“It’s Worse Than Prison”

Reginald Artis served 27 years behind bars. But just because her sentence was up didn’t mean she got to go free.

civil commitment.
The more than 300 people who are housed at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation do not live in locked cells, but they are not allowed to leave.

Photo by Thinkstock

Reginald Artis is a transgender woman from Chesapeake, Virginia, who was sent to prison in 1987 for a sex crime she committed at age 23, when she still identified as a man, against a 17-year-old. The sentence Artis was given meant that as long as she stayed out of trouble while doing her time, she’d be released from prison in 2012. Artis, who is now 52, counted down the days as she waited to go home to her family.

Then something unexpected happened: A few months before she was supposed to be released, Artis was told by a prison counselor that she was a candidate for something called civil commitment. A doctor would be coming to the prison to evaluate her, the counselor said, to determine whether she was at risk for committing another sex crime. If the doctor decided she was, that testimony would be presented to a judge, and Artis would likely be sent to a facility to receive treatment. She would be held indefinitely at that facility until the state decided it was safe to let her out.

Artis could not believe it. She had never heard of civil commitment, and she didn’t understand how it could be possible that after serving her prison sentence without incident, she would not be allowed to go home. After a judge heard the case—and reviewed the results of a risk assessment questionnaire Artis had taken at the behest of the doctor who visited her in prison—that was exactly what happened. On Jan. 13, 2013, after 27 years of being locked up in one institution, Artis found herself locked up in another one.

The Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation is not, strictly speaking, a prison: The more than 300 people who are housed there do not live in locked cells, and they are able to use the phone to communicate with the outside world. But they are not allowed to leave. Like Artis, they have been designated sexually violent predators by the state after completing questionnaires designed to identify urges or mental conditions that make them likely to commit further sexual crimes. While living at VCBR, people undergo treatment for these urges, in the form of group therapy and classes, that can last for many years; unlike in prison, they do not have release dates to look forward to and are only freed when judges decide they are no longer a threat to society.   

The Virginia law that allows for the indefinite, postprison detention of people who are considered likely to commit sex crimes in the future mirrors similar laws in 19 other states and at the federal level. Recently, such laws have come under attack, with federal judges in Missouri and Minnesota declaring them unconstitutional. In the meantime, according to the New York Times, there are approximately 5,000 people being detained in this way across the country.

Artis is just one of them. This week, with the help of Galen Baughman, a fellow at Open Society Foundations who advocates for reforming laws that deal with sex offenses, I was able to speak with Artis by phone. We discussed the circumstances under which she was civilly committed, what it feels like not to know when she’ll be allowed to leave VCBR, and the trouble she’s faced in getting the hormone treatment required for a sex change she has wanted since she was a young man growing up in Chesapeake.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Leon Neyfakh: When did you first enter prison?

Reginald Artis: I went to prison in ’87, and I was supposed to get out in 2012.

So you didn’t know that there was this other institution you’d be sent to after your sentence was up?

No, I had no clue. My family was making plans for when I came home. To then find out about this civil commitment thing—that, hey, you might not be going home at all, it was like your heart was ripped out of your chest. I was numb.

How and when did you find out?

I had been at an institution called Powhatan Correctional Center, and about six months before I was supposed to go home, they transferred me to St. Brides Correctional Center, which is a re-entry facility for people who are within six months of getting released. That was when they told me I could be civilly committed. Then about three months later this doctor came to the institution and wanted to talk to me and find out if I was a sexually violent predator. He talked to me as if he was there to help me out; his words were, you know, “Reviewing your records, I don’t think you’re a sexually violent predator.” Then he gave me all these tests with a thousand different questions, most of them pertaining to children.

Was the crime you committed before you went to prison against a minor? 

Yes. I was convicted of one count of forcible sodomy, against a male co-worker who was underage. I was 23; he was 17.

What happened?

Prior to me committing my offense, I knew I was gay, but I was in the closet—I went to college on a football scholarship, and I hid it. Me and this co-worker, we were out having drinks and stuff, and he exposed himself, and I acted on it. We were playing around, but then he had a change of heart … and I forced myself on him. 

So, once the doctor at St. Brides looked at the results of the questionnaire you had taken, he interpreted them to mean you were likely to commit another sex crime if you were released. What happened next?  

Procedurally, once the state decides they want to take you to court, they give you a lawyer, and the lawyer obtains what they call a second opinion—another doctor. And this other doctor my lawyer brought in didn’t think I should be civilly committed, based on the test scores. He didn’t think I was a sexually violent predator. But the judge ruled that I was, based on the STATIC-99.

The STATIC-99 was the name of the questionnaire the doctor had given you?


What was it like when you arrived at VCBR?

It was like I was going to prison all over again, without ever having been out. Everything you do when you first get to prison is what you do when you first get here: They take you to the intake unit. They get you screened by medical. They show you your living area. They give you clothes. They show you around the place, and then they leave you to yourself. Two or three weeks later, a counselor came and talked to me and explained the situation, as far as classes and groups and all of that.

So how does the treatment work? How do they decide when you’re ready to re-enter society?

There are three phases—one, two, and three. And they’ve got different color cards: When you first get here, you start with phase one, and they give you a blue card, and then you work your way up to a green card, which you get once you’ve been promoted to phase two. Then phase three is focused on re-entry, getting a job and stuff like that. Each phase takes nine months.

What phase are you in?

Two. But you can always move backward. If you’re in phase two, and for instance, they shake your room down and find something you’re not supposed to have, like a CD player or a spork or something, they give you a yellow card or a red card, and they can demote you from phase two back to phase one. The yellow and red cards come with restrictions on how much money you can spend in the commissary and how much access you have to the gym and the library.

When’s your next chance to convince the state you’re ready to re-enter society?

You’re evaluated yearly by a doctor, and they determine whether, in their opinion, you’re ready to go home. Then you can go to court, and the judge decides whether they agree with the doctor or not, and they almost always do. I’m supposed to go to court again in January.

Why are you still in phase two, if each phase takes nine months, and you’ve been at the facility since 2013?

They keep finding reasons to keep me in phase two. When I first got here, things were going smoothly, but then I told them I wanted to start hormone treatment for a sex change, and everything started going downhill for me.

You had already been taking hormones when you were in prison, right?

Yes—I started in 2009. But in 2011 I found out I had skin cancer, so I stopped the hormone treatment to do my cancer treatment. After I finished my cancer treatment, it was almost time for me to be released from prison, and that’s when I found out about this civil commitment thing.

So then after you’d been at VCBR a while, you asked to restart hormone treatment?

Right, and they said I didn’t fit the criteria. They put in my records that I was trying to get the sex change so as to not have to deal with my sexually violent urges—like I was trying to sweep them under the rug by having a sex change, or trying to take the easy way out. And I said that’s crazy, because I’ve been feeling this way since before I even knew this place existed. It’s who I am. But after all that they started finding ways to stop me from going into phase three.

How does being in the treatment facility compare with being in prison?

It’s worse than prison. In prison I wasn’t happy, but I was content because I knew I had a release date. I knew that as long as I did what I was supposed to do in prison, I was going home. Here, it’s 24-hour stress. Because you don’t know when these people are gonna decide you’re ready to go home, if they ever do. They don’t have a time limit on when they gotta let you go. There are people who have been here five or six years, and they’ve just given up, because they feel like no matter what they do, they’re not gonna let them go.

What do you say to the argument that people who have been civilly committed are not prisoners, but patients?  

They may not lock you in your rooms, but with everything they do here, security comes first, just like in prison. If they find something in my room, or they find that me and someone else were talking too loud while watching a football game—they punish me for actions like that. That’s punitive. They give you the cards when they want to, and they move you around between phases when they want to—it’s punitive. You can keep telling me it’s not, but this is just another form of prison. You can’t candy-coat it. It’s punishment. And they’re punishing me twice for one crime.

What do you think of the idea that the state can predict the likelihood of you committing another sex crime in the future?

I think it’s humanly impossible for someone to say, based on a test, what someone’s gonna do in the future. You can only go by a person’s actions. And I didn’t do nothing for 27 years—in prison, which is a sexual haven. If I have risk factors, well, then I was living with those risk factors every day in prison, and I didn’t do nothing. But they can say what I’m gonna do in the future? To me it’s an excuse to keep somebody locked up. And it’s wrong. Because I’ve shown you—I’ve shown you a pattern, and my pattern is not to reoffend. How’re you gonna say I’m likely to do something in the future when I’ve shown you that that’s not what I do?

But then if you say something like that in here, they say you’re minimizing—like you’re in denial. No. I hold myself accountable. I had no problem doing those 27 years in prison because I was wrong for what I’d done. I admitted to doing wrong, and I had no problem saying I’d done wrong. I hold myself totally accountable. But I’m not gonna say I may do something in the future when I know I’m not. For them to say, “We think you might do something in the future, so we’re going to keep you locked up”—it’s not right.

Me committing another sexually related crime—I know it’ll never happen again. I’m not a threat to society, sexually. I just want to start living my life that I’ve already missed so much of.

* * *

After speaking to Artis, I reached out to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which operates VCBR, for comment. Communications director Maria Reppas provided the following statement:

Due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), DBHDS cannot comment on any individual. Civil commitment and conditional release at VCBR are dependent on a variety of factors that are specific to the individual. The ultimate decision for civil commitment is determined by the court and occurs after the person has completed serving the sentence for his or her crime. Treatment offers individuals an opportunity to gain control of their sexually aggressive tendencies as well as develop improved social, interpersonal, and vocational skills. An individual can be conditionally released once a court determines he or she has made significant progress in treatment and can demonstrate a sufficiently low risk of committing another offense.