that the public perception of everyone on SOR is that we’re predators who are sick and deserve to pay for our crimes, even though that stereotype is much narrower than what SOR look like in real life.

    So no one really wants to hear us complain. But this isn’t about wanting to avoid treatment—it’s about wanting to be able to complete it successfully.

    If we’ve been actively participating in treatment, without violating any of the restrictions placed on us and without any polygraph issues, after how many years is it reasonable to ask if we’re supposed to be doing something differently?



    Photograph (cropped) via West Virginia Department of Human Services

    • Jeff served 10 years in private prison. In 2023 he co-authored Locked In and and Locked Out: Tweets and Stories on Prison and the Effects of Confinement. He advocates for prison reform and restorative justice, and for disenfranchised people in his community in Tennessee.

    • Show Comments

    You May Also Like