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Can Castration Be a Solution for Sex Offenders?
Man Who Mutilated Himself in Jail Thinks So, but Debate on Its Effectiveness Continues in Va., Elsewhere

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 5, 2006; B01

James Jenkins wanted to end it. No more fantasies. No more molesting little girls. He knew he was the only one who could stop it; he was just waiting for the right time.

The right moment arrived one night nearly three years ago when he was alone in an Accomack County, Va., jail cell. He had spent five years in a Virginia prison for sexually molesting three young girls and another 2 1/2 years for violating his parole. The next morning, a prosecutor was going to ask a judge to commit him to a state facility for high-risk sex offenders. Jenkins could think of only one way out.

He asked a jail guard for a razor. He told the guard he wanted to look nice and cleanshaven for his court hearing the next day. The guard hesitated but handed Jenkins the blade. Jenkins walked to the shower in his cell. He bit the blade out of its plastic casing and stuffed an apple in his mouth to muffle his screams. Then he castrated himself and flushed his testicles down the jail cell toilet.

Jenkins, 63, doesn't flinch when he talks about it now. "Castration has done precisely what I wanted it to do," he said. "I have not had any sexual urges or desires in over two years. My mind is finally free of the deviant sexual fantasies I used to have about young girls."

He spoke with the clinical cool of a surgeon as he tried to explain his pedophilia during a rare interview in a guarded room of the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, the sex offender treatment center where Jenkins was sent. The Petersburg facility is part of a new way the state is trying to keep sex offenders off the streets: Identify the most dangerous before they are released from prison and ask a judge in civil court to commit them to a treatment facility even after they have completed their sentences.

Jenkins readily admits that the prospect of being confined indefinitely partly prompted his drastic action three years ago. But he also insists he did it to prevent himself from victimizing another child.

"I'm all for castration for certain sex offenders," he said. "I think it would do a lot to prevent recidivism and the amount of money we have to spend on treatment centers like the one I'm in."

The issue is less clear to lawmakers and the public.

High-profile pedophilia cases prompted a nationwide crackdown last year. And as such shows as NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" illustrate how big the problem is, public outrage has caused lawmakers in Virginia and other states to try to make castration part of the solution for high-risk sex offenders.

Eight states allow the use of drugs to castrate sex offenders, including California, Florida and Texas, where surgical castration is also an option. Castration, however, is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. In Florida, for instance, judges are required to order castration for certain repeat offenders.

Although many scientists and psychologists agree that castration can dramatically lower sexual drive, there is sharp disagreement about whether it is a cure-all. Virginia officials are not convinced.

At a hearing in Accomack last week -- the second since Jenkins was committed -- Circuit Court Judge Robert B. Cromwell Jr. said he was not ready to send Jenkins back into the community. But the judge said he was also not convinced by the state's contention that castration had done little to change Jenkins.

"There's got to be some point in time where people like Mr. Jenkins could be eligible for release," Cromwell said.

He said he would "seriously consider" Jenkins for conditional release when his case is reviewed again next year.

Cromwell applauded the state's efforts to exact tough punishment for sexual predators but said the civil commitment law, which Virginia began using three years ago, forces judges into territory typically reserved for psychologists and doctors.

Such cases, he said, place the courts at an unusual intersection between medicine and the law.

* * *

In surgical castration, the testes are removed through an incision in the scrotum. In chemical castration, drugs are injected to lower the testosterone level, which in turn reduces sex drive.

There is debate, however, over the effectiveness of castration. Although such drugs as Depo-Provera and Depo-Lupron can help control some sexual disorders, they may not control, for example, a violent serial rapist who targets adult women out of anger and a need for control. The drugs can also have serious side effects. And there is concern that castrated sex offenders might replenish their testosterone by injecting hormones purchased illegally or over the Internet.

This year, state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) floated a bill in the legislature that would have allowed sex offenders to choose to be surgically castrated in exchange for their freedom at the end of their prison sentences. Hanger withdrew the bill after questions arose about whether courts might deem castration cruel and unusual punishment. But he said the fact that sex offenders would volunteer for the procedure should allay such concerns. He hopes to introduce a revised version in the next session.

Jenkins supports Hanger's bill and said he is living proof that castration works. But experts who testified in Jenkins's hearing last week disagreed about its effectiveness.

Psychologists called by the state and Jenkins's attorney said Jenkins will be a pedophile for life. But they disagreed on whether castration, aging and sex offender treatment had reduced his sex drive enough to make him eligible for conditional release.

Mario J.P. Dennis, clinical director at the treatment center, said Jenkins had made marked progress but still needs to be confined for treatment.

"Castration does not completely erase sexual arousal or function," Dennis said. "It doesn't completely obliterate arousal, drive or the ability to commit a sex act."

Dennis Carpenter, a clinical psychologist called by the defense, disagreed. Studies have shown, he said, that castration sharply reduces the risk of repeat offenses. One Danish study suggested the rate of repeat offenses dropped from 80 percent to 2.3 percent after surgical castration.

Jenkins's "risk is low enough that he could be able to be treated in the community," Carpenter said.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Pamela A. Sargent vigorously argued that Jenkins is incurable and too dangerous to be released. "He is not ready," Sargent said. "To put him on conditional release is just too great a risk to the community."

Fred Berlin, director of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University and a leading expert on sex offenders, said that it's an unsavory choice between indefinite confinement and voluntary castration but that castration is an effective control for some offenders.

"I think it can be helpful," said Berlin, who testified for Jenkins in 2004. "I wouldn't want to say it's a guarantee or a panacea, but there's no doubt that in sex offenders, sexual interest is greatly diminished by castration."

* * *

For years, Jenkins struggled with overwhelming guilt, he said, but couldn't stop himself.

The fantasies used to run through him like a fever. At the Chincoteague water-slide park Jenkins operated in the 1980s, he couldn't keep his eyes off the bikini-clad girls, he said in the interview.

In those moments, Jenkins was the boy of summer, not the balding middle-aged man he had become. In his mind, he was still the homecoming king, the high school football star who married a cheerleader.

He later divorced but continued to think of himself as a good father and good neighbor. He was the guy all the parents trusted with their kids. But he was lonely.

"I was depressed, and I didn't have a lady friend at the time," Jenkins said.

Eventually, he found one. On Saturday nights, they'd drive around Chincoteague in his car, listening to R&B oldies. She liked the same music he did. Otis Redding. Muddy Waters. Al Green. Sometimes they'd sing their favorite song together:

"You're 16, you're beautiful and you're mine."

She wasn't even 16. She was 13, and he knew it when he molested her. But he said he didn't think of her as a girl. He just liked the feeling he got when he was with her.

"We would go out to pizza or the movies, and I felt like I was 16 years old again," Jenkins said. "There were times when I felt like she was my peer and I was her peer. It was confusing to me."

In 1989, the girl's parents reported Jenkins to Virginia authorities after her mother found letters Jenkins had written to the girl under her mattress. But the girl denied that there had been sexual contact. Authorities dropped the case.

In 1993, authorities charged Jenkins with molesting an 8-year-old girl and her 10-year-old sister in Chincoteague. Jenkins was convicted in October 1994.

He was released on parole in 1999 but two years later was behind bars again after a 10-year-old girl accused him of fondling her at a Fourth of July picnic. He couldn't stop the fantasies.

"I felt trapped, but it was my fault," Jenkins said. "It just really hit me then. I said, 'Man, you have got a problem , and nobody is going to fix it but you."

In prison, Jenkins read all about castration. He asked his prison therapist if the procedure was available but was told it was not an option. That's when he decided to do it himself.

"The day I decided to do it, I felt the need to pray for the strength and courage to do it," Jenkins said. "I prayed all day long, and a peace came over me like I'd never known before."

* * *

When he thinks about it now, he doesn't regret his decision to castrate himself. The thing he said he is most sorry about is what he did to those girls.

"I still feel guilty about my victims, and I wonder about the trauma I have caused them," Jenkins said.

But he still can't face it. When one of his victims testified in court last week, Jenkins stared into the distance while she recounted in a shaky voice the way he made her and her sister play "Mommy and Daddy."

"I remember him telling me and my sister, 'Well, you can't tell anybody because your mommy will get hurt if you do,' " she said.

Then there were the times Jenkins made her 10-year-old sister perform oral sex on him while he drove around in his van, and the time he touched them both while he gave them a bath.

All grown up and a woman now, she glanced briefly at Jenkins. Then she started to cry like a little girl.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company