Full Disclosure

 photo disclosure_2.gifI knocked on the steel door to Ron’s office, then fidgeted in the windowless concrete hall outside. Behind me, sounds of the one o’clock inmate movement echoed through Hancock Building: electric locks snapped open, prisoners’ state issue boots clomped on metal stairs, a guard yelled something through shatter-proof glass. I waited alone, uneasy in this empty stub of a hallway, unsure how long I should stand here. Loitering was against the rules. The general movement would soon be over. I would be out of place.

Ron was my primary therapist in the New Hampshire State Prison’s sex offender program. I got moved from the South Unit to F Pod, the “therapeutic community”, in Hancock Building a week ago. A few days later, nine of us met Ron for the first session of our year-long program.  At the end of the hour and a half, he dismissed us with an offer to meet one-on-one if we wanted more help. It was the chance I had waited for, and dreaded, since being accepted into the program. I had something fearsome to confess – something that could make the difference between my doing eight or twenty-one years in prison.

The whole criminal justice system is oriented toward getting admissions of guilt from those accused of sex offenses. Claiming innocence implies the system made a mistake – that the accuser is lying - that the prisoner, himself, is a victim.  Denial is considered evidence of intransigence, even dangerousness. Confessions are not extracted with rack and screw.  Time, and the psychological pain it causes, are the state’s instruments of torture. The pressure starts soon after indictment with a proffered plea bargain. Admit guilt, take the offer, and do less time. Even innocent men have been known to cave under the threat of decades in prison. Most make a deal.

Once inside, taking full responsibility for all one’s offenses is a major tenet of sex offender treatment. Getting home depends upon it. During an intake interview, the program director decides whether a sex offender is “amenable to treatment.” Those who profess innocence, or who are still challenging their conviction in court, are denied program admission. Without the program, no sex offender gets parole.

The program’s first step demands more confessions, sometimes many more. In a full disclosure sexual history, a lifetime of sexuality, starting with earliest childhood experiences of abuse or arousal, must be tediously recorded and shared. The second step is a detailed recounting in front of the group of one’s crime of conviction. These sessions frequently turn into tearful grilling. Armed with police investigative reports and victim statements, the therapist keeps things honest. Honesty is further assured by polygraph.  Those who can’t pass a lie detector test are expelled from the program to max out their time.

I met a few guys who stubbornly maintained innocence.  It’s a hard road to take. Maxing out can mean choosing decades behind bars. I saw a few lose their resolve and slink back to the program director, admitting guilt, pleading for program admission. I’m sure the pain of incarceration broke through denial for some. But I know some admitted guilt just to do the program and make parole, secretly maintaining innocence, whispering it to fellow prisoners, faking it to make it.  I doubted this coerced dishonesty could be therapeutic.

My thoughts were interrupted when Ron opened his office door and extended a hand.  He was a short, wiry fellow, with large, expressive hands and a firm, boney handshake.

“Come in, come in.” Ron smiled and motioned for me to sit.  He swiveled his chair to face mine and spread his hands in a welcoming gesture. “So, Phil…is it okay if I call you Phil? Or do you prefer Philip?” Ron was always checking things like that.

“Phil is fine,“ I said.

“So, Phil, what can I do for you today?” He clasped his hands and looked at me intently.

I avoided his gaze and looked down at my own hands gripped tightly in my lap. “I know that taking full responsibility for my offenses is part of the program…” I began, getting right to the point before I lost my nerve.

Ron smiled encouragingly and leaned forward. “Yes?”

“Well, I can’t do that exactly,” I said. “That’s why I asked for this meeting.”

“Oh?” Ron said, sitting back in his chair.

“Well, see, I’m not guilty of at least two of the five charges against me. I mean, the State says I had intercourse with her but I never did.” There. It was out.

Ron’s smile faded to a look of concern.  He glanced at his desk.  I followed his gaze to a file with my name on it. No doubt it contained the police reports of my case and, no doubt, he had read them. I knew exactly what they said. 

I remembered getting the call from my lawyer three years earlier. “I’m sorry to have to tell you,” he said. “The State has indicted you on five class B felony sexual assault charges.”

“Five charges?” I said incredulously.

He read the indictments to me. When he got to the two counts of intercourse, I said, “Well, those will be easy to fight. I never had intercourse with her.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Well, they can’t prove something that didn’t happen,” I ventured.


“Don’t they need some evidence?” I asked.

My lawyer must have wondered what kind of a fool he had for a client.

Ron picked up the file and looked at me. “You went to trial, didn’t you?”


“Well, she must have testified you had sex with her. Right?”

“Sort of…I guess.” I said. The trial was a blur. I couldn’t remember exactly what had been said. Apart from the reading of the charges against me, I didn’t think the word “intercourse” had been spoken again until the jury rendered a verdict.

“Why would she say you had sex with her, if you didn’t?” Ron asked.

It was the very question the elders of my church put to me when the charges first came out.  I had no good answer for them. I recalled sitting across a prison visiting room table from Fenton, one of the church elders. He was explaining why the congregation kicked me out.

“When we heard the evidence presented at trial,” he said, “the elders decided you had not been truthful with us.”

“What evidence?” I blurted. I was still smarting from the ease with which the State convicted me on all counts.

My eyes met Fenton’s. For an uncomfortably long moment we stared at each other. I felt a flush of anger rising. But I could see he was considering carefully what to say. He was a sincere and honest man.

“Well,” he said, “they didn’t present any evidence…except…her testimony.”

“Right,” I said, and looked away, through a barred window across an empty concrete yard to a blank brick wall.

“But why would she lie?” he asked earnestly.

“I never said she was lying,“  I snapped.

Fenton looked puzzled. For him, truth-telling was a zero-sum game.

 “Anyway, Phil,” he said, “you chose not to testify. It was your choice not to present your side of the story to the jury.” Fenton continued accusingly, “Even after the elders told you that you should take the stand, you decided instead to follow the advice of a lawyer who’s probably not even a believer.”

“Right,” I said again.

My lawyer had advised me not to testify. I had already made incriminating statements to the girl’s parents, the church elders and others. Besides, by then I was an emotional wreck.

“If we put you up there, the prosecutor will eat you alive,” my lawyer had said. “Let’s just let her say whatever she’s going to say. It won’t do us any good to turn this into a he said, she said. Anyway, we’ve got another theory of the case.”

His theory of the case collapsed at trial.

Now Ron was looking at me intently, waiting for an explanation. Over the past three years I had imagined many possible answers to this question. I had no way of knowing if any of them were true.

“I…I don’t know,” I stammered. “I haven’t been able to talk with her since the charges were laid. There’s been a no contact order.”

“Hmm,” said Ron, looking worried.

“I’m not saying she was lying,” I quickly added. I didn’t want to be one of those who blamed the victim, inventing stories of malice or perjury. “I know this whole thing is my fault,” I ventured. “I mean, I put her in the position of having to testify. She must have been terrified.”

Ron picked up my chart and thumbed through it. His silence was ominous. My future hung in the balance. The eight years until my minimum was a disaster. Twenty-one years would spell the end of any meaningful relationship with my wife and kids.

I thought of another time I had told the truth about my charges to a corrections employee – in the Strafford County Jail awaiting sentencing. I agreed to meet with the Pre-Sentence Investigator. Back then, I thought honesty was the best policy. I told him I didn’t have intercourse with the victim, but was truly sorry for the things I had done and the harm I had caused.

I got to see his report only once, in a holding cell outside the courtroom where I would be sentenced. I scanned it, pressed for time. One line stood out. “IT IS IMPERITIVE THE DEFENDANT TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR ALL HIS OFFENSES.” The judge imposed the recommended three, consecutive 3 ½ to 7 years of imprisonment, with 2 ½ years off for doing the sex offender program.

“You know,” my lawyer later chided, “You didn’t have to speak with that investigator. You should have asked me first. Your ill-considered comments probably got you an extra 3 ½ to 7 years.”

I felt a wave of panic rising. Maybe this meeting was a big mistake. Maybe I should have just played along like those other guys. Was it too late to recant – to say I’d reconsidered and maybe I am guilty as charged?

Ron looked up and leaned forward in his chair. “You’re not saying you didn’t do anything to her. Right?”

I looked down at my hands. They were trembling. “Right,” I murmured. “I crossed boundaries sexually with her.  I took advantage of her on three separate occasions.” I shook my head. “She was needy. I was needy. I wish it had never happened.” My face burned. I had no idea why I had done those things.  I could still barely bring myself to admit them out loud without making some excuse.

Ron sat back in his chair and put his hands together. “Well, Phil,” he said. “We’re here to treat you for what you did, not for what you didn’t do.” He nodded encouragingly, then smiled. “Don’t worry. Just be honest and we’ll wait for the polygraph.” He leaned over and patted me on the knee. “You’ll do alright.”

“Thank you,” I said, grateful for this glimmer of hope from such an unexpected source. With time I got to know many who had not been offered such mercy. I felt survivor’s guilt every time I heard their stories.

The first week of therapy, we each prepared a full disclosure statement. It was a one paragraph summary of our offenses with an acknowledgement that we took full responsibility for them. We used it to introduce ourselves in group. A few times in those first weeks, Ron reminded the group that my disclosure didn’t include all my charges. But, after the polygraph, he never mentioned it again.

Authored by Philip Horner