Sex offenders protest 'violent predator' designation

More than 900 sex offenders are housed at the mental hospital in Coalinga, a small city along I-5 in Fresno County. The hospital houses criminals with assaults on their rap sheets and psychological conditions showing them to be a danger to society.

That population had been growing slowly for years. However, the California state auditor recently reported that courts have all but stopped designating sex offenders as violent predators in the past two years, as fewer convicts have met the requirements.

And the prisoners in Unit 9 at Coalinga have been running a public relations campaign to prove they're being wrongfully held. Some have set up websites; others are mailing reporters large manila envelopes stuffed with documents, from court transcripts to psychological evaluations.

And on Sunday, one attempted civil disobedience.

Ruben Herrera, convicted of statutory rape in 2004, climbed atop an outdoor basketball hoop. For two hours, he refused to descend during what he describes as a demonstration against hospital conditions.

"We're not supposed to be punished, but that's exactly what they're doing is they're punishing us," Herrera said in a phone interview yesterday. "They blocked off these windows and painted them black. They don't let us leave."

Police officers at the hospital fired a bean bag gun at Herrera, according to multiple witnesses, knocking him to the ground. Staff had covered the concrete below with mattresses to cushion his fall.

The incident began during a fire alarm evacuation and ended without serious injuries, Deborah Ireland, a Coalinga hospital spokeswoman, said in a written statement. Because police used a weapon, the hospital is "conducting a use of force review to ensure proper procedures were followed," she wrote.

Herrera said he was on parole for the sex offense when, in 2008, he traveled to Mexico, violating his parole and returning him to the prison system.

In 2006, California voters passed Jessica's Law (Proposition 83), which expanded the number of criminal offenses that can lead to a violent predator designation. Also, an offender previously had to have assaulted two victims to be ruled a predator; the proposition reduced that requirement to a just one victim.

The reasoning behind the law is that by holding the sex offenders indefinitely at the mental hospital, they are unable to commit additional sex crimes. A second component is that the prisoners can receive rehabilitation to reduce their risk.

However, a majority of Coalinga's prisoners do not participate in treatment, KALW News reported earlier this year. In some cases, they resist because statements they give during counseling can become evidence against them in court.

Multiple prisoners in Unit 9 said they distrust the treatment offered and doubt it could help them earn freedom.

"We could be here 10 years, 20 years," said Cornell Clemens, who's been housed at Coalinga for two years. "It's hostility in a unit that's supposed to be therapeutic."

Clemens, 44, broke into a woman's home in 1991 and attempted to rape her, state Department of Mental Health records show.

Long after finishing his prison sentence for that assault, Clemens was convicted in 2006 of petty theft. The attempted rape 20 years ago then made it possible for the courts to rule Clemens a predator.

In 2009, the state's psychologists diagnosed him as having an unspecified psychosexual disorder and antisocial behavior, the records show.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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