Castration by knife may be the kindest cut after all

New US laws give sex criminals a hard choice: have compulsory injections or choose surgery, Tim Cornwell reports
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The Independent Online
Executions are so routine in Texas that they no longer count as news. The state, with a population of 15 million, has put 24 people to death this year, or about one a week. A new kind of grim retribution is threatened, however, in the months ahead: sex offenders having their testicles removed.

Officials in the state's Department of Criminal Justice are busy drawing up the paperwork for a new law, signed by Governor George Bush last month, allowing judges to offer state-subsidised castration to twice-convicted sex criminals. "There are some who want to do it, but we will have them sign certain documentation to ensure they know what they're doing," said a spokesman.

There is predictable scepticism over how many men, handed the binding contract, will actually sign their cojones away. But given the 136,581 people incarcerated in Texas as of Friday, and the promise of a talk-show bonanza, it can only be a matter of time before the first volunteer comes forward.

The Texas law is part of a national push in the US for castration, both surgical and chemical, voluntary and forced, for sex offenders. Florida, after a long fight, recently followed California with a law that requires the chemical castration of rapists, using powerful drugs to reduce testosterone. If the criminal agrees, he can be surgically castrated as an alternative to compulsory weekly injections and their frequently unpleasant side-effects - which begins to come close to coercion. Montana has a similar law and other states are considering one.

A sense of desperation over highly publicised sex crimes, particularly against children and often blamed on prison parolees, is helping to drive the trend. More than 65 per cent of molesters will attack again, figures show; the US, like Britain, is struggling with what to do with sex offenders due for release. Several local politicians, along with crime crusaders of all complexions, have seized on castration as the solution for the most despised section of the criminal population.

Surprisingly, for once, Europe seems to lead the way. American advocates cite surveys showing that among more than 700 repeat sex offenders castrated in Denmark, recidivism fell from between 17 and 50 per cent to just 2 per cent. The Czech Republic and Germany have adopted chemical castration programmes.

In Florida, a retired US Air Force lieutenant-colonel, Victor Cheney, says he has been "a voice in the wilderness for 15 years" on castration. The author of several books, most recently The Advantages of Castration, he claims it can prolong life expectancy in males by several years.

He also cites Matthew 19:12 in a pamphlet he sends to prisoners, hoping they will see the light. The message, according to his New Revised Standard Version, is: "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."

Surgical castration, or orchiectomy, is reported to be a fairly simple and cheap procedure, where the testicles are removed through a small slit in the scrotum under local anesthetic. But even without them, some psychiatrists argue, the lingering desire, and the urge to satisfy it, can remain.

Though it has been used in the US as elsewhere - on 397 prisoners in San Diego in the early Fifties, for example - the Supreme Court in 1985 ruled that orchiectomy was a cruel and unusual punishment. No one has yet been sentenced to chemical castration under the new laws, but when they are, civil liberties groups are geared up to challenge them as an invasion of bodily privacy.

The Texas law was inspired by Larry Don McQuay. On the eve of his release last year from a sentence for molesting a young boy, he publicly begged to be castrated. McQuay, 33, claimed to have molested hundreds of children, and even small animals, and promised in lurid terms that without castration he would offend again, and probably kill.

Amid a mass of publicity, including an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, the Texas Department of Corrections refused him the surgery. A local crime group, Justice for All, raised $3,500 to pay for it, and meanwhile the new law was rapidly proposed and passed. McQuay's case backfired, however, when prosecutors took his dramatic confessions at face value. Sick of his spreading fame, they charged him with assault on a nine- year-old girl in 1989, adducing his own letters sent from prison.

A psychiatrist and psychologist testified, said San Antonio District Attorney Steve Hilbig, that memories of pleasure can drive the desire to commit the crime. "If you wanted to remove the instrument that he used to commit the offence, you cut off his hands, not his testicles," he said. "The whole castration issue is a false issue."

Once again the wheels of justice in Texas turned smoothly: last month McQuay was sent back to prison for 20 years, and has not been heard from since.