In June 2019, after serving more than 29 years in Illinois prisons, Otis Arrington expected to be released to freedom: He had finished his time, which he describes as difficult and traumatic, and his exit date was pending. But three days before he was slated to get out, Arrington says he was informed that he would, instead, be placed under a new form of confinement — one with no end date, meted out after he had already completed the punishment imposed by the criminal courts.
“I was supposed to get out, and they kidnapped me,” says Arrington, now 62 years old. He is speaking over the phone from the Treatment and Detention Facility in Rushville — a rural area in western Illinois — where he is one of roughly 560 men (or, at least, people who the state has deemed men) who are being held indefinitely under a little-known “civil commitment” statute.
Under this legal mechanism, which exists in at least 20 states and the District of Columbia, individuals convicted of certain sexual offenses (or in some instances convicted of nothing), and deemed to have a mental disorder and constitute a danger to society, can be involuntarily committed to “treatment” facilities after they’ve already served their criminal sentence. While in civil commitment, individuals are supposed to receive mental healthcare and regular examinations, and to be released once it is determined they are no longer dangerous. As the statute that established civil commitment in Illinois in 1998 puts it, individuals are to receive “control, care and treatment until such time as the person is no longer a sexually violent person.”
Yet, In These Times spoke with people held in civil commitment, rights advocates, scholars and lawyers who say that, instead of receiving effective treatment, people held under civil commitment statutes are subject to prison conditions, inadequate mental healthcare, scientifically dubious evaluations, and homophobic bias; they are deprived of meaningful due process; and they have little hope of getting out anytime soon. Rehabilitation is not the goal, critics charge, but rather, civil commitment is intended to indefinitely detain and punish people whom society has deemed undesirable. This confinement does not rectify the harm individuals have done, and there is no evidence that civil commitment laws reduce sexual violence in society, critics say. Instead, they argue, it unleashes untold new harms: as the site of abuse, trauma and, according to some, sexual violence.
“We served our time, and then they turn our sentence into a life sentence,” says Arrington. “There are guys here who have been here over 20 years.” He adds, “You would be amazed at how many residents have died here.”