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Reporter's Notebook: What Are You In For?

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Last week, NPR Laura Sullivan reported from Pennsylvania on the growing number of elderly sex offenders behind bars. In this week's Reporters Notebook, she tells us there's always one question at the heart of every interview.

LAURA SULLIVAN: The thing about interviewing inmates is that most of them are eager to talk to you. In the monotony of eating, sleeping and rec time, who wouldn't want a visitor, especially here at the Laurel Highlands Prison, where the inmates, all in wheelchairs and hospital gowns, will spend hours telling you where they're from, how they grew up, how they used to make a living.

PAUL (Inmate): Me and my dad moved to Harrisburg. I went to work down there in a dry cleaning plant and then I went into the service.

SULLIVAN: That's Paul. He's 74. He murdered two people. He'll tell you all about his childhood in the small town of Hopwood, Pennsylvania. But then comes the big question.

What did you do to get yourself in here?

PAUL: What'd I do? I'm sorry, I won't go into that.

SULLIVAN: This is pretty typical. No matter how many times I interview inmates, there's always this moment, and I never know what I'm going to get. Usually it just makes for an awkward silence. Take Harry. He was convicted of sexually abusing his granddaughter.

It was a sex offense, right?

HARRY (Inmate): Yeah.

SULLIVAN: What happened? What was the charge?

HARRY: You just said what it was.

SULLIVAN: The thing is, I always find out anyway. If I use them in the story, I pull their court records. Other times, if I circle around enough, they'll eventually tell me. But there is one group of inmates who have no problem talking about what they did - sex offenders who've gone to counseling.

DALE: You get yourself aroused and then you want to go further because you can dominate a younger person.

SULLIVAN: Inmates like Dale can spend hours analyzing what he did to his grandson and how to keep from doing it again. And he seems better off for it.

DALE: There's no cure. There's just coping, like staying away from computers. You've got to have a support group to get your mind off what you're doing and just got to completely get away from the thoughts.

SULLIVAN: Studies show that most sex offenders like Dale who've had counseling won't repeat their crimes. Maybe if all the inmates could talk about what they did this way, they wouldn't re-offend either.

SIMON: NPR's Laura Sullivan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.