A spate of media coverage of wacky U.S. sex offender policies is encouraging a sense of smug superiority among the British public. From sex offenders dumped under bridges on one side of the country to those locked in high-tech prevention detention facilities on the other, it isn't the most flattering portrait of the Land of the Free.
Most recently, BBC aired a special report on the ongoing disaster under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Florida (which I’ve blogged about several times over the past two years). The community living in squalid conditions in makeshift huts and tents under the bridge, with no running water, electricity or toilets, has hit about 70 and just keeps growing.
"Welcome to American justice," Dr. Pedro Jose Greer of Florida International University told the visiting European journalist. "This is the stupidest damn law I have ever seen…. We have people living together with mental and physical illnesses in an environment where people can't possibly sleep because of the cars going by overhead -- where you can smell the urine and see the trash mounting all around us."
If that dirty laundry isn't bad enough, the other recent coverage of U.S. sex offender policies is no more flattering to us Yanks.
Filmmaker Louis Theroux, a quirky British-American best known for his television series Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, was granted unprecedented access to the infamous Coalinga State Hospital in California, home to about 800 men serving "indefinite sentence for offences that they haven't yet committed and might never," in the words of the review in the (London) Independent.
The resultant documentary aired on BBC, "A Place for Paedophiles," depicts "a Kafkaesque place" where not just the sex offenders but also many members of the staff look pretty darned "creepy," says the Independent.
A Sun profile of Theroux and his film took the opportunity to paint an even kookier picture for the British public:
"They have karaoke nights, put on plays, and on their birthday are thrown a party with cake, ice-cream and gifts…. [They] spend their days at the £268 million centre playing ping-pong or watching DVDs, and they even stage Coalinga Idol contests based on Simon Cowell's talent show American Idol."
After experiencing Coalinga up close and personal, Louis expressed doubt that the Americans know what they are doing when it comes to sex offenders:
"The British system is that when an offender finishes his sentence, he is released on the sex offenders' register. If he then puts a foot wrong he is hauled back to prison. It's a lot cheaper than a system like Coalinga -- and a little bit more realistic."
"Coalinga is the weirdest place I've ever been to," Theroux says in the film. "I can't quite believe it exists. In America this is the latest way of getting a handle on sex offenders…. You assume the people who run this place know what they are doing, but you do question it."