Inside the Florida Trailer Park for Convicted Sex Offenders
A new film shines light on one of the few places in America intended for sex criminals.
Image courtesy of The Film Sales Company. Photo by Lasse Barkfors
Jamie Turner ruined his life when he was 22 years old. He was looking for attention by responding to an older woman seeking sex on Craigslist, but the poster, who was supposedly 30, said she wanted to bring her teenage daughter in the mix. The woman was persistent, Turner later claimed in counseling—she kept pushing.
When Turner eventually showed up at what he thought was the woman's house, he was cuffed by undercover cops To Catch a Predator style.
Once he was released from prison, life didn't get much better for Turner. In Florida, as in many states, sex offenders typically aren't allowed to live near places where children congregate. In fact, it's so hard to find a place that isn't close to a school, a park, a playground, or a daycare center that parole officers in Miami have been known to drop people off under a bridge for lack of better options. (And even then, they were in apparent violation of the law.) Once Turner was close to being released, a prison employee helped him check various addresses to see where he could go.
"She checked my father's address and it was a perfect bubble of awesomeness," Turner, who's now 27, told VICE. "But a real asshole of a probation officer rejected it and said there was a community pool there. And I couldn't go to my mom's because she lives within 700 feet of a playground."
Instead, he ended up booking a room at a "real shit-hole" of a hotel where he said the owners charged sex criminals weekly rates to live three-to-a-room. But the day before his release, that spot was given to someone else. Turner panicked, because he heard that if you're a sex offender and don't have a permanent address when your sentence is up, you get sent directly to county jail.
Luckily for Turner, he snagged one of the coveted 120 spots at Palace Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg, where he became a subject of a new documentary called Pervert Park. The Sundance award-winning film, which recently opened in New York, is a study of one of the few places in America intended to exclusively house sex offenders. It offers a series of unflinching portraits of people who do terrible things and somehow have to live with their pasts.
Scandinavian filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors first read about Palace in a Danish newspaper, and got the sense it was a self-contained, almost communal place where residents provided services for one another and rarely interacted with the outside world. When they first visited in 2010, they realized that, in reality, Palace is the home of Florida Justice Transitions, a program designed to help offenders reintegrate into a society that wants them to disappear forever.
Even though it wasn't what they expected, the couple started filming anyway, though at first, they were too terrified to leave each other's sides while doing so. As one might imagine, some of what they heard was downright terrifying. For instance, the film opens with a shaking, apparently drugged-up man describing the time he was sexually rejected and then reacted by driving to Mexico, abducting a child, and raping her in the desert.
"I made sure that we were sitting between him and the door and not the opposite." Frida told me.
But it was important for her to start off the film with the most disturbing interview possible, so that the audience wouldn't feel like the abuse was being minimized. This was also strategic from a basic storytelling perspective.
"We wanted the film to feel how we felt when we first came into the park," Lasse told me. "We were scared when we first came here and we learned slowly about this and we wanted to make the same journey for the viewer."
However, Pervert Park does serve to at least partially humanize people we might typically consider soulless monsters. Some are shown to be victims themselves, like William Fuery, the park's maintenance man. He says he grew up getting fondled by his babysitter and got a girl pregnant when he was a teen. After deciding to man up and join the Navy, Fuery ran into trouble again when his family car broke down on a trip to Chicago. While he was getting help, a drunk driver killed his wife and one-year-old son. Later, when he was with a new woman, her daughter had a sleepover. He was in bed smoking a joint and masturbating to pornography, he says, when a young girl walked in the room. She told her parents what happened and they insisted that he molested her, even though the girl said he did not, according to Fuery.
He got five years probation, but then ended up going to prison for dirty urine.
A more complicated example is that of Tracy Lynn Hutchinson, who says she was raped by her father and his friends growing up, and went on to have a sexual relationship with him as an adult. Later, she met a man online who said he would send her money if she had sex with her eight-year-old son. Initially, Hutchinson says, she resisted, before eventually committing the crime. Given her experience with incest, it's unclear if she understood how wrong that was at the time she did it, though. And while the park has an in-house counselor, Hutchinson tells the filmmakers this is the first time she's truly confessed her whole story.
Suffice it to say the subject matter is far from light, but there is something fascinating about watching people say things that are borderline unspeakable on camera—and through tears. Maybe it's just misery porn. But it's also uniquely confusing and even surreal to feel empathy for people who have been convicted of harming a child. And the larger point to the film is asking how much more America need to punish people who have already served prison time, particularly the ones who seem to display genuine remorse. As the number of sex offenders in Florida has more than doubled in the past decade, the question of what to do with them is even more important than when the film began production.
Still, Frida maintains that she and her partner did not set out to make an "activist" film. "If people see this and think that we should treat these people better, that's great," she said. "If not, then fine. We just wanted people to see the other side."
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