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Making Headlines

The criminal legal system is massively punitive toward people who commit sex offenses. How we treat them jeopardizes their health and safety — and our own.


The death threats started almost immediately. On April 3, 2020, The New York Post published the story of our case under an impossibly salacious headline: “Child rapist ordered released to keep him safe from coronavirus.” The article was no better, describing the underlying crime in vivid detail while underplaying how its subject’s multiple, severe medical issues made him vulnerable to COVID, and that the sentence being served was not actually for the crime itself, but rather for so-called “technical” violations of probation. The Post had apparently noticed earlier articles in The Appeal and The Boston Globe — which had both rightly emphasized the obvious injustice and life-threatening danger at the heart of the case — and decided to take the story in another direction. It was that version of the story that spread around the world, from Peru to Brazil to Italy.

In the aftermath, the two of us, the client and his lawyer, were both attacked and threatened. Our hope in sharing what we went through during those early days of the pandemic is to shed some light on how attempting to attain a measure of simple justice can be punishing, daunting, even life-altering. How so many trapped in our system of mass caging seldom get the attention our case did. How even when attention is given, it can become its own form of punishment. And how our laws, practices, and institutions are massively punitive toward people who commit sex offenses. All of this is by design, and largely for political reasons. Any perception of leniency, or even mere humanity, toward someone our society deems repugnant becomes a liability.

This is not an overstatement. The nation witnessed the ugliness of this reality last month, as one United States senator after another sought to weaponize a handful of cherrypicked child-pornography cases against Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee. The chief complaint of Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and others, it seems, was that Judge Jackson, like most federal judges, wrestled with how to thoughtfully sentence what is perhaps society’s most-hated class of defendants; that she listened to mitigating evidence and tempered reflexive retribution; that she recognized their humanity and potential for growth and change. She also centered the experience of survivors and showed her understanding of the trauma inflicted by childhood sexual assault.

But the senators’ line of attack shows exactly why it is not easy to impose well-considered sentences in these cases; Judge Jackson showed genuine courage in doing so. The cruel and cynical spectacle during her confirmation hearing should make us all look inward and aspire to her example.

At the outset of our ordeal, one of us, David, an attorney for the public defender agency in Boston, had repeatedly filed motions to secure the release of the other, Glenn Christie, one of his clients, who was at heightened risk of contracting COVID. Specifically, we had filed a motion for his release in the state supreme court on March 17, 2020, which was denied the next day; a second motion in the state superior court on the same day the prior motion was denied, which was denied five days later; and a motion to renew the original motion in the state supreme court filed the day after that denial, which was then reported to the full court, which issued a groundbreaking opinion 24 hours after oral argument granting a new hearing, which resulted in Glenn’s release two days later — the same day the Post published its article. Harassment and death threats on Twitter were the reward for fighting, and winning, for a client whose health was already compromised.

Glenn, the coauthor here, was held at the first detention facility in Massachusetts with a confirmed COVID outbreak as the virus entered his dormitory and killed multiple people. Every day in custody during a COVID outbreak is terrifying — incarcerated people were left completely in the dark about what was happening and the facility was on the verge of panic. As the outbreak started, in the very first days of the pandemic almost exactly two years ago, the prison behaved in ways that would be unimaginable today. One correctional officer said people with symptoms would not get tested; a nurse told a man with a temperature of 100.7 degrees to lie down and take Tylenol; some guards refused to wear masks; a sick man working in food service was not diagnosed for days; no special sanitizing or segregation was done; temperatures were not checked without symptoms, but there was no census for symptoms; receipt of medication required standing in a 50-person line — three times per day, with no masks and no social distancing — placing the most vulnerable people at the greatest risk. In a time of uncertainty and ignorance, the first outbreak was the most dangerous.

And Glenn was among the most vulnerable. Although he walked into prison, he eventually became reliant on a wheelchair due to the severe, months-long medical neglect of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and its failure to treat a rapid narrowing of his spinal column. When the pandemic began, he was also in the process of testing for a potential recurrence of thyroid cancer. Were partial paralysis and cancer not enough, Glenn also suffers from three serious pulmonary conditions. Of course, COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the lungs. His facility, the so-called Massachusetts Treatment Center, was anything but. Despite its name, the treatment center is not a clinical environment, but a carceral one. It was not until after Glenn’s release, as he entered quarantine and awaited the spinal surgery he so desperately needed, that he saw The New York Post headline and the threats that followed.

Public attention was meant to help. The articles in The Appeal and The Boston Globe were by design; we were desperate. And the case did get people’s attention, resulting in a state supreme court decision that both authorized Glenn’s release and helped many other people incarcerated in Massachusetts win theirs. But our publicity plan had both worked and backfired: Glenn was a free man, but now his name and face — and the details of his conviction — will live on the internet forever. That is partly why we are writing this essay: If the Internet wants Glenn’s story, it should have all of it.

The criminal legal system determined that Glenn was in violation of his probation for three reasons. First, he admittedly missed a meeting with his probation officer. But he’d only missed the meeting because, two days earlier, he had been at the hospital overnight and was still too sick to walk. He even sent his husband to relay the message and called his probation officer twice and left voicemails to explain his absence. He had medical records to prove the hospital stay; he had screenshots to prove the phone calls — he was still found in violation. Next, his GPS device broke for no fault of his own on a Saturday night. Because he could not reach the weekend replacement site on Sunday evening due to a massive, 9-alarm fire that had raged for seven hours and shut down public transit, he got it fixed first thing Monday morning — he was still found in violation. Finally, he was briefly suspended from a sex offender treatment program; but he was immediately reinstated once he paid the fees he owed and he’d been attending a second, unordered sex offender treatment program all along — he was still found in violation. These constitute the sum of the “offenses” that led the state to reincarcerate Glenn for not complying with his conditions of probation.

When someone is on probation, there are generally two ways they can be found in violation: through arrest by law enforcement for a new alleged violation of the law, or through their probation officer deeming them in violation of the terms of their probation — so-called technical violations. Of course, Glenn had not actually done either. It cannot be a violation of probation to be too sick to meet your supervising officer. It would seem bad policy, especially during a pandemic, to order sick people to attend in-person probation meetings. But Glenn had the misfortune to be supervised by a probation officer who seemed determined to return him to prison. That is a power these amorphous technical violations confer — POs can violate someone for any reason that they deem in contravention of the terms of probation. Their whim is given the force of law. And the court will generally acquiesce to whatever the PO says. In Glenn’s case, for these three supposed violations, a Massachusetts judge sentenced him to serve two years in state prison — as it happens, just the sentence his PO requested.

Before the pandemic started, multiple judges had denied repeated requests to stay that sentence. One of those denials went out of its way, much like The New York Post, to provide a vivid description of the underlying crime for which Glenn had already served the sentence imposed, while omitting the tenuous facts supporting the violations for which he was actually in custody. Another judge took three months from filing to decision to issue a denial all of two sentences long — one and a half months per sentence. This is the casual cruelty of the criminal legal system. The truly “mass” nature of incarceration ensures that no individual case gets the attention it deserves, from either the judiciary, prosecution, defense, or the public. The volume of cases inures the system, and the people both inside and outside of it, to the harm inflicted in each individual case. Glenn’s case should have been a scandal long before the pandemic — he served one year in state prison and never violated his probation. But until the pandemic, no one cared. Either about Glenn or the many people like him who will never make headlines.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently noted, that apathy is especially acute in cases involving sex offenses, where there is often little genuine consideration given to the defendant or his circumstances. Our system is massively punitive toward people who commit sex offenses. Between lengthy prison sentences, onerous probation, registries, residency restrictions, and much more, the criminal legal system punishes people convicted of sex offenses in a way and to a degree that is counterproductive to the goal of public safety. Don’t take it from us. As the Justice Department has put it: “Increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.” In fact, lengthy sentences can actually increase crime. Glenn’s case demonstrates how this might happen. He was seeing three mental health providers, had reliable housing, and received quality care for his myriad health issues. Locking him up destabilized his entire life for no good reason. Prison did not help him in any way; it took him out of treatment and cost him his ability to walk.

But in the context of sex offenses, prosecutors and judges constantly rely on punitive intuition that is (at best) empirically baseless or (at worst) provably false. This unempirical dynamic is persistent, always counseling in favor of more criminalization and more incarceration. Saying things that are empirically true — that perpetrators of abuse are often victims themselves, that people convicted of sex offenses have the lowest rate of recidivism of all offenders, that registries don’t work, that residency restrictions either serve no purpose or increase recidivism — can seem downright scandalous. The nature of the crime is all that matters.

Unlike sentencing practices in the rest of the world, America’s retributive impulse is so strong that we actually undermine public safety to indulge it. Our punitive response to unspeakable forms of harm may be cathartic, but, in the words of Amanda Alexander and Danielle Sered, the system “rarely heals anyone.” It only creates more violence.

It took a once-in-a-generation pandemic for Glenn’s case to get a modicum of attention and for him to secure the release to which he was entitled. But even when his case got public attention, it elicited a perfectly backwards reaction: outrage that a sex offender would be released to spare him from COVID. The Post article quickly spread through Glenn’s social circle on Facebook. He lost friends; his mother’s best friend, a woman who had been like a mother to him his entire life, cut off all contact. He eventually had to delete all of his social media accounts. Glenn had to sacrifice his digital life — Googling him now is all articles about his crimes — so that his actual life might be spared.

A rapidly growing outbreak of a deadly, infectious disease in a facility like the Massachusetts Treatment Center, which primarily houses people convicted of sex offenses, is perhaps a perfect test of our empathy and collective humanity. They are, for many, among the most detested members of our society. But they are members of our society. And at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, they were left to suffer and die. Five men died in that outbreak. Discretionary release should not have been reserved only for extraordinary cases like Glenn’s.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique event in that it touched both lawyer and client. In Massachusetts, teams of lawyers pushed for both mass and one-by-one decarceration while adjusting to the effect of the pandemic in their own lives. Cases became causes, as every motion for release was now a matter of life or death. Our case together was no different. As one of us, David, began working remotely, he was unable to answer calls to his office. To communicate with each other, one had to leave long voicemails on his lawyer’s office line, and the lawyer responded through the prison email system, causing a 24-hour lag time in our communications. The panic in Glenn’s voice rose every day:

March 16th: “Just the mental anguish that it’s causing is really starting to get to me.”

March 19th: “If god forbid I get this virus with all of my other health issues, yeah it will probably kill me.”

March 20th: “It is on the verge of panic in here.”

March 23rd: “I’m actually very frightened right now and the mental environment is declining rapidly.

When Glenn eventually sent an email, he resorted to intentional misspellings to try to avoid censorship of our no-longer-confidential communications — after speaking to the reporter at The Boston Globe, he feared retaliation for his efforts to publicize what was happening during the outbreak at his prison.

His fears were well founded. Within 24 hours, his area of the dormitory was shaken down and searched. A few days later, the superintendent of the treatment center pulled Glenn aside and told him to “stop telling lies.” And when the judge ordered Glenn’s release on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, administrators at the treatment center refused to release him. Instead, they moved Glenn into the facility’s general population — during an active outbreak. The guards kept telling him they had not received his discharge paperwork, even though the court clerk had told his attorney the papers had been sent and received. We feared he might be held over the weekend. His niece waited in the parking lot for him for eight hours before his release late in the evening. And that day-long stay in general population is probably what resulted in Glenn contracting COVID on his way out the door. Released due to his vulnerability to COVID, he was soon hospitalized and continues to suffer lingering long-haul symptoms. Thankfully, he received quality medical care at a hospital that he never would have gotten in custody.

Once released, Glenn did everything that was demanded of him by the criminal legal system. He went back into sex offender treatment. When a new judge ordered that a GPS device could be attached to him at his home in Western Massachusetts, his probation officer all but ignored the judge’s order and threatened to violate him again if he did not find a way to drive to Boston. It took a second hearing and a second order to get the probation officer to follow the judge’s instructions. She remained determined to return him to custody.

But we still had to fight his appeal. His sentence had only been stayed — or in laymen’s terms, paused — while his appeal from the probation violation was pending. And on September 1, 2021, somehow, incredibly … impossibly, we lost. The missed meeting? The judge “was not required to credit the defendant’s excuse” that he’d been in the hospital two days before — even though he had discharge paperwork to prove it, his PO did not dispute it, and the prosecution on appeal had never suggested otherwise. His broken GPS device? It was “within the judge’s discretion” to find a violation — the court frankly never explained how or why, and it remains a mystery to us. The treatment suspension? Again, it was “within the judge’s discretion” to find a violation — the court did not consider the immediacy of his reinstatement or that he was undergoing a second course of treatment as well.

As in all sex offense cases, the crime was apparently all that mattered. The violations were affirmed. Even though Glenn had been a free man since April 2020, a court date was scheduled to return him to custody. And that loss was the last emotional straw for one of us, who had to leave his position at the public defender’s office shortly afterwards.

Remarkably, this story has a happy ending — if you can call spending one baseless year in prison, temporarily losing the ability to walk, and contracting long-haul COVID a “happy” result. After losing, we filed a last-ditch motion in the superior court to have Glenn’s sentence revised to the 356 days he had already served. By this time, Glenn had been at liberty for 18 months and in perfect compliance with release conditions. For this reason, and this reason alone, the prosecution assented to the motion. After fighting multiple motions in the superior court, an appeal to the state supreme court, and a second appeal to the intermediate appellate court, the prosecution agreed to let Glenn remain a free man. The two-year anniversary of his release just passed.

Despite the exceptional nature of Glenn’s circumstances, the system’s treatment of his case was exceptionally unexceptional — the draconian punishment, lengthy delays, and casual cruelty. Without the intervention of the pandemic, Glenn’s was a lost cause. Thousands of people are crushed by the criminal legal system every day without ever making headlines. Glenn was nearly one of them. We are numb to this injustice because it’s common. Mass incarceration must be met by mass outrage.

The criminal legal system tried its best to destroy a life, but it thankfully failed. A sensationalist headline added insult to very serious injuries, but today Glenn is healthy and resilient. Hopefully, anyone who sees that Post headline will also see this one — and read the full story of a man who lost so much only because he fought for his freedom and won.

Image: Utsav Srestha/Unsplash