A minute ago it was an approaching rain squall that was distracting Pat Powers.
“We’d better get to the house if you don’t want to drown,” he says. But then something else catches his eye – a white saloon car turning off the highway. Reflexively he is alert to peril, like a rabbit watching a passing fox. In his trouser pocket, his phone begins to buzz.
Things work a bit differently here at Miracle Village, a collection of squat yellow bungalows deep in Florida’s sugar cane country south of Lake Okeechobee – because they have to. More than half the residents are convicted sex offenders, many of them recently released from prison and still on probation.
Like everyone else, Pat has just received a POP text from the office that monitors who comes in and out. It stands for “probation officer on property”. He spies a young man standing in the doorway of one of the homes and yells at him to get inside. “He is under house arrest,” he explains.
A “gated community” this may be, but to live here is not exactly a privilege. It’s a predicament. In Florida, as elsewhere in the US, sex offenders are not done when they leave prison. They are placed on a sex offenders’ registry which anyone can access online. Wherever they move, police distribute fliers alerting neighbours to their arrival.
More punitive are the restrictions on where they can live. In Florida, it can’t be within 1,000 feet of anywhere children might gather, be it a school, a playground, a park or even a bus stop. Those conditions are extremely hard to meet, and explain why the space under a freeway flyover was home to scores of sex offenders in Miami, because everywhere else was ruled out for them. And it’s also the reason for Miracle Village, founded in 2009 by an activist preacher named Richard Witherow and now bursting at the seams.
Mr Witherow, who has since died, was the leader of a small church called Matthew 25 Ministries and the author of a little-known book called The Modern Day Leper, which detailed the burden of registry and distance laws heaped upon sex offenders leaving prison. The solution came to him quickly: lepers need a colony so he and his number two in the church set about looking for a viable location. That was Pat Powers, 66, himself a former sex offender.
Not that finding the right spot was easy. But Powers recalls one day hearing a message from God. “A voice told me, ‘Go to Pahokee’,” he says, smiling. He had never heard of it. Instead of Pahokee, a once thriving but now threadbare town on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, a sequence of mishaps and road diversions led him a few miles east. Miracle Village, then called Pelican Lake, had been built in 1965 as housing for farm labourers. “No, God, this can’t be it,” he declared. “It’s just such a dump.”
Nearly four years later, the village has become a sanctuary that is unique, certainly in its size and longevity. Each of the 52 bungalows, set amid neatly mown lawns, holds two homes, some still occupied by the now retired cane workers. At the last count, 110 of the 200 residents are former sex offenders, among them only one woman.
There have been bumps in the road, not least the day Powers first approached the City Council in nearby Pahokee. “We were the plague. They wanted to hang us. They wanted to knock the crap out of us and they had to give us a police escort to leave.” In the end the village was approved. Whether that was a good thing depends on who you talk to.
For the men inside the village, it was. Mostly they express gratitude at being here, mixed with anger at the system. “It’s difficult when you do the amount of time they give you and you have always admitted what you did, and then you get out finally only to find out there are still more stipulations,” says Lee White, 31, taking a break from strimming weeds on the grounds of the village. He recently arrived after spending 13 years behind bars for attempted sexual battery with a minor under 12. Luis Santiago, 29, who was convicted of the same crime, says: “You do the crime, you do the time. Yet, I still have to face the internet for the rest of my life.”
Among the first to arrive was Matt Richey. Still only 23, he was turned in to the authorities by his mother when, aged 18, he had sex with a younger brother. He was in prison for two years but then struck a deal to move to Miracle Village to live on probation. Given the choice, he would move to Oklahoma where he has family but for now it’s out of the question. “If everything stays the way that they want it, I will be here for a very long time,” he observes wryly.
Yet in a way Matt may have found his niche. He is in training to become the assistant to another former sex offender, Chad Stoffel, the director of the village and right hand man to Powers. Between them they run the village. Out of every 20 who apply to move here, only one is generally accepted. No diagnosed paedophiles are accepted, or convicted child rapists. When an approved applicant leaves prison, Powers is there to pick them up, no matter where in Florida. They often help in court cases too. Last week Stoffel testified for a young man accused in a sex offence case. The court was the same one that had convicted him, and the judge too.
“It was an odd dynamic,” says Stoffel, who taught music at a private school in West Palm Beach when, at 29, he met an under-age boy while rehearsing for an amateur musical. They had sex and the boy’s father threatened to report him. He didn’t have to. Stoffel resigned and enrolled at a Tennessee retreat that offered to “cure” his homosexuality. When he realised that was hopeless, he confessed to the Florida authorities and was immediately charged.
His story shows another problem with the system, he says. “If I go and ask for help, all of a sudden I’ve incriminated myself. No one stood up and testified against me. Everything that was used against me was from my own confession.”
Not everyone in Pahokee has come to terms with the village. “I think it’s real bad,” mutters English Gaskew, 63, a retired cane worker. “We don’t need them, period. I would tell them to go, I would tell them that right now.” But the pastor of the First United Methodist Church, Patti Aupperlee, takes the opposite view. Two years ago she attended a service at the tiny church at Miracle Village and witnessed Stoffel singing. She was spellbound. Since then, he has taken over as music director of her church and others from the village have joined her congregation.
“You commit a crime, you do your time, and when you are released the assumption is you have paid your debt to society. But not with this group of folks,” she says. “There is no other crime that follows you for the rest of your life. You can kill a person and you get out of prison and you’re done. Our laws are not rational or even meaningful.”
Like everyone else at the village, Powers doesn’t hide that he did wrong. In his case it was young students when he was a sports coach. But he skips the details. “This isn’t about me any more. That’s in the past. I am talking about the future.” First, that means getting as many residents as possible back with their families. His broader, more difficult goal is reform of the sex registry laws he calls unconstitutional. That means changing the minds of politicians. “Give me your votes and I will make your families feel safe: I think that’s what’s really happening now. You’re supposed to be in a free society, but you’re not.”
And it’s not even about the rest of your life, Powers notes. “Even when sex offenders die, they will still be on the registry. I don’t know why they keep them on the registry, but they don’t take them off. Not here in Florida.”