Woman joins sex-offender group
Guest essay by Fred Grimm, Miami Herald*
It's as if Voncel Johnson has been thrust into a bizarre social experiment.
Forcing so many men to live like post-apocalyptic trolls beneath a bridge in the middle of Biscayne Bay wasn't quite mad enough. Now they've added a woman.
For two years, a colony of convicted sex offenders under the Julia Tuttle Causeway has lived in a public health travesty, without water or toilets or electrical service. They sleep in tents, shacks, the back seats of cars in the last realistic address in metropolitan Miami unaffected by city and county sex-offender residency laws.
The numbers have been growing steadily as more convicted sex offenders emerge from prison and are consigned to finish out their wretched lives under a bridge.
The population was up to 52 men Monday. And Voncel Johnson.
In a peculiar nod to gender equity, the Florida Department of Corrections informed her last week that she too had only one residency option in Miami-Dade County -- the Tuttle. ''They just give me a blanket and a pillow and sent me . . . here?'' she asked, talking over the incessant thump-thump-thump of the freeway traffic overhead. "I just broke down.''
A community backward enough to create a subterranean de-facto prison camp of male sex offenders thrusts a single woman into the mix -- just to see what happens.
It's an ironic setting for Voncel Johnson. The 43-year-old woman, who grew up in poverty and neglect in the Brownsville section of Miami, told me she was sexually molested at age 6 and gang-raped at 16. ''I have a hard time trusting men,'' she said.
In 2004, Johnson pleaded guilty to a charge of lewd and lascivious exhibition (without physical contact) with a minor. She claimed Monday the charge was unfounded but at the time a plea offer with one year probation and no prison time seemed prudent. Except she twice failed to meet sex-offender registration requirements. Her probation was revoked. She did 10 months at Broward Correctional Institute.
She repeated a common refrain -- sometimes delusional -- among the bridge outcasts. "I never would have done that plea deal if I'd known they'd send me here. I could've fought those charges.''
But offender laws leave the state Department of Corrections no options for a sex offender. Voncel Johnson's parole officer did find her a motel room for three days last week. And she was offered a slot in a residential offender program in another county. But Johnson refused to leave Miami. "All my family lives here. I've never been any place but Miami.''
It was probably a foolish decision, but Johnson harbors some vague notion about gutting it out beneath the Tuttle until her parole ends May 5. ''Then I can find some place to live.'' She seems unable to grasp that residency restrictions are forever.
Meanwhile, the men beneath the Tuttle gave her a battered old camper trailer. ''We watch out for her,'' insisted Juan Carlos Martin, who has been under the bridge so long that the address on his driver's license reads ''Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge.'' He said it was as if city, county and state officials purposely cram more and more men into an unliveable, hopeless, crowded space, knowing that eventually something awful might happen. And now they add a woman.
Martin said, "They need to get her out of here.''
*From today's Miami Herald, posted with the written permission of columnist Fred Grimm. More columns by Fred Grimm are HERE.
Related blog posts:
- Trolls evicted (February 14, 2008)
- Exiles in the promised land (December 13, 2007)
- Sex offenders must live as trolls (April 16, 2007)
- A bridge as a last resort (May 1, 2008) – Guest essay by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat about a similar situation in Washington
- Exiles in their own land: Sex offenders and the history of banishment in Western culture (September 14, 2007)