“Are you a Cho’mo?”
It is the first question a clean-cut Caucasian male gets asked when arriving in prison. Felons, like sixth graders, must be quickly sorted by their peers into appropriate social groups. Without knee-jerk junior high labels, how did you know the jocks from the burnouts from the nerds from the skanks from the cheerleaders? And more precisely, those labels told you what assumptions and judgments to make about their characters.
Who cared about first investing the time and energy to understand the individual she truly was before labeling her a skank – subjecting her to years of ridicule and social banishment? In prison, like in school, books are always judged by their covers: Dirty White Boys, Mexicans or Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Asians, Muslims, and Cho’mos.
I’m not sure the age most of us experienced being hurtfully teased and judgmentally labeled in our youth, but we must have been young enough for a parent to try to thicken our skin with “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Well, try as I might, that rhyme never placated the social shame I suffered, regardless how tough my outer shell became. How did it work for you?
“Cho’mo” is prison slang for “child molester.” The label carries the same societal disgust regardless of which side of the bars you are on. And in prison hierarchy, Cho’mos are the lowest of the low. Murder someone – no worries; deal in drugs that decimate whole communities – who hasn’t; cook the company’s books stealing thousands of people’s hard earned retirement money – for being so smart, how were you dumb enough to get caught; view one on-line image classified as child pornography – child molester.
Now before you assume too much about where I’m going, remember I am speaking about labels and their assumptions. Bear with me before your “Onward Christian Soldier” shield comes up.
“Child molester” used to mean just that – someone who forced physical, and usually sexually, contact on a minor under the age of consent.
When you hear the word “child” do you naturally think of a six year old, or do you envision a seventeen year old? They’re both minors in the eyes of the law, but are they both children? Possibly the more accurate label should have been “minor molester,” but the former is much more salacious when reporting the event. Again, “child” conjures one image; “minor” another; and what if the word was “teenager?”
Alter the label and you’ll alter the perception. And does that alteration also change the assumptions about the guilty?
I’ve been wrestling with the term “Cho’mo” and its implication since my arrival at Oakdale. Unlike the “n word,” tossed around here by most African-American inmates to each other as much a term of defamation as one of affirmation, “Cho’mo” is only a term of denigration; an antiquated term that’s implications have transferred over to the more contemporary legal term “sex offender.” I might be classified a sex offender, but I am not a child molester. And yet, when you read “sex offender” do the assumptions of “child molester” flood your imagination? Do you assume a pocket full of candy, a nondescript van and an Amber Alert?
Have you picked up your judgmental and emotionally charged pitchforks, torches, or sticks and stones yet?
“Sex offender” is a huge net of a label which does captures a wide range of Internet-based sexual offenses. Most of these offenses center around child pornography. Though most of us have a general idea of what child pornography is, did you know that some experts classify the culturally iconic 1960’s Coppertone image of a dog pulling down a bronzed little girl’s bathing suit to reveal her tan line as child pornography? Also, some experts believe that hugging a child longer than thirty seconds or kissing her on the lips is child molestations – and that applies to the child’s parents and family members, not just to strangers. When was the last time you ran a stopwatch on a hug?
Don’t misunderstand me, child molesters do exist, and I am saddened, disturbed, and repulsed by their actions. I am not co convinced, however, that the sexual predator stigma assumed by the label “sex offender” is accurate when applied to all Internet actions or offenses.
Here are some of the situations, distilled down to their major points, which have landed some of the sex offenders at Oakdale FCI. I ask you, before you lift a stick of assumption and cast a stone of judgment, what label would you apply to these men after getting a clearer idea of their actions; and an idea how wide law enforcement, the federal government, can cast their net. Who is the child molester, the predator, the sex offender, the pervert, the voyeur, or maybe only someone just like you – a sinner?
Man #1: A married man with small children searches the Internet to find free children-themed movies to entertain his family. As he searches and downloads files, he discovers to his disgust that some of the benignly-titled files are actually child pornography. He shows these to his wife in the spirit of “can you believe this is coming in?” His wife is equally mortified. He then deletes them from his computer. Several months later the FBI shows up on his doorstep, arresting him for possession of child pornography – the files he had opened were encrypted with tracking data.
As a responsible parent he had opened the files to preview the content before showing them to his children. Simply because a file is titled “Little Mermaid” doesn’t mean it is an animated classic with singing fish. Even though he deleted all inappropriate and pornographic files, the fact that he had opened them made him guilty – regardless of not knowing it was child pornography in advance.
He went to trial to fight the charges and was sentenced to 17 years as a sex offender. As often happens, going to trial to fight the charges incurs a much longer sentence than taking the government’s plea of guilty deal in advance. Either way, the government never loses. Upon his release, he’ll have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Man #2: Legally blind from birth, a 60 year old man had software on his computer to search the Internet for free music to listen to and enjoy. Every day he opened the files the program found. Upon listening, if he liked it, he kept it; if he didn’t care for it, he deleted it; and if the opened file contained no sound, that file was deleted too.
One day, the FBI showed up at his door, arresting him for possession of child pornography. The man was shocked to learn he had been downloading and “viewing” (opening) child porn – as evidenced by files of photos (no sound) and videos (music he didn’t like) opened by his computer and still sitting in his computer’s “trash.”
This blind man, who has never seen anything in his life, is serving five years as a sex offender. [At his trial, some of the files were shown to the jury as evidence. And as the courtroom sat in shocked silence viewing the obscene material, this “guilty” man sat there in oblivious silence, still as unable to see as the day he was born.]
Man #3: A man of legal age was dating a 17 year old female, and it was no secret that their relationship was sexual. Her parents knew about the relationship and approved of the man. On occasion this man and his girlfriend would take explicit photos of themselves while having sex.
They, for whatever reason, decided to post the photos on the Internet. The girl’s parents find out about the posting and had the man arrested for production and distribution of child pornography. At 17 she is of consensual age to have sex; however, the consensual age for pornography is 18, so he is guilty. She bore no responsibility for her participation in the making of the photos because, being under 18, she, as the court stated, was not of an age to understand the implications of her actions. She was still a minor for pornography, though legally no longer a minor for consensual sex. He is serving his prison term as a sex offender. He was 19 at the time of his arrest.
Man #4: A professional, single, middle-aged man enjoyed going on Craig’s List to the adult (over 18 only) chat boards. He often posted listings looking for someone “18+” to explicitly chat with on the phone. (Adult chat boards are filled with these types of listing – and listings of people looking for much more than just that.)
Of the many responses he received, he struck up a chain of correspondences with a similarly-aged woman. Over time they learned more about each other’s interests and proclivities. Eventually she asked him if it would bother him if she was under 18 (under the age of consent). He said he wasn’t interested in someone underage, but wondered if she was looking for someone underage. One of the attractions of these kind of adult chat boards is that you can say anything or be anyone – “truth” is often fantasy, nothing more.
As the woman continued to blur the age of consent lines, she asked if he’d like to see an explicit photo, and asked to see one of him in return. He sent her a photo, and when he asked for hers in exchange, she never responded, and stopped communicating with him.
When the FBI showed up to arrest him, he learned that the woman he had been chatting with had actually been a male FBI officer. The man was charged with solicitation of a minor (though there was no minor, in truth), and is serving four years. He’ll have to register as a sex offender for ten years following his release.
Of the roughly estimated 600 sex offenders here at Oakdale, I know of less than a handful that are actually sentenced for being a “Cho’mo.” The rest, though child molester falls into the sex offender category, had no contact with a minor as part of their charge.
It is easy to make assumptions based on labels. And yes, some of those labels may prove true for a select few; however, more often the label does not accurately describe that truth as it applies to the majority labeled. How many dolphins must die in the tuna net before the net is modified to only capture tuna and zero dolphins?
The next time you read or hear of a sex offender in the news, or receive a card in the mail informing you that one is moving into your neighborhood, what will you think? What will you do? To what lengths would you go to perpetuate the label, or to what lengths will you go to understand the character of the actual person behind the label? Would you banish the sinner or accept the sinner in your church?
How are we taught as Christians to judge others, and to what severity should that judgment’s punishment be? If your private behavior was aired in public, how would you wish to be judged – or would you wish to be understood?
I’ll close with this parable from Jesus:
“but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning, He came again to the temple; all the people came to Him, and He sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?’ This they said to test Him. Jesus bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask Him, He stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more He bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before Him. Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again.’” John 8:1-11 (RSV)