In January of 2013, American photographer Sofia Valiente took residency at Miracle Village, an isolated community that houses convicted sex offenders in the US state of Florida.
For those living in Miracle Village, re-entering society is extremely difficult. They are publicly defined by their mistakes, stripped of emotional acceptance and living in shared quarters of mutual sufferance. For many of them this will be the rest of their life, living in a state of perpetual punishment.
As soon as someone is convicted of a sex crime, they are registered, labelled and tarred by the brush of every offender that came before them. We don't expect rehabilitation and don't really want it – we just want them to go away. As far away as possible.
Valiente began with regular visits to Miracle Village and eventually came to spend five weeks living there. In December, she returned for six weeks to document its residents. What she found was a tranquil community and strong relationships forged through isolation from the rest of the world. Valiente gained the community's trust and, through her candid portraits, conveys how the most ostracised people in Western society live.
VICE: Hi Sofia. Can you give me a walk-through of your approach? What were your preconceptions?
Sofia Valiente: It was a delicate process. I had no idea what to expect and assumed the worst. Any time a sex offender is mentioned in the news there is that general fear. But, after speaking with some of the residents, I saw that they weren't monsters. They weren't different from you and I, which compelled me to make the work.
I knew there were cases that could potentially be serious, so I always had an open mind when approaching each individual. I soon found out that they were more afraid of being with me alone than I was with them, though.
How did you get access to Miracle Village?
A friend of mine who works at the local newspaper in the town where Miracle Village is told me about the community. I was overcome with curiosity and, one day, just decided to drive there. I came to them with the idea of doing the project and asked each person one by one. They almost always said yes.
What was the nature of their crimes?
It varied a lot. There were young guys who were convicted for being in consensual teenage relationships – one guy was 18 and his girlfriend 16. Then there was someone convicted of possessing child pornography, which is illegal regardless of how the file ends up on the person's computer. There were some men that had physically molested a minor, although no one in the village was a "diagnosed" paedophile – they don't accept serial rapists, paedophiles or people that have committed violent crimes.
What was the strangest case?
The most absurd case was the man who urinated in public. A child had seen him and her mother called in the police.
How does he process that?
When I talk to him, I ask, "Aren't you angry?" But he's confident and doesn't care what people think. He just lets it be. He is very involved with the Methodist church in the town of Pahokee – he's their chef, attends all the bible studies and has pretty much found a place there. He used to drink a lot before and was drunk when he was caught urinating in public. But the experience of going to prison and being convicted made him find a new purpose.
There were a few cases like that that didn't make any sense. The story of the only woman there, Rose, really affected me. She came from an abusive background and was very poor. She lived in trailers and worked at Taco Bell. Her husband used to beat and rape her and it's something she can barely talk about, even with me. She was trying to leave and he told her she was never gonna take the kids. He made accusations and, in these circumstance, there is no proof required.
She hasn't seen her children since that time. She can barely write and had to ask one other trusted women in the village to write the letter for her, pleading her case. She simply wasn't able to defend herself. This made me really sad and I think about it a lot. It's the worst thing that could happen to a woman, to take away her children.
That's a tragic story.
Here's a diary entry I wrote about Rose when I was in the village:
Then I went and saw Rose...to ask her to write something. She always avoids me, hates that I take pictures of her. But I wanted her to write it from her own words what happened. I want to defend her, I believe in her.
She was putting me off...and I lost it. I told her, "I'm so tired of this. I'm not like everyone else that has come here, there's things I've got to say. I would never hurt you."
She said, "Honey... It's not about you. I just can't talk about this stuff... I just block it out because I just can't... my uncle, my brother, my husband they all raped me and I hate talking about it and I won't. I love you, though."
I feel stupid, selfish... why didn't I think that of her...there are things I don't understand.
Is the village as tranquil as it looks?
Absolutely. The thing about the village is that they all share a label. There really is no hierarchy like in the rest of society. Something happens to a man when his ego is taken away. Everything is at face value in the village.
In stripping all ego and purpose, with no real chance of society giving it back, are these people just existing? Do they see themselves as solely defined by their mistakes?
They don't have the option to have an ego. In our society we are defined by our jobs, where we live and what we look like. These things don't exist in the village. There is no pretending, even if they wanted to. And so there is this serene environment where they are accepted among each other, without the judgment the rest of the world has already cast on them. The village is a huge support system – they all count on each other.
Do you think they want to reintegrate into society?
I imagine being acknowledged as human beings with stories would be massive for them. They really respected the fact that I was out there, taking the time to listen to what they have to say. Few people ever do.
How do they fill their days?
They each carry out their days differently. Some manage to get a job – many of the young guys do hands-on work around the properties. But they'd like to eventually move on. Many of them look forward to getting off probation, when there'll be less restrictions on them.
What's the likelihood of that happening?
It's tough, because they come to realise that their restrictions aren't just physical. One man in my book spent a lot of time going to this one bar to try and meet someone. He hit it off with one of the waitresses and she agreed to a date. He told her about his conviction and she quit her job soon after and changed her phone number.
Nobody wants to take that chance.
I guess I can sort of understand that reaction. As soon as you hear the words "convicted sex offender", you think the worst.
Do you think social attitudes surrounding sex offenders are ever likely to change?
Yes, they've got to. Especially when it comes to dealing with the younger guys who made mistakes when downloading files, because it's a life sentence. They shouldn't have to suffer their entire lives, especially after serving their time.
Miracle Village is a book produced and published by Benetton's communication research centre, Fabrica.
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