On a recent summer day, the sun poured into a large open room where 30 men sat in a circle singing “Happy Birthday” to someone in their group. Afterward, they meditated silently, sending healing thoughts to people in pain. Then they discussed “Something About Amelia,” a movie about incest.

“What really affected me was when Amelia talked about what happened, how she knew her dad was wrong,” said one man. “I felt anger flash at myself because of myself. I would like to let my victims know that they are not at fault at any time, that I carry with me the vision of their hurt every day.”

As part of an intensive sex offender rehabilitation program in its third year at Maine Correctional Center in Windham, these men who are convicted child molesters, rapists and pedophiles spend much of their day talking about victims.

“How many of you denied your crime the first time it came out?” asked Barbara Schwartz, director of the program. About half the men raised a hand in answer to her question.

“How many of you admitted right away?” The other half raised their hands.

Schwartz nodded. “How many of your families were in denial?” Nearly all raised their hands. “How many are still in denial?” About a third kept their hands in the air.

Such questions are the bedrock of R.U.L.E., which stands for the four principles that guide the four-year program. As the men move through one year of orientation, two years of nearly round-the-clock therapy and a fourth year of transitional work, their education focuses on “responsibility” for the impact of their behavior toward victims and others, “understanding” how their actions led them to prison in the first place, “learning” new patterns of behavior, and having the “experience” of practicing new skills for handling stress and building self-esteem.

Far more direct is the overall goal of the program: No more victims. The words are the official mantra of these prisoners. The same line is written boldly above the door through which they someday will pass to freedom.

“They do the hardest work that anyone is asked to do in treatment,” said Schwartz, a tough-minded leader who has more than 30 years’ experience working with sex offenders nationally. “They spend all day every day talking about their most deviant sexual thoughts and examine every issue they’ve ever had.”

Conversations and confrontations often lead these prisoners to tears – for their victims, for themselves, for one another. They pass each other tissues, offer a pat on the back, or simply lower their heads in recognition.

Scott Burnheimer, superintendent at MCC, said he also has noticed an outward “turnaround” in the prisoners. “Four or five months into the program, one by one you see the change in the way they present themselves,” he said. They are neater, stand up straighter, give eye contact, listen.

A new point of view

R.U.L.E. is housed in a complex of cottages that were once the women’s section of the prison but, when the program eventually reaches full enrollment, will be home to as many as 100 sex offenders in varying stages of the process: preparing for, participating in or making the transition out of the program. All of the participants are men; the two women sex offenders at MCC receive individual and group counseling and live in a separate unit, said Burnheimer.

Within the last month, the program’s first 17 “graduates” received certificates for completing the intensive therapy and moved on to the next in-house phase. Their spots were filled quickly. Among the additional 300 or so other incarcerated sex offenders throughout Maine, some are waiting for admission to the program. Others have no interest in or intention of participating.

Some come into the program hopefully and willingly. Others are resentful. They can decide to drop out after six months, but turning down rehabilitation is seen as noncompliant behavior and could result in the loss of benefits, such as working for pay in prison jobs. It won’t, however, affect the timing of their release.

So far, not one participant at MCC has left after six months, and many of those undergoing the treatment say that R.U.L.E. has changed their lives and their points of view.

When George Roberts of Biddeford heard about the program a few years ago, he was at Maine State Prison where he had his own room with a TV. His first impulse was to crumple the sign-up sheet and toss it into the trash.

“I’d heard it all before,” said Roberts, who is serving his third jail sentence. At 42, he has spent about half his life behind bars, once for burglary, twice for rape.

But something about the information session caught Roberts’ attention. “Today is your lucky day,” speaker Tim App told the inmates, all of whom had been chosen for the program. “You’ve won the lottery.”

App is director of operations at the Counseling and Psychotherapy Center, a Massachusetts-based company that operates specialized sex offender management and treatment programs in more than 35 locations nationally, including the one at MCC. Last year, the program, which is federally funded through the Department of Corrections, cost $360,000, or about $3,000 per prisoner.

App and statewide members in the corrections department pick R.U.L.E. candidates based on the time they are serving, the severity of their crimes and the risk they pose once released. About 1,500 sex offenders are participating in similar programs offered by CPC in other states, said App.

Roberts was so convinced the program could help him, he practically begged to be selected for treatment. “I wanted to understand what I had done, how it affected my victims and the world around me,” he said.

‘It’s about accountability’

Roberts recently was sitting in the R.U.L.E. day room taking notes as other inmates gave out NIFs – needs identification forms that the inmates give each other daily to note positive and negative behavior observed in the shared living space. Chairs and a couch formed a circle, and when a prisoner spoke, the rest were attentive. When someone made excuses, the entire room groaned. Others acknowledged supportive actions with both praise and gratitude.

No one knows these men as well as they know one another, including the details of how they were abused and how they have abused. But no one gets excused for his crimes, no matter how deep the pain, how valid the complaints. On the other hand, as App likes to say: “It’s not about shame; it’s about accountability.”

Beyond the day room are open-area bedrooms where the men sleep on metal cots and store their workbooks, notepads and other written material in lockers. The walls in these rooms and in adjoining classrooms are painted with words such as “compassion,” “responsibility” and “empathy.” A cartoon crocodile has a dialogue bubble that reads: “I know I can change.” The imagery has the feel of a day care center, and in a way, the program is an adult version of that: a place for advocating the behavior many of these men were not taught as children. Schwartz estimated that 80 percent of the men in this unit are also victims of abuse.

Her goal is to stop the cycle, and both she and App say R.U.L.E., combined with treatment, supervision and management after release, can reduce recidivism – or reoffending – to as low as 1.6 percent. That figure is based on App’s work at CPC. More commonly cited recidivism rates for sex offenders, who make up about 16 percent of the national prison population, range from 4 percent to 70 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Academic, government and clinical information on sex crimes remains relatively thin, and sexual abuse often goes unreported. Conclusive numbers about offenders, their crimes and their behavior after treatment are hard to come by. The MCC program is the first time for R.U.L.E. in the state. So there are no measurements of success or failure. As their release dates come up, prisoners carry the responsibility to be R.U.L.E. models rather than mug shots.

And yet the behavior of released sex offenders is difficult to monitor because, while all sex offenders have to add their names to the statewide sex offender registry, not all sex offenders are tracked carefully, and not all reoffenses are sexual.

Bearing a lifelong stigma

What seems clear, however, is that the MCC prison lessons are designed to return these men to society with a greater sense of empathy toward others, a deeper understanding of their own behavior, and basic life strategies to manage anger, frustration, pain, insecurity, alienation.

Schwartz and another therapist, Gordon Winchell, emphasize the importance of self-awareness and accountability each day in 90-minute classes with titles such as “Men’s Work,” about male stereotypes, or “Thinking Straight,” an analysis of social skills.

Discussions frequently return to victims and the community, and neither are eager to have these men live next door, in the same city or any place that isn’t behind bars.

Inevitably, the men return to society and, as the R.U.L.E. team argues, such programs, which also set up networks of support beyond prison walls, may be the only way to reduce one of the most pervasive, taboo and damaging issues communities face.

“From the department point of view, we need to be proactive in planning to put these people back in the community,” said Burnheimer, the MCC superintendent. “It’s difficult for the community to accept these offenders. But a large number is getting out in the next few years, and we want to make sure the public is safe. Our stats show that there’s less recidivism with treatment, and the public needs to know this.”

The label ” sex offender” will be a lifelong stigma for these men. They are learning that counseling is also lifelong. When they ask whether there is a certificate marking the end of treatment, App sometimes says, “Yes, a death certificate.”

And while many seem hopeful about the future, the pain, shame and horrors they have caused others often can be anything but.

Of the victims contacted for this article, none agreed to talk. Repeated requests to a professional victim advocate also did not result in interviews with victims.

The mother of one victim who was abused for eight years as a child said the actions of her former husband, who recently graduated from the R.U.L.E. program and will be released later this year, tore their family life “to shreds.”

“I know the program he is in has been helpful to him,” she said. “But I don’t want to have anything to do with him. It’s too late.”

“I believe she has been through enough,” the incarcerated ex-husband said. “I hope she has gotten the help she needs.”

He paused and then reflected: “All my life I’ve dealt with self-esteem, low self-worth and was always looking for the wrong type of attention. That’s one of the reasons I am here. I feel proud of myself for going ahead with this program. I’m somebody I wasn’t when I came to prison. I’m caring, compassionate, empathetic. These were things I wasn’t before this program.”

For many men, the family circle was broken because of their abusive behavior. For others, public trust was violated.

John Skinner, whose child molestation case in 2004 shocked local communities because of his leadership for more than two decades in youth ministries for the Roman Catholic Church, graduated from R.U.L.E. this month and was released into the community on July 17, three days after one of his victims overdosed and died in New Jersey.

Breaking the cycle

There’s no magic cure for ending sex crimes, say App and Schwartz, and there’s no way to know whether any of these men will offend again.

“When they leave, we tell them: ‘You’re carrying the torch. We’re going to be watching,’” said App. But when asked how he knows that an offender won’t reoffend, he quickly answered: “You don’t – until you see the behavior demonstrated in the community.”

Skinner, who turns 65 in August, is now living in Bangor, where he will meet regularly with a probation officer, a counselor and a network of friends who have agreed to be available to him when things get tough – or even for just a friendly cup of coffee.

“I realize there is going to be anger,” said Skinner, who spoke from prison earlier this month. “I also realize there is goodness in me, that God doesn’t make crap. As they drum into us here: We are not our behavior. So there are no more secrets. I needed help. I’ve needed help all my life. I couldn’t stand the pain I was inflicting. But I’ve learned new skills and strategies.”

Skinner has not been in touch with his children or grandchildren since 2004, but said he hopes to work publicly to help educate communities about sex offenders. He will never again work with or near children, he said.

George Roberts, who has a 13-year-old son, said he wants to teach his son about the proper ways to deal with anger. His son visits monthly, and they talk about the reason Roberts is in prison. He tells the teen: “I did a bad thing. I hurt people.” Eventually, the boy will learn more about his father. For now, they are slowly building a connection, he says.

Roberts knows his own re-entry to society will challenge him to use the same skills and strategies that Skinner has promised to implement.

“I understand that the community might be scared or angry,” said Roberts. “They have a right to be. It’s safety. I understand that about my own son. I want to teach him the right way, the way I wasn’t taught. I don’t want him to follow the path I’ve taken.”