On the banks of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida sits an isolated community of small, squat houses. About 150 residents, nearly all of them single men, make up this enclave, known as Miracle Village, and they all share one thing in common: They are all convicted sex offenders.
Founded in 2009 by minister Dick Witherow, the village is an attempt to ease the difficult and stringent regulations placed on those who were convicted of sex crimes, such as curfews and restrictions on internet use and where they can live. It was also an effort to introduce religious tenets into their daily life.
Some see it as a triumph in understanding, while others think it is dangerous and delusional.
Sofia Valiente, a young photographer from the area, spent three months living in the village, documenting its residents and their community. What she discovered changed her mind about sex offenders forever, and she hopes her work will pass on the same message. Her book of the work, titled “Miracle Village,” can be purchased here.
Valiente says she initially heard about Miracle Village from a friend at the local newspaper in Pahokee. She says she was 'overcome by curiosity,' so one day she decided to drive out to the small enclave of about 150 residents, living in small houses like the ones seen below.
'I was pretty terrified,' Valiente says about first visiting the town. 'All I knew was what the media had portrayed about them, that they were people who at all costs should be avoided.'
Most members of the community were shocked to see Valiente as well. But as she explained her reasons for being there, Valiente says, 'eventually people were happy to share their stories with someone that was there to listen without judgment, since that was very rare for them.'
'I quickly realised that they were not monsters as my own prejudice assumed, but they were people that made a mistake and were trying to move on with their lives,' Valiente says. 'It was nothing like I imagined, and I realised that their stories, told from their perspective, were important to hear as well.'
Some men had been sexually repressed as children and were caught experimenting, unaware that what they were doing was against the law. Others were just young and in love. 'I met David, whose crime was having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 18 -- that's when I realised there were many misconceptions about sex offenders,' Valiente says.
'I went to church on Sundays in the community, would run errands, go to the store, eat dinner with them, I even spent time sitting and watching television with some of them,' she says.
The village was founded by a minister who had worked in prisons for years, and religion and morals remain a central focus of the community. 'While not everyone attends the church, it's a way to become involved with the community' Valiente says. 'They also have their own choir.'
Valiente continues: 'The village is a big support system -- they all look out for one another. The residents are grateful to have a place where they are accepted and have a chance to be a part of a community.' If they attempt to live elsewhere, things are not so easy.
Living as a sex offender is a difficult task, with many restrictions on where one can reside. Sex offenders cannot live within a certain distance of children, and neighbours must be notified of their status via flyers posted around an area. 'They are the only individuals who are convicted for crimes that are never done paying for what they did ... essentially it's a life sentence,' Valiente says.
Before spending time in Miracle Village, Valiente was 'unaware that a sex crime could be urinating in public or having a consensual teenage relationship,' she says. 'They are all blanketed into this one category of sex offender, and there is no differentiation between something that most people would not consider a sex crime and something that is more serious.'
Valiente says she always felt completely safe in Miracle Village, though. Because of the residents' status, 'they always practiced extra caution around me since I was an outsider,' she says.
'The residents all look out for one another and for the time being, it's the best place for them,' Valiente says. And while such villages may allow for less scrutiny from outsiders, Valiente says, 'This doesn't mean they don't live each day of their life facing the consequences of their crime and the constant reminder that they are not accepted into society.'
Valiente hopes viewers of the images will look at them without prejudice. 'It's a very heavy subject for everyone,' she says, 'but it's important to not ignore either side and at least begin to talk about it in order to remove this taboo and move towards understanding the problem.'
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