On October 11, 1982 Terry Allen was arrested and charged with sexual assault, after he allegedly forced a woman he’d just met at the McDonalds where she was employed to drive him in her car to a secluded spot and perform oral sex on him.
But in lieu of facing a criminal trial, he was offered civil commitment by prosecutors. Allen’s attorney told him if he underwent civil commitment “it would likely only last six months to a year.” Instead, Allen has remained in prison in Illinois for 36 years without a criminal conviction, or a release date specified, and — as of publication time — he is still incarcerated.
In their efforts to have him civilly committed, prosecutors hired two psychiatrists to determine if Allen met the criteria of being a “sexually dangerous person” (SDP). They then relied on what Allen told those doctors to move toward civil commitment instead of a criminal trial. Believing he needed to convince the psychiatrists that he was an SDP in order to avoid being locked up for a lengthy sentence, Allen told the psychiatrists that he’d forced a number of women to perform sex acts with him – something he now says wasn’t true.
“I incriminated myself,” said Allen. “I made incriminating statements that were never true about me. I didn’t feel that I was a sexually dangerous person.”
No police or court records existed that would have verified the truth of those long-ago statements he made, had anyone checked them out. In fact, one of the psychiatrists — who unfortunately is now deceased and therefore unable to testify — wrote in his report that he believed Allen was lying and merely telling doctors what they wanted to hear.
“[Allen] wanted to be found sexually dangerous,” the psychiatrist wrote, most likely because of his attorney’s advice and assurances.
Nevertheless, both psychiatrists deemed Allen unstable, exhibiting symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia, and testified in his civil commitment hearing that the “sexually dangerous person” appellation was apropos in his case. Allen presented no defense at the hearing.
The John Howard Association, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has suggested that many people who are designated SDPs have a low IQ, often paired with diagnosed intellectual or learning disabilities. A recent test, in fact, puts Allen on the borderline between low and extremely low IQ.
Speaking about his initial hearing, Allen said, “I think it was about two hours and the judge declared me to be a sexually dangerous person. And afterwards, I was told that I was going to be going to a hospital.”
He never saw a hospital, but instead was sent to an Illinois state prison.
“I talked to a psychologist there, she briefed me and told me that sexually dangerous people had been locked up like 20 and 30 years,” Allen said.
In Illinois, all SDPs are currently locked up at Big Muddy River Correctional Center (BMRCC) in the small town of Ina, roughly 300 miles south of Chicago. Although they are housed in their own wing, they mix with the prison’s general population.
“Despite technically serving civil commitments and not criminal sentences, SDPs sleep in cells, wear the same outfits and badges as other inmates, and receive citations and punishments like criminally convicted felons,” said a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).
State records show BMRCC employed just “one or two staff psychiatrists for the entire population” — 171 SDPs as of March 7, 2019. The IODC spokesman promised that the agency was “actively recruiting and hiring licensed sex offender treatment providers.”
Shortly after arriving in prison, Allen began researching alternatives.
“At that time, I constantly stayed in the law library so I could figure out what else I could do, what else I could file,” he said. “I wanted to do everything that I could to defend myself so that I wouldn’t die there.”
He filed an appeal, which — against all odds — eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which heard his case on April 30, 1986. Ruling against Allen 5-4, the majority found that even though Illinois had detained Allen in jail without trial, the therapy it was offering him prevented his detention from being unconstitutional. That decision left the burden of proof on Allen to show that he was cured before his release would be possible. (Allen v. Illinois, 478 U.S. 364, 1986.)
To succeed in therapy, SDPs must express remorse, apologize, and demonstrate empathy for their victim or victims. Additionally, they must discuss how they will avoid committing such crimes in the future. Only 10 SDPs earned conditional release from BMRCC between 2012 and 2019 – about the same number who died in custody. The average length of stay for all those committed to the program was 17 years.
About a quarter of their cases come from Sangamon County in central Illinois, where for 30 years the prosecutor was Sheryl Essenberg. A self-taught expert on the state’s SDP statute, she wrote a manual on it for prosecutors in 2011. Now retired, she remains proud of putting away so many SDPs.
“If there is a legal way that I can prevent a person who is in my mind pretty clearly going to commit that next offense — if I can intervene before he commits that next offense with a high degree of certainty — then I’m gonna do that,” she said.
In addition to Illinois, Massachusetts, North Dakota and the federal government all have statutes allowing certain people with acknowledged sexually assaultive behavior to be held in prison without trial for treatment. In May 2019, following a number of news stories about Allen’s case, State Rep. Justin Slaughter, who chairs the House Judiciary Criminal Committee, called Illinois’ law “absolutely ridiculous” and pledged to back its repeal.
“It seems to fly in the face of justice,” agreed state Rep. Will Guzzardi, who is a member of the House Sentencing, Penalties and Criminal Procedure Subcommittee.
“People should not be in our correctional system that have not been convicted,” Slaughter said. “This is a law that should be taken off of the books.”
Spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said that Gov. J.B. Pritzker “looks forward to reviewing any legislation that may be introduced.”
Over his long prison stay, Allen has filed a number of petitions for his release, and he has had at least a dozen hearings seeking to present his case before a jury. In 2015, a state psychiatrist at one of those hearings again said that Allen wasn’t fit to be released, but Allen’s attorney successfully argued for another psychiatrist to be appointed by the court to testify on his client’s behalf. That doctor called the state’s findings a biased and deceptive “hatchet job.”
University of Chicago clinical law professor Mark Heyrman says the career risk involved in an SDP release is an inherent disincentive for anyone to recommend one.
“If I say ‘no you can’t get out,’ no one will ever complain,” Heyrman said. “If I say ‘yes,’ it’s almost certain that I will make a mistake.”
The jury in that 2015 hearing found Allen fit to be released. The problem? When SDPs are granted release, they are listed as sex offenders, who must follow the strict rules of the sex offender registry. With no way to secure the housing he needs, Allen remains at BMRCC.
“The state says that an SDP is to be responsible for his own placement. I don’t see how that could be,” Allen said. “If an SDP is locked up for 20 or 30 years he’s out of contact with the free world out there. He doesn’t have any relatives or funds out there to get his own place.”
Back in 1988, along with two dozen legislators, experts, and law enforcement officials, Heyrman led a governor’s commission that reviewed the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act. They recommended it be abolished.
“What sense does it make to have (IDOC) do this? Why aren’t (SDPs) in the custody of the Department of Human Services that runs our seven state mental hospitals?” Heyrman said.
Over 30 years later, Terry Allen still sits in a maximum security prison, waiting for an answer to that question.
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