“William” left Graham Correctional Center on an August day in 2008 after serving nearly six years locked up on sexual assault charges. And it wasn’t until the day of his release that he realized a different kind of confinement awaited him on the outside.
In contrast to some other violent offenders leaving prison, William’s debt to society still hadn’t been paid. It might not ever be.
Until the day he dies, William will be considered a “sexual predator” by the state of Illinois. His address, photograph, and offenses are listed in an online registry, which William is obligated to update annually. Throughout his prison term his family had visited him often and sent him money, but upon his release he couldn’t move back home with them because his mother lives next door to a day care center and his sister has children at home. Though he hadn’t committed an offense against a child, William, like any paroled sex offender, can’t live within 500 feet of a school, public park, or day care center, and he can’t have unapproved contact with minors.
His parole restrictions meant he’d have to wait three years upon exiting prison to see his son. “I was really excited that day I was about to leave, until they laid out to me everything that I won’t be able to do,” says William, who shared his story on the condition that his real name not be used. “I understand that I couldn’t live someplace. But all the other stuff they laid out, like you can’t see your son—I was like, ‘Wow.’ That was the thing that really hit hard.”
By his admission, William committed the crime he was accused of: he raped at gunpoint the woman who was his girlfriend and the mother of his child. His offense isn’t sympathetic, but among sex offenses it isn’t an anomaly. Most sex crimes are committed by people who are acquainted, sometimes intimately, with their victims.
After prison, the lives of sex offenders are governed by a battery of legal restrictions intended to keep them from reoffending. But those laws aim to prevent crimes by people who are strangers to their victims—as well as crimes targeting children. William’s crimes, along with the majority of those committed by people whose lives are monitored by these laws, don’t fall into either category.
Because so many sex crimes go unreported, statistics that reflect the reality of sexual assault and abuse are hard to come by. But in Chicago, the information that does exist shows that the offender is acquainted with the victim in more than 70 percent of sexual assaults. Nationally, in 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 78 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were committed by nonstrangers. When the victim is a child, the percentage is even higher. Sociologist Michelle L. Meloy, in her book Sex Offenses and the Men Who Commit Them, reports that the assault of children at the hands of unknown adults is “the rarest victim-offender situation, occurring in only 7 percent of cases.” The likelihood decreases for younger victims; children under the age of six are assaulted by strangers in 3 percent of cases.
Nonetheless, writes Meloy, sex offenders inspire “more legislation than any other class of violent offender.” Most of that legislation has come onto the books over the last two decades, often named after child victims in brutal, high-profile cases where the offender was a stranger. But the laws don’t just apply to those who didn’t know their victim. They also cover the other 70 or 80 percent of offenders.
Bob Dougherty, the executive director of St. Leonard’s Ministries, a Chicago nonprofit that focuses on prisoner reentry, says these broad laws—and residency restrictions in particular—were created with the narrowest segment of sex offenders in mind.
“There are a few people at the top of the pyramid who are going to need constant watching because of the nature of their makeup,” Dougherty says. “And then further down is this wide spectrum of people who don’t need to be watched. They did a dumb thing. I’m not saying it was right, but they’re 21 and had sex with a 16-year-old, or some such thing. But when they’re treated with the same degree of concern as this small amount at the top, it makes life really difficult for them.”
When William was paroled, he joined more than 23,000 registered sex offenders living in Illinois. Some remain on the registry for a decade after they’re released, some for life.
There are other restrictions, too. The laws regulating sex offenders range from broadly restrictive to quotidian. Only one paroled sex offender can live in a multiunit building. Offenders whose victims were underage can’t live within 500 feet of a school, public park, or day care center. Sex offenders are banned from using social-networking websites. Sex offenders on parole can’t dress as Santa Claus or the Easter bunny. They can’t hand out candy on Halloween. Paroled sex offenders aren’t allowed to possess prescription drugs for treating erectile dysfunction.
Registered sex offenders can’t work in the health care industry. Child sex offenders aren’t allowed to operate ice cream trucks, snow cone trucks, or emergency vehicles. Some don’t even make it out of prison—like 19 other states, Illinois has provisions for involuntary civil commitment, under which people whom prosecutors demonstrate are still a threat to society can be held past their sentences. In its last session the Illinois legislature took up a bill to make the state compliant with the federal Adam Walsh Act, which seeks to establish stricter baseline standards for sex offender registry and monitoring. Among other things, it would turn some ten-year registration requirements into 15- and 25-year requirements, and would increase the frequency with which offenders must register.
Keri Burchfield, a sociologist at Northern Illinois University who’s studied sex offenders, says that while some postprison restrictions are onerous, others simply miss the point—they’re “more symbolic in nature than maybe legislators had anticipated,” she says. “I think they’re creating laws to target a type of offender that is relatively rare. These laws play on the fear that the parent has of the dirty old man lurking in the bushes. A law that’s designed to inform you of where a sex offender lives on your block isn’t going to protect you, or your kid, if the sex offender is actually your new boyfriend, or your uncle—which is more likely to be the case.”
William, who’s 34, was born in the Robert Taylor Homes, but he spent most of his childhood in Chatham. William says his father treated his eight children harshly, and his wife worse—he says the first time he saw a gun, his father was pointing one in his mother’s face.
In high school William wanted to emulate his older brother and his brother’s friends: “I would see them, how they dressed, how they carried themselves, how they were respected—even feared—and I myself wanna be respected.” At George Henry Corliss High School, at 103rd and Corliss, William made friends, took up drinking and smoking marijuana, and eventually owned his own gun.
He graduated from high school in 1995, and after a few years his mother convinced him to enroll in Robert Morris College, where he studied to be a computer systems specialist. He didn’t finish. “I got involved with a female who got the majority of my attention,” he says. Back in Chatham he gained employ with a local drug dealer. William says he himself was a casual user—just marijuana and alcohol—but he sold heroin and cocaine. As a salesman he was successful, and he further ingratiated himself with his new boss when he married the man’s daughter. It lasted almost two years. “You think you’re in love, but it’s pretty much infatuation,” William says about their marriage.
Of the 43 percent of sex offenders rearrested from prison, the percentage who were charged with sex-related crimes: 5
He then became involved with a woman he’d dated prior to getting married, and he thought about getting out of the drug business. “At that point I didn’t really feel good about myself. I wasn’t working. I felt like I was living beneath my potential. I was trying to make a turn for the good.” Motivated by the fact that he and his girlfriend had a child coming, William started going to church again. He wanted to cut some of his ties in the neighborhood.
And then their son arrived. “I was just so uptight when he was born,” William says. “I was there for every appointment. It had a lot to do with my childhood, and the voids that I had. I just wanted to fulfill them, fulfill them, fulfill them.” His anxieties about parenting didn’t help his relationship with his girlfriend. He says they had “a lot of immature interactions.” He thinks he directed a lot of anger about his childhood toward her.
The incident that would send him to prison began as a domestic spat. He was on the expressway when he began to think somebody had tampered with the rims on his car—one of the wheels started to come off. He got the car towed, and called his girlfriend to come pick him up. She dropped him off, and he called her later to come pick him up again. When she returned, she double-parked in the street, William says, with two of her children in the car. William wasn’t ready, and they started fighting. She took off.
Over the next couple days William says he tried repeatedly to get in touch with her, but she wouldn’t talk to him. He called. He knocked on the door. She wouldn’t come out of the house, and he wouldn’t leave her alone. The first evening, he didn’t quit trying until the police showed up. The next day, William says, he had an encounter with an acquaintance of his girlfriend that almost turned violent.
“That’s where I really snapped,” he says. “So my thing was, I’m gonna go get my gun. I’m gonna come back and do something stupid.”
He was finally able to convince his girlfriend to come out and talk to him—he wanted to “discuss moving on,” he told her. They drove to Pullman Park, which was just down the street from where William lived. They got out of the car and walked into the park, where William showed her the gun. “So now I’m getting this idea I’m going to threaten her into submission with my firearm—you know, not meaning to do her any harm but just to scare her.” At first it didn’t work. She didn’t take it seriously. “But the more I continued to put on this act, the more I started to take it seriously. I’m pretty sure I was like, ‘I’ll kill you. You don’t know how you make me feel. I want you to feel the way you made me feel.'”
Then they heard the baby crying. While William was threatening his girlfriend, their newborn son was waiting in the car along with two of her kids from a previous marriage. They headed back to the car to get the child some milk from Walgreens. On the way, William says his girlfriend tried a few times to flag down the police, but he threatened her with his gun. He wanted to take her back to his apartment.
“That’s where I had this grand idea to just have my way with her, to take advantage of her sexually,” he says.
He let her leave the apartment later that evening; she let him keep their son.
The next morning she called to ask if he had plans to go anywhere, and she came back a while later with the police. William confirmed everything she’d told them. The police report says William pointed a handgun at her head while forcing her to have oral and vaginal intercourse with him. “I’m going to show you what it feels like to be shot at,” he’s quoted as saying.
There are three eras of sex offender legislation in the United States, according to Meloy. In 1937 J. Edgar Hoover declared a “war on sex crimes,” but most arrestees under the new laws enacted during that period weren’t predators—they were homosexuals. In the 1960s, activism by women’s and civil rights groups focused on sexual abuse within the context of women’s oppression, and its members agitated for increased tracking of rapes and privacy protections for victims.
The third era is ours, and it’s been broadly characterized by the specter of the sexual predator who preys on children. The first state law mandating a public sex offender registry was passed in 1990 in Washington after a young Tacoma boy was brutally raped by a paroled sex offender, a mentally retarded man who’d told a former cell mate of his plans to assault children once he was released. In 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was raped and murdered by her neighbor, a convicted child molester, in Hamilton, New Jersey. “If I had known that three sex perverts were living across the street from me,” Megan’s mother said later, “Megan would be alive today.” Legislation named for Megan, first passed in New Jersey, established public sex offender registries—and inspired the swift enactment of Megan’s Laws in 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
In 1996 the federal government adopted its own version of Megan’s Law, which mandated public access to states’ sex offender registries. Ten years later Congress passed the Adam Walsh Act, named after a six-year-old boy who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981 (Walsh’s father, John, would go on to host America’s Most Wanted). Though there’s no evidence that was a sex crime—only Walsh’s head was recovered—the act set stricter minimum standards for states’ sex offender registries. The Illinois version of the Walsh Act includes provisions for “attempt” and “conspiracy.”
Increased attention to sex offenses also led to residency restrictions, which prescribe where released offenders can’t live. By 2008, 22 states including Illinois had residency restrictions on their books. In Illinois, all paroled sex offenders must abide by residency restrictions. Sex offenders whose crimes involved children are restricted for life.
But while the registries might offer neighbors some peace of mind, it’s unclear whether they do much to prevent crime. Even when offenders prey on strangers, it’s usually not close to home; a 2008 study reported that offenders are “highly unlikely” to reoffend near where they live. That’s if they reoffend at all. Contrary to popular perception, which holds that sex offenders are ruled by impulse, of the 43 percent of sex offenders rearrested after release from prison, only 5 percent were charged with sex-related crimes, according to a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics study of all sex offenders released from prison in 15 states. More than 70 percent went back to prison on more routine parole violations.
Earlier this year the Chicago Reporter, taking into account overlapping 500-foot exclusion zones throughout Chicago, estimated that one-third of the city is off-limits to sex offenders. Some offenders who don’t find a place to live, says Burchfield, end up relegated to neighborhoods that are “socially disorganized”—which is to say, poor. “We’re forcing them into neighborhoods where there already is little supervision and little social control,” Burchfield says.
Dougherty’s St. Leonard’s Ministries used to accept sex offenders but stopped last year after disagreements with the Illinois Department of Corrections. At the time, St. Leonard’s was one of two residential facilities in Illinois that was licensed to house more than one paroled sex offender at a time. The other is in East Saint Louis. The Chicago Tribune reported last year that the latter facility had a waiting list of 1,300 inmates. It has 20 beds.
Due to the lack of available housing, some offenders who are eligible for parole don’t make it out of prison. In Illinois, over a thousand inmates a year are what’s called “violated at the door.” Because having a place to stay is a condition of sex offender parole, those who don’t have anywhere to go violate parole without ever leaving prison. Laurie Jo Reynolds, a Soros Justice fellow who studies ways to reduce sex offenses and recidivism, says that parole “would actually add a period of supervision for them” during which they’d be tracked by the Illinois Department of Corrections and would undergo treatment. Those who serve their full terms in prison get neither.
“It’s not a good policy in terms of public safety, and it’s also extremely expensive to keep these people in prison,” says Reynolds. Last year the IDOC estimated that the cost of continued incarceration for door violators, for over a period of a little more than four years, was $8.5 million. During that time, inmates on average served an additional 12.2 months that they wouldn’t have served if housing had been available.
Kevin Teichen was a door violator. He was eligible for release from prison this past July but his Elmhurst home, where he lived with his adoptive parents, Walt and Kathy Teichen, was 50 feet too close to a day care center.
When Teichen was growing up, his parents thought he had attention deficit disorder. He didn’t socialize very well. Walt says he and his wife “always had to pay kids to come to his birthday parties, because he just alienated so many kids because he didn’t know how to play.” Teichen was in special education his whole life. When he graduated high school, he was reading at a sixth-grade level. His math skills were third-grade.
In 2001, after he turned 20, a psychiatrist at Northwestern told his parents that Teichen didn’t have ADD. He had a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome can be detected physiologically—people with FAS have distinct facial characteristics that betray the syndrome. Teichen’s symptoms are subtler, with effects generally including learning and behavioral problems. His father believes he likely can’t comprehend the legal trouble that he eventually got into. “He just doesn’t get it. He just thinks everything’s sort of hunky-dory.”
Walt Teichen says the psychiatrist told him, “Kevin will be arrested soon. He’ll be arrested often. He needs to live the rest of his life in a group home.” Walt says that ten days after that prediction, his son was arrested for the first time for trying to pawn electronics he’d shoplifted from Target. He wanted to give the money to a girl he had a crush on.
Teichen’s parents tried to place him in a couple of Christian group programs, but he didn’t last in either. When he came home Teichen was “just sort of floundering around,” his father says—in and out of trouble, in and out of jobs.
By 2008 he was 27. According to prosecutors, the events leading to his arrest began when a 16-year-old girl asked Teichen if he’d be interested in having sex with her. He agreed, and they went to a motel. Walt says his son knew the girl; her mother had hired him to drive her to and from school, which he’d been doing for a few weeks at the time of the incident. Another 16-year-old girl was with them in the motel room. Teichen had sex with the first girl; in a court filing, prosecutors allege that he then “transferred his semen” onto the other. Teichen was arrested in January 2009 for aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
He pleaded guilty but mentally ill, and in 2010 he was sentenced to five years in prison. At the sentencing, Judge Kathryn Creswell said his disability “did not impair his judgment to the degree that he didn’t understand what he was doing was illegal.” With time served, he became eligible for parole on July 22, 2011.
But that’s not when he got out. Teichen’s parents’ house, which is on a quiet residential street in Elmhurst, is too close to a church day care center—Walt Teichen says that it’s 452 feet away. That means his son won’t be able to live at their house for the rest of his life.
“He could sleep two houses away from us,” Walt says, “wake up at six o’clock in the morning, come over here, lay on the couch all day, have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, watch TV, go back at 10:30 at night—and that’s OK.”
Walt set out to find his son a place nearby. He found a townhouse in Carol Stream, but it was 350 feet from the outfield of a public baseball diamond. Walt then found a condo in Villa Park, but says it was 482 feet across a set of railroad tracks from a skate park. Meanwhile Teichen was still in prison. He couldn’t be released until he had someplace to go.
In late October, three months after Teichen became eligible for parole, his parents found a house in Elmhurst that was suitable for their son. It’s about two miles from where Walt and Kathy live. Teichen left prison two days before I first met Walt, and he called his father a number of times during our meeting. He was in his new home, awaiting a parole agent coming to fit him with an electronic tracking bracelet. “He’s very impulsive,” Walt said, after the phone rang for a while. He played a message from his son. The agent had just left. “Call me right away,” Teichen said a couple of times.
I asked Walt how well he could keep track of his son if they were living apart. “It’s pretty easy right now,” he said, noting parole restrictions that would keep him largely homebound. “It’ll be easy to monitor him because he can’t leave.”
William almost wasn’t able to leave prison, either. Shortly before his release he learned about a place in Chicago where he could stay; before that, his plan had been to go live with a sister in Texas, but the paperwork he needed to leave the state didn’t come through until he’d been on parole for six months.
He had a lot of time for reflection in prison, William says. “Yeah, I made a terrible mistake. I guess I deserve what I’m going through, but . . .” He trails off.
“It was hard being honest, to really come face to face with the ugliness of me. But I had to do that. If you’re not honest enough to identify what it is that’s wrong with you, you’ll never be able to liberate yourself above it.”
In the three years he was on parole, William went back to school and obtained a bachelor’s degree in social work, as well as a license to become a drug and alcohol counselor. He now does casework with people who, like himself, are returning from prison. He’s engaged to be married.
On August 3, William came off parole, meaning he could finally see his son. William hadn’t seen him since he was a baby, and now he was nine years old. At their reunion, William recalls, “I’m excited and nervous, a whole lot of emotions going on within me at the same time. And I’m trying to see what he’s been told about me. But he comes out: ‘Hey, daddy!’ Just walks up to me, hugs me.”
Now William sees his son whenever he can. He gets him every other weekend. They go to movies together, and William helps him with his reading. He attends parent-teacher meetings.
William says he’s lucky; a lot of the men he knows end up going back to prison on parole violations.
That’s easy to do for a population that may not have “the sophistication that you and I have,” says Bob Dougherty. “One thing that prison doesn’t do is teach you the finer approaches to handling situations.”
Kevin Teichen wasn’t adept at the finer approaches. When I met with his father in late October, he mentioned that Teichen had an interest in starting a landscaping and snow-plowing business. Walt says that his son talked a neighbor into letting him borrow a laptop so he could write up a business plan, though unapproved access to the Internet is forbidden for paroled sex offenders. “He knew it was wrong, but he’s just so impulsive,” Walt says.
On November 15 Walt stopped by his son’s house to visit. He found Teichen in handcuffs; he was being taken back into custody by his parole officer, who’d found the computer. While he was being led out, Walt says, his son was “crying like a little baby.” Soon a prison review board will determine whether Teichen can be reparoled. If not, he’ll serve the rest of his term—through July 2012—in prison.
By most measures, Teichen’s crime was different from William’s, and his punishment—lifelong restrictions on where he can live—is harsher, particularly for someone with a developmental disability. As far as the law is concerned, though, the two men are bound by much more than what separates them. “The thing is they put a blanket over everyone,” William says. “Everyone isn’t the same. I’m not saying I don’t need certain rules in place for me, but everybody’s situation is different.”