Lee laying down inside his room.Lee went to prison when he was 18 and served 12 and a half years of his 15 year sentence. He is serving the other 2 and a half years on conditional release. His restrictions include a 7pm curfew, no driving other than for employment purposes- not alone, no internet, monthly urinalysis, no contact with minors even family members, GPS monitoring and paying the cost of his supervision. He must register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.
Lee laying down inside his room in Miracle Village. Lee went to prison when he was 18 and served 12 and a half years of his 15 year sentence. He is serving the other 2 and a half years on conditional release. His restrictions include a 7pm curfew, no driving other than for employment purposes (he is also not permitted to drive alone). No internet, monthly urinalysis, no contact with minors even family members, GPS monitoring and paying the cost of his supervision. He must register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.Sofia Valiente
Lee laying down inside his room.Lee went to prison when he was 18 and served 12 and a half years of his 15 year sentence. He is serving the other 2 and a half years on conditional release. His restrictions include a 7pm curfew, no driving other than for employment purposes- not alone, no internet, monthly urinalysis, no contact with minors even family members, GPS monitoring and paying the cost of his supervision. He must register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.
Doug after a day of working outside. He helps out in the community by doing occasional lawn work and other maintenance jobs.Doug lived in a tent in the woods prior to coming to the village. Because of distance restrictions he was unable to go home after serving his time and had difficulty finding a place to live."I was traveling with the carnival until I was 20 years old. I had a friend of mine named Chris Billows, also known as Nightwolf. Him and my mom used to work at McDonalds together. After I got into trouble I became homeless and couldn't get a job so I lived 2,500 feet into the woods. Sometimes my friends would come hang out and we'd play manhunt."
Matt exercising in the back shed in the village with David and Lee."Growing up with my mom was enough, I'm ready to move on. All I did was go to school and take care of the house. It was like living in boot camp. She was the one that called the cops on me in order to protect her job or so she said."
A photo of Matt with his mother and grandmother that came to visit him while he was in prison.
David smoking a cigarette outside his house.
Rose sitting outside of the church beside David.
Gene laying down with his dog Killer for a nap."Only a fool would truly trust anyone if you are a sex offender."
Paul sitting beside his bed."You can't talk to dead people anymore."
Tracy cleaning off leaves from his porch.
Tracy wearing his wig and a shirt that he designed in his bedroom."About a year before I was released my son Jamar got the number to my dorm at the Florida Civil Commitment Center and we started talking and getting to know each other. I didn't think I would ever see him again. Once I made it out, my son called me and asked if he could come stay with me. I said yes and Nov 26th at 1:45am he showed up to my front porch. I was overwhelmed with feelings of fear, love and surprise but when my son called me daddy to my face the love just flowed between us and I was happy to answer all the questions he had for me."
Ben playing with his cat Cindy on his day off from work. He works at his mom's office in Hollywood, Florida 4 days a week. It take him 3 hours of driving each day to go to and from work. He must be back home in Pahokee before his 10pm curfew."Being forced to live in a swamp would seem to limit the types of food I can enjoy. In this sorry excuse for a town, I'm forced to hole up in, the closest thing to "exotic cuisine" you'll find in Tobasco sauce. As someone who loves everything from Indian curry and coconut Thai soup to Jamaican jerk chicken and Kung Po beef, this was another bummer. Fortunately, the sex offender I live with is an unemployed Italian chef who watches cooking shows all day long. I actually eat so good now that I needed to buy all new pants, as my old ones became too tight!"
Richard in his kitchen."Up until the age of 18, I had a terrible stutter. I hated talking. I was always a good student and often knew the answers to the questions asked in class. However, I never raised my hand because I dreaded being called on. My stutter was bad, and when I was talking to a girl it was even worse. When I discovered chatting in 1988, that I could communicate without having to talk, it was the greatest thing ever."
Doug sitting near the entrance of Miracle Village.
Lee laying down inside his room in Miracle Village. Lee went to prison when he was 18 and served 12 and a half years of
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Sofia Valiente
1 of 20

Life Inside a Community of Sex Offenders

Sep 16, 2014

Along southern Florida’s Muck City Road, southeast of the state’s massive Lake Okeechobee and hidden among hundreds of acres of sugar cane, sits Miracle Village, pop: approximately 150.

For decades, its tiny one-story residences housed migrants who worked the nearby sugar fields. Today, they house migrants of a different sort. Most of its residents are convicted sex offenders.

Sofia Valiente, a 24-year-old photographer and a resident of Florida since she was 10, began visiting the community in January 2013, spending a total of three months there and even living in the residential complex for several weeks. The result is Miracle Village, a book produced and published by Benetton's communication research center Fabrica that profiles the community’s residents preparing for work, interacting alongside family members and dealing with the daily restrictions that limit virtually everything they do, from their Internet use to when they can be outside.

There are almost 800,000 federally registered sex offenders in the U.S. That registry originated in the 1990s when Congress passed legislation that severely targeted those who commit violent crimes and crimes against children. But states have their own varying laws, Florida’s being some of the most stringent. Sexual offenders in the state must notify public officials whenever they move; they’re subject to a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew; and they can’t live within at least 1,000 feet of a school, day care center, park, playground or any other place where children often gather. Those restrictions, many victims’ families argue, are necessary to prevent sex offenders from engaging in further criminal activity.

Cities and counties oftentimes have their own laws, some more stringent than others. Curfew for some in Miracle Village is 7 p.m. Many residents have to wear GPS-monitored ankle bracelets that keep tabs on them at all times. They can’t interact with minors, even if they’re family. They’re subject to random drug tests. Some can’t use the Internet. Others can’t own a smartphone.

A more pressing difficulty, however, is often finding a place to live. In some counties in Florida, sex offenders are banned from being within 3,000 feet of places where children congregate, making living in most towns and cities virtually impossible.

In 2009, Dick Witherow, a local evangelical pastor, founded Miracle Village as a sort of haven for area sex offenders struggling to find housing. The village is not only physically removed from populated areas—it’s surrounded by hundreds of acres of sugar cane and is located several miles from nearby Pahokee—but Witherow’s ministry, Matthew 25, also provides support for those living there and interviews other sex offenders looking to relocate to determine if they’d be a good fit for the community.

Valiente’s photos of the village’s members are subtle and are oftentimes straight-on portraits, an aesthetic that takes on the look of traditional documentary photographs. She also had many of the community’s residents write letters describing their past crimes.

“I had sex with my younger brother,” writes Matt, one Miracle Village resident.

“My crime was being in a relationship with my 16 yr old girlfriend. That I care a lot about,” writes David. “I was 18 turning 19 at the time. Parents were involved & I was charged with 2nd degree sexually battery (injury not likely).”

“I married a man that abused me,” writes Rose. “He did drugs and drank until he passed out. He told me that I was never going to leave him with our children. The course of events that led up to me being arrested is too long of a story and very painful for me to speak about in detail. I was arrested & charged of molesting my children.”

Valiente says her goal with Miracle Village was to portray the community’s residents in a way most people have never seen.

"I try not to address what is right and what is wrong. I can't look at it that way. This is more about confronting the stigma,” Valiente says. "They would be lepers in society. Here, they’re not lepers.”

Sofia Valiente is a fine art photographer based in South Florida. Miracle Village is published by Fabrica.

Josh Sanburn is a writer/reporter for TIME in New York. Follow him on Twitter @joshsanburn

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