Venturing far into the swamp lands of southern Florida, alligators lazily crawl through murky irrigation waterways and sugar cane lines the marshy fields. Further down the muddy road, old plantation flats border the homestead grounds.
Prior to the 60s the dwellings were used to house seasonal Caribbean sugar cane workers. Eventually, modern machinery replaced human laborers and the plantations deteriorated.
Today, plantation workers harvesting sugar cane are a memory of the past. The area is now known as Miracle Village, tucked-in miles away from the closest town, Pahokee.
The name Miracle Village is a reminder of a tranquil country retreat, but in 2009 the Christian non-profit organization — Mathew 25 Ministries — transformed the abandoned, rat-infested plantation into housing for sex offenders released from prison.
Last head count, according to Pat Powers, executive director of Miracle Village, the grounds housed 155 sex offenders.
It’s an even trade. The residents maintain the lawns and houses in return for the opportunity to live in a supportive community, minus ceaseless shame for being a registered sex offender.
When residents of Miracle Village are not busy repairing the historical buildings they are attending weekly therapy sessions.
The residents of Miracle Village are part of the community of their own volition. For some released sex offenders the village is their only option and for others it is a choice. No one is forced to live on the grounds.
Miracle Village helps resolve transition problems released prisoners are confronted with when they are indiscriminately labeled sex offenders.
There are many challenges associated with reestablishment for sex offenders newly released from incarceration. Finding housing is a significantly trying task because Florida law prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000feet of a school, playground or park.
A sex offender conviction can keep an offender from finding a place to live because landlords are inclined to reject tenants with a sex-related criminal record.
Denunciation of sex offenders has forced many released inmates into homelessness; camping under bridges or surviving in the backwoods.
Housing is not the only dilemma sex offenders confront, while struggling to fit in with society and support themselves.
Employment can be difficult because employers have access to the sex offender registry and most are hesitant about hiring sex offenders.
Even daily tasks can be intimidating for registered sex offenders.
The shadow of the past is a life sentence for sex offenders whether they are registered for having consensual sex as a minor, had child pornography in their possession or committed a deliberate sexual assault. Regardless of the degree of crime, sex offenders leave behind an unwelcome legacy after death because their name remains on the registry long after it doesn’t matter anymore.
David Woods, a current resident of Miracle Village recalls a routine trip to Walmart turning into harrowing experience. Woods noticed his picture displayed on the store’s bulletin board as he entered the building. Before Woods had a chance to finish his grocery shopping he was surrounded by police. Apparently, another female customer observed Woods profile and called authorities over what she interpreted as a strange look from Woods.
“Everywhere you go, you are harassed,” explains resident David Woods.
Matthew Richey, another resident sex offender is eternally listed on the registry for doing what millions of other red blooded American teens have done. When Richey was a minor himself, he engaged in sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Now Richey is a convicted sex offender because his girlfriend’s parents retaliated by filing charges against him.
“It doesn’t matter what the crime was, you are automatically called baby rapist… horrendous sex crimes and they all lump them together — there is no difference, they don’t care,” Richey says.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the purpose of the registry is “give the public access to information important to their ability to protect themselves and their families against sexual offenders.”
The state of Florida leads the way for making sex offender information available on the Internet. Since 1997 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement web-site has listed sex offender profiles. Today there are over 40,000 entries.
But is sex offender publicity really keeping the public any safer?
Is mass persecution helping sex offenders to become productive members of society?
Sandy Rozek, volunteer for Reform Sex Offenders Laws Inc. argues that “People should be punished but we have an issue that once they get out and their probation is over, once their punishment is over, the laws in place work against their rehabilitation.”
Rozek warns the restrictions and the public registry create a “sub-culture of people considered less than human. Re-entry is what research shows will keep the recidivism down.”