February 12, 2018
In early September 2015, guards fanned out across Texas with orders to round up about 200 men, rousing some from bed as early as 3 a.m. and demanding they stuff whatever they wanted to keep into black Hefty bags.
The men weren’t hard to find. They’d all completed lengthy prison sentences for sex crimes. The state calls them “sexually violent predators,” men required not only to publicly register their whereabouts but also to participate in a court-ordered monitoring and treatment program meant to cure them of “behavior abnormalities” and safely integrate them back into society after they’ve done their penance. At the time of the roundup, most were living in boarding homes and halfway houses.
Jason Schoenfeld, who was staying at a Fort Worth halfway house at the time, made a frantic phone call to his friend John, a fellow veteran. John, who’s retired and old enough to be Schoenfeld’s father, met the 46-year-old Gulf War veteran while volunteering at the Fort Worth VA hospital. John taught Schoenfeld breathing techniques to calm his nerves during an exercise class he’d volunteered to lead at the VA; records show the VA gave Schoenfeld a 30 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder after his combat service. John eventually grew fond of Schoenfeld and wanted to help him, even after learning his new friend had served an 18-year prison sentence for aggravated sexual assault of a child.
John says he heard desperation in Schoenfeld’s voice as he asked whether John could come grab his stuff before it ended up in a dumpster. “It was clear he didn’t have anybody else,” John told me. He says Schoenfeld looked confused to the point of tears when John and his wife arrived at the halfway house. “We didn’t even know what city he was going to,” John says. Schoenfeld gave him two bulging garbage bags; John now stores them in his home.
Schoenfeld and the others were frisked, loaded onto vans and prison buses and driven hundreds of miles to Littlefield, a remote, sparsely populated corner of the Texas Panhandle, where guards shuffled them into the Bill W. Clayton Detention Center, a prison that had been empty for six years.
Once inside those old prison walls, the men surrendered their IDs, Social Security cards, birth certificates and credit cards, along with cash and coins. Guards dug through the Hefty bags, tossing out all sorts of personal items now considered contraband. They went from living in halfway houses that looked like motels to windowless cells with cinderblock walls, hard steel bunks and metal toilets. But officials at the detention center were adamant: This wasn’t a prison. They instructed the men to call their living quarters “rooms,” not prison cells.
Unlike at the halfway houses, the new inmates couldn’t come and go. It wasn’t clear when their sentences would end, if ever.
Two and a half years after the Texas Civil Commitment Center opened its doors, only five men have been released — four of them to medical facilities where they later died.
State officials claim Texas’ new civil commitment program is designed to rehabilitate the men. But their families and friends argue the state has simply stashed them in a for-profit prison on the outskirts of the state, far away from the support services they’ll need if there’s any hope of transitioning back into society — the supposed goal of the facility. Lawyers who represent them consider the state’s new program an unconstitutional extension of the prison sentences the men have already served.