FARMINGTON • Lester Bradley misses the freedom of prison. Back then, he could keep his own stamps, even an electric razor. Back then, he could stockpile snacks in his cell and share what he didn’t want off his food tray with another inmate.
Bradley can’t share anymore. Now such trades are called an “unauthorized exchange.” Now, everything must be requested. When he wakes up, he asks for a basket that holds his toothbrush. Security aides ask for a “face check” when he takes a shower. At night, the bedroom door opens every 15 minutes for yet another round of checks.
“I tell them, ‘Man, they don’t do this in prison,’” said Bradley.
But this can’t be a prison.
In prison, inmates are serving sentences for crimes they’ve already committed.
Bradley is locked up for what he might do.
There’s no sentence for that, because Bradley isn’t an inmate at all.
He’s best categorized as an involuntary patient. And if the past is any indication, Missouri may never let him go.
Bradley is among 192 patients at the Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services, or SORTS, program. Most live here in Farmington on a red brick campus hemmed in by double fences topped with spools of razor wire.
The facility is reserved for the worst few of the state’s thousands of sex offenders — pedophiles and rapists deemed so dangerous they are locked up even after having served prison terms.
Now, they are more accurately regarded as wards of a mental hospital operated by the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
Bradley is here because a jury was convinced in January that he had a “mental abnormality” that made him more likely than not to commit another sex crime if not confined to a secure facility. It’s a legal maneuver — harshly criticized by civil libertarians — that is channeling more and more people to Farmington each year.
And because no one has ever been released for completing the program since it was launched in 1999, the population keeps growing.
“It’s not like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ and it’s not like Club Med,” said state Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. “It’s like a dormitory you never leave.”
Administrators say treating sexually violent offenders is a long process. So long, that some may never complete it.
Because of that, the number of patients keeps rising, and so does the tax bill. Operating the facility will cost $24.6 million this year — up $9 million since 2011. It’s about $300 a night per resident, enough for a room at the Four Seasons with a view of St. Louis.
It’s a blank check. But it’s one Missouri legislators have been happy to sign — especially when faced with the alternative of sending a Lester Bradley back into the community.
“It’s just one of those things. You kind of want to forget about the people in Guantanamo,” said Michael Wolff, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri. “You kind of want to forget about the people in there, because they are not our best people.”
But confining the state’s Lester Bradleys to indefinite treatment as mental patients raises agonizing legal questions that Wolff and others have had to wrestle with.
Critics say the system pretends to provide therapeutic treatment, but in fact simply locks up its wards in a manner more harsh than prison.
They say it perverts the civil commitment process, using mental health as a false pretense to circumvent the criminal justice system.
They say it gives prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office too much say in deciding who gets locked up — allowing them to override the recommendations of state mental health experts
Missouri has stuck with — and even strengthened — its approach, even though other states such as Texas have shown success in treating offenders at a much lower cost and without raising as many concerns over civil liberties.
That leaves Bradley and his fellow patients at SORTS with little hope of ever rejoining society.
“We are modern-day lepers,” he said.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Bradley is here because of what pedophile Kevin Haenchen said 15 years ago.
Haenchen, a former camp volunteer and day care worker in St. Louis County, had admitted to molesting more than two dozen children. Many of them were developmentally delayed. Near the end of his sentence, he was critical of the sex offender treatment offered in prison and vowed to embarrass state officials once he was free again.
“I’m scared to death to go out on the street because I know what will happen when I see a child,” he told the Post-Dispatch in 1998. “There’s nothing a parent can do with any of us.”
And there was nothing the state thought it could do from a public safety standpoint.
Within weeks, the Missouri Legislature responded with the passage of a sweeping law covering sexually violent predators.
Following the lead of other states, the Missouri law seeks to identify sexual predators nearing the end of their prison sentences. It then lays out a process for civil courts to decide if they need to be locked up in treatment.
The statute sets no time limit on confinement, saying the treatment should continue until the risk falls to acceptable levels.
But in practical terms, that’s never happened.
Former House Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, stood by his decision to sponsor the bill that created Missouri’s law.
But he added that the issue has many layers. Constitutional rights. Protecting the public. Medical science. Politics.
“Policy is sometimes driven by one of those things, rather than the full gamut,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the civil commitment process used by Missouri and 19 other states and the federal government.
But the process has been hammered by a barrage of lawsuits and critics, who say it corrupts the concept of court-ordered mental health treatment.
“It’s more appropriate for the criminal justice system to impose criminal penalties for sex offenders rather than using the guise of psychiatric civil commitments to incarcerate someone,” said Steven K. Hoge, a legal expert in New York with the American Psychiatric Association.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, says holding somebody on expectations of future criminal behavior is “un-American.”
The ACLU is party to an ongoing class-action lawsuit that essentially alleges SORTS, the latest name for the facility, is a prison disguised as a mental health facility. The suit seeks to improve treatment so that patients have reasonable chance of being released.
The Department of Mental Health would not allow a reporter to view active treatment at SORTS, only empty wards.
But the ACLU case and others filed over the years have unearthed troves of internal emails, memos and other documents.
Some raise questions of safety and mistreatment in the facility. One resident was awarded $25,000 in a federal suit on claims he was raped by a roommate known to be abusive. One employee was fired for sexual abuse of a resident, while another left amid a drug offense investigation.
Employees have also been seriously injured trying to control violent patients.
Some of the internal documents raise more fundamental questions about whether the facility is even capable of offering treatment.
Among the documents:
• Early on, a doctor wrote in an email that the facility does “not have enough staff to provide the level of treatment that we feel is appropriate” or that an “accrediting body would feel is appropriate.”
• “Good Lord” was the subject line in an email from a former clinical director who helped design the program. “(SORTS) is a closed system and appropriate investigative authorities cannot even get in there to investigate,” she wrote in November 2006, shortly after leaving the job. “The residents may have engaged in horrendous crimes, but if they are going to be confined indefinitely after they have served their original prison sentences, they deserve to be confined within the letter of the law.”
• In another set of emails in 2006, the chief operating officer at the time expresses concern about the punitive effect of handing out “months upon months” of restrictive activity for residents with excessive behavior violations.
A former director of nursing responded with concern about one particular old and “anti-social” patient. She wrote: “I told the staff please check under the hood, I fear he will be the color of his Navy blue sweat suit before anyone notices.”
The nurse, Paula Bates, now 73, said in a recent interview: “For the most part, it felt so feudal. I think a lot of the guys have given up to the point they just don’t care and some are so mean they are dangerous even there.”
U.S. District Court Judge E. Richard Webber weighed such complaints and concerns in a Civil Rights Act case brought by a SORTS resident first wrote out by hand. In the 2010 decision, Webber wrote that some treatment at SORTS likely fell below professional standards but not enough to “shock the conscience” to be declared constitutionally inadequate.
A COURSE ON RAPE
It was visitation day, and Lester Bradley, a new arrival at SORTS, was careful to keep his head up. Otherwise his prison-issue glasses would slide off his nose. He sat at a table in a dimly lit room with the word “RESPECT” written on a marker board along the back wall. There were three security aides nearby, one with fully tattooed arms.
“I try to keep a positive outlook,” Bradley said. “I let them know that my fight is not with them. It’s with the judicial system because of the way they got me.”
Bradley is 56 and a grandfather. He has a little bit of gray showing through his short hair. He has a gimpy hand from punching through glass a long time ago.
But Bradley talks a lot about faith and has a docile manner, one that has fooled those close to him in the past.
Crack Bradley’s thick book of court records and there’s a story that starts back when he was a 7-year-old runaway in Kansas City. He was first sexually abused at 8 by a cousin, then again by a church member when he was 13 and later in a boy’s home.
As a young adult, he did a brief stint in the Marines. He struggled with drug addiction. He did time in Texas in the 1980s for armed robbery, credit card abuse and violating parole.
But his worst crimes would happen in his own home.
In 1997, Bradley pleaded guilty to statutory sodomy and child molestation.
Over a two month period, he had been giving his 12-year-old stepdaughter what he called “lessons on rape.” It involved him demonstrating inappropriate touching. He even had a certificate made up. The final exam was supposed to be sexual intercourse, but his stepdaughter told her mother beforehand.
Bradley was sentenced to 15 years.
In prison, he earned a GED and eventually completed sex offender treatment before he was paroled in 2008.
As part of his parole he was forbidden to have unsupervised visits with children. But he started dating a woman he’d grown up with who had two daughters. One of them was 10.
Bradley told investigators that he’d been babysitting her alone for hours at a time while her mother was at work.
The mother of the 10-year-old girl recently told the Post-Dispatch that while she knew Bradley was a convicted sex offender, he was also a peaceful man of faith. He told her that his former wife and an ex-cop had set him up.
“He said he admitted to an offense that he really didn’t do,” she said.
According to the polygraph results, Bradley didn’t abuse the 10-year-old girl, but his parole was revoked for engaging in risky behaviors.
So after seven months of freedom, he landed back in prison to finish the remaining four years of his original sentence.
But it wouldn’t be the end of his time behind bars.
Missouri’s sexual predator law would make sure of that. And so would prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office, which needed only to convince a civil jury that he may be a threat in the future.
PROSECUTORS WEIGH IN
Bradley’s route from prison to the state’s SORTS facility started with a screening that he underwent just as he was completing his 15-year sentence.
Missouri uses such screenings to attempt to zero in on those likely to return to their crimes. Statistics show only a small percentage of sex offenders will do so. Of the hundreds screened by Missouri each year, 4 percent are flagged as possible risks.
Bradley was among that group, with an examiner saying he failed to internalize concepts from sex offender treatment in prison.
In nearly all cases, those who are flagged in the screening process wind up being locked up at SORTS.
The legal path to the facility is well-oiled — so much so that in one recent civil commitment hearing a St. Louis judge bobbed his head for 20 minutes, struggling to stay awake.
In Bradley’s case he was sent to SORTS despite the opinions of several experts.
A multidisciplinary team of state mental health professionals unanimously agreed that Bradley shouldn’t be committed.
What followed with his case would highlight a key complaint critics raise against Missouri’s sexual predator law.
A team of prosecutors, including one from Bradley’s home county, convened to ignore the panel’s advice. They referred his case to Attorney General Chris Koster’s office, which hired its own expert and brought the case to trial.
In seeking to commit Bradley, prosecutors had to refute an additional review by the Department of Mental Health, which operates SORTS. In it, a forensic psychologist determined that while Bradley is a pedophile, he didn’t meet the criteria of a sexually violent predator.
The decision ultimately fell to jurors.
Among them was Susan Darley, who said the main question in Bradley’s three-day trial wasn’t if he was a sexually violent predator, but if he should be let back into the community or put in treatment.
“I have two daughters, and lots of people on the jury had kids, and they didn’t want this guy loose,” Darley said in an interview.
Darley and the other jurors didn’t know about all the experts who said Bradley wasn’t a right fit for SORTS.
She hadn’t even heard of SORTS. Nor was she told that being sent there for treatment was indefinite.
Still, Darley said the missing information wouldn’t have changed her vote on Bradley, especially given his behavior on parole.
“What’s the alternative?” she asked.
Wolff, the former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice, reviewed Missouri’s sexually violent predator law in 2003, along with others on the high court.
In that case, the court ruled that a patient’s due process and equal protection rights were not violated. Wolff agreed, though he filed a separate concurring opinion expressing doubt about the future legality of the system.
He said that while Missouri’s sexual predator law may be constitutional, the way that it is applied may not be.
“The practices of the state over the next few years will show whether there is a meaningful attempt to treat those previously determined to be sick and dangerous, or whether these offenders will simply be warehoused without treatment and without meaningful efforts to reintegrate them into society,” he wrote.
Nearly a decade later, the program has nearly outgrown itself.
Each year, the Missouri Department of Mental Health asks lawmakers for a bigger budget so it can hire more employees and add a new ward so it can provide the treatment required by law. At last count, there were 530 full-time SORTS employees.
Fulton State Hospital, which dates to 1851, is now being used as an overflow facility. Significant rearrangements will need to be done there by 2016 to accommodate the growing SORTS population, administrators say.
Meanwhile, the oldest living patient is 85. Some have died.
While no one has completed treatment, four people in recent years have been granted strict terms of “conditional” release. Just one of them is allowed to venture away from facility property for a few hours at a time. He has an escort and GPS monitoring, and local police are notified well in advance.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said Friday in an interview in Farmington that he continues to support paying the rising tab for the program.
“This has provided a very solid public safety tool that has prevented a significant number of other offenses,” he said, speaking outside the fence of the SORTS program after a news conference on unrelated sex offender legislation.
He said yearly reviews of each case and the analysis of annual budget requests to expand SORTS keeps the program and patient rights in check.
Judge Wolff is no longer on the Supreme Court. Now he’s dean of St. Louis University Law School. He hasn’t forgotten about the often quoted opinion he wrote a decade ago.
Does the law need another look?
He remains conflicted about a system where, in theory, patients can complete treatment and regain their freedom, but in practice, no one has.
The public aversion to sex offenders runs deep.
“It’s not a subject where people want to explore the nuances,” he said. “You know, there is an old saying that you judge a society not by how it treats its best people but how it treats its worst. Well, this might be it.”
Lester Bradley keeps a stack of family photos in an envelope in his room. He said the only thing he has hung is a calendar. He doesn’t mark off the days.
He shares his bedroom in a ward called Hoctor 4 with two other men. One goes on so much, Bradley said, “he talks in his sleep.” He said another roommate recently died of cancer.
So a fourth bed sets empty, ready for another sexually violent predator coming down the pike. On Friday, 21 people awaited trials.
Bradley said he uses the bedroom like a chapel. He’s in the routine of getting up each morning between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. to bow in a corner and pray.
“Sometimes I just listen, asking for guidance, strength to endure and to let God know that I love him and I am just going to live my life for him,” he said.
Seeking forgiveness wasn’t on his prayer list.
He believes he’s already paid his debt to society by serving a 15-year sentence. And he said he took responsibility for his crime and explored empathy for his victim while doing sex offender treatment in prison.
Now he wants to be free. He’s done.
Though there’s supposed to be up to 24 hours of treatment per week at SORTS, he’s part of a group that refuses to participate. Taking part would be like admitting he needs the therapy.
Instead, he’s trying to appeal his case — raising many complaints that others have failed to overcome in the past.
He’s not the first new arrival at SORTS to show up frustrated.
Administrators say patients have to get past all the drama before meaningful treatment begins. And treatment takes a long time.
Until then, at least patients like Bradley are securely maintained.
At least there are no more victims.
Shake off your afternoon slump with the oft-shared and offbeat news of the day, hand-brewed by our online news editor, Mandy St. Amand.