Virginia legislators passed a law this year saying residents of a state-run psychiatric facility for sex offenders can be charged with a felony if they assault a worker there. But no such protection is afforded patients at the center, where dozens of incidents of abuse and neglect have been substantiated over the past two years.
The disparate treatment doesn't sit well with convicted sex offender William Dewey, who was roughed up at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation where he was sent in 2010. He is trying to press misdemeanor charges against a security guard who attacked him.
"It's a huge double-standard,'' said Dewey, who had spent eight years in prison for rape and three other sex crimes against a 12-year-old girl before being sent to the center. "If I would have done the same thing, I would have been charged with a felony and would have been taken to Piedmont Jail the same day.''
Mary Devoy, a critic of the state's sex offender laws who frequently appears before legislative committees, questioned the need to further expand the ever-widening scope of public officials protected by the threat of felony prosecution.
"I just don't believe these staffers deserve the same protection as a judge or law enforcement officer,'' she said. "It's going to be everybody pretty soon.''
Even so, she said she would not have opposed the legislation had it applied to all psychiatric facilities rather than singling out the one for sex offenders.
Gov. Bob McDonnell requested the legislation.
His spokesman, Tucker Martin, said the governor thought it was important to provide employees of the Burkeville facility the same protection given to correctional officers in the state's prisons. The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which runs the center, says that in 2012, there were 61 "documented aggressive acts'' toward workers - 26 resulting in staffer injuries - but that no patient has been charged with a felony since the law took effect July 1.
In 2011 and 2012, there also were 42 incidents leading to 56 findings of abuse and neglect by employees at the center where more than 300 patients are being indefinitely held at the center under Virginia's law allowing "civil commitment'' of sexually violent offenders.
Meghan McGuire, spokeswoman for the department, said in an email that "a founded case could stem simply from the possibility that something bad could have happened, and not that it actually did,'' and the majority of incidents involved no actual harm.
That was not the case for Dewey, 35, who required medical attention after a confrontation with the center's "emergency response team.''
Dewey has been one of the most outspoken critics of conditions at the center, which he has claimed is run more like a prison that a psychiatric facility. Courts have ruled that civil commitment is constitutional as long as detention is for therapy, not for additional punishment. In 2011, Dewey and another patient staged a rooftop protest and later barricaded themselves in a closet in attempts to get officials to listen to their concerns.
In June, Dewey complained again after a search by officials left his room in disarray. Dewey admits cursing at a member of the emergency response team, which provides security, but accounts about what happened next differ. Dewey claims the security guard shoved him, others jumped in and he was wrestled to the ground and choked nearly unconscious. The employee claimed Dewey initiated the contact by brushing against his shoulder. Other guards corroborated his story.
Dewey filed a complaint, which was dismissed after an investigator at the center found no proof of excessive force. Dewey appealed and the center's human rights advocate disagreed with the findings, citing interviews with two employees who viewed security camera footage of the incident and said Dewey was not physically aggressive. The footage was taped over before the investigation was begun.
The human rights advocate ruled that the incident amounted to abuse by the staff and Dewey's complaint was changed from "unsubstantiated'' to "substantiated.''
In a memo to Dewey, center director Kimberly Runion pledged to provide additional training for staff and develop a policy on handcuffing behind the back. That was not enough to satisfy Dewey, who has had two other substantiated but less serious abuse and neglect complaints and said he is frustrated that nothing ever changes. The same staff members cited for abuse or neglect never seem to miss a day of work, let alone lose their jobs, he said.
"The same people are walking around here in charge,'' he said. "The abuse just keeps continuing to happen and they keep turning their heads to it.''
Statistics provided by the department paint a different picture. McGuire said two violators were fired and one was forced to resign in 2011, but she provided no details. There were no firings last year, but one employee was suspended without pay for five days and 14 others received lesser disciplinary actions, including extended probationary periods and performance improvement plans.
Unhappy that the employee who shoved him remained in his position, Dewey wrote a letter to the chief magistrate in nearby Dinwiddie in July asking to press charges. Dewey got no reply until after The Associated Press contacted the magistrate in September. On Sept. 18, he received a letter from Chief Magistrate Victor Harrison III stating that he planned to conduct a probable cause hearing at the center. The hearing was conducted last week and Dewey said the magistrate told him afterward that he needed a few days to review the evidence before deciding whether charges should be filed.
"He told me there's much more to this than he had anticipated and he's going to have to go back and review policies and stuff,'' Dewey said after the hearing, where he acted out the June incident for the magistrate. "He came in here with a law book and left with that and three manila folders packed slam full of information.''
Harrison declined to comment on the hearing.
Dewey said he took the matter to the magistrate because he's fed up with the status quo and his unconventional approaches haven't worked.
"How many times do you have to be abused before there's a resolution? That's what brought me to this point,'' he said.