Millions spent on sex offender rehabilitation, but no one has been rehabilitatedDespite spending $386.9 million since 2005 alone, the number of Minnesota Sex Offender Program patients successfully rehabilitated — permanently released back into the community — is zero.
You might not care about people like 43-year-old Russell Lynn Norton, a former Eveleth and Duluth resident and convicted sex offender whom the state of Minnesota considers a psychopath unable to control his impulses to reoffend.
But in 2010, the state spent an average of $120,000 a year to house, feed and treat offenders like Norton through the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, nearly 3½ times as much as it would spend if he were in a state prison.
Created in the mid-1990s, MSOP is not supposed to be incarceration. Like Norton, nearly all the offenders there have completed their prison time and are committed to the center for intensive treatment for eventual release back into society. The hundreds of offenders who have gone through MSOP are called “patients” or “clients” instead of inmates. Yet despite spending $386.9 million since 2005 alone, the number of patients successfully rehabilitated — permanently released back into the community — is zero.
Some have served life sentences there; more than
18 have died in the heavily secured facility surrounded by razor-wire fences. Critics have used that poor success rate to label MSOP Minnesota’s Guantanamo or Gulag.
Norton said he saw his commitment as the equivalent of a death sentence, which he said he and three others tried to escape last year.
“It came down to a necessity, protecting myself, protecting my very psyche, to leave this place. Because it’s just punitive,” Norton told the News Tribune during an in-person interview. “People in here shouldn’t be treated any differently than people out there on the streets. To do so would be punitive; it would be punishment. And this isn’t supposed to be about punishment. It’s supposed to be treatment.”
Hundreds could die there
Norton isn’t alone in saying that his sex offender treatment at Moose Lake is inadequate.
The Minnesota legislative auditor’s office released a 100-plus page report in early March criticizing MSOP’s treatment for sex offenders and its ballooning enrollment and costs.
After the audit report, state lawmakers began writing bipartisan bills to reduce costs by potentially releasing some of the offenders — mostly those who are elderly, infirm or low-functioning and have little chance of being physically able to make it through long-term treatment.
Some younger MSOP clients with only juvenile crimes on their records might also have been released to heavily supervised halfway homes.
But those efforts stalled and no bills passed.
If no one is released from the facility, MSOP will run out of room by 2013 and will have to expand. In 2010, the Legislature approved more than $47 million in bonding for an expansion.
Keeping the offenders in MSOP for life is just fine with some of their victims.
Diane Kunitz said her husband, Duane, was never the same again after his daughter, Michelle, was killed in 1986 by MSOP client Paul Lindberg.
That same year a jury found 21-year-old Lindberg guilty of strangling Kunitz, mutilating her genitals with a lighter, spray-painting her body green, wrapping her in a rug and dumping her in a parking lot.
After his release from prison in 1996, Lindberg, now 46, was committed to MSOP and was still in the first stages of treatment in 2010, according to court records.
“I don’t believe people like that can ever be rehabilitated,” Diane Kunitz said. Her husband, she said, now has multiple sclerosis and has difficulty communicating. Before the onset of the disease, she said, “he was just a very bitter man.”
MSOP administrators say they have begun to make changes to the program aimed at seeing offenders successfully treated and released.
“Regardless of what society says, these are not monsters in here,” said Dennis Benson, executive director of MSOP. “This is America. We can’t just simply forget about this crowd.”
‘I did my time’
But even if legislation allows the release of some sex offenders, hundreds who have already served their time in prison could remain at MSOP for the rest of their lives.
“There is a group up there that should never be let out,” said Margretta Dwyer, a former director of the University of Minnesota’s sex offender program for 17 years who also has served as an adviser to MSOP clients. “But not everybody up there is the same. … There are a whole bunch who would be better served in an outpatient program who should be released.”
The chances of that happening are slim.
To get out, the offenders have to complete treatment. Scores of offenders either refuse treatment or say they’ve been stuck at the beginning phases for years. Offenders who were interviewed said their failure to make it through the program is either because they don’t need treatment or that the treatment is set up for them to fail, or because being locked away indefinitely after they’ve already served their prison sentence is unfair.
“The crimes I committed sent me to prison and that’s why I did my time,” said Christopher Ivey, another Moose Lake client who tried to escape. He pleaded guilty to the offense in March.
Ivey, 39, of Scanlon, has a long history of sex crimes. When he was 18 in 1989, he snuck into a woman’s bedroom in Leonberg, Germany, and sexually assaulted and strangled her. He was arrested in 1993 in Carlton County on charges of breaking into 12 homes in Scanlon and Cloquet, where he confessed to the murder in Germany. He was sentenced to five years in prison for one of the incidents in Carlton County: sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl. After serving that sentence, he was then extradited to Germany where he was tried for the murder, served time in prison, returned to the United States, and was committed to MSOP in 2004.
He refuses to take part in treatment.
“Commitment is supposed to be for treatment, but this is basically an extension of a prison sentence,” Ivey said. “This place is run much as a prison. Similar rules, similar uniforms that the staff wear. The only difference is, in prison you have a release date.”
Indefinite confinement in a prison-like setting has raised questions about whether the program violates the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause. State and federal courts have largely upheld such confinement, as long as treatment is provided.
But according to the auditor’s report, the average amount of treatment that MSOP residents receive — about six hours a week — is less than the average amount provided in prison. And the cost of keeping offenders in Moose Lake’s indefinite confinement is 3½ times as high as the cost to keep them in prison.
“What do we do with them?” asked Terri Port Wright, a Cloquet attorney who has a contract with the state to represent MSOP clients when they’re charged with a crime while inside the facility. “Do we just keep paying millions upon millions for the place to keep it open, and let them die in there?”
To executive director Benson, the answer — at least for some clients — is yes.
“I don’t think anybody will tell you that every one of them can successfully complete the program,” Benson said. “We have an obligation to do what we can to provide the very best treatment. Like prison, like mental health facilities, there are people who do spend most of their life in those facilities and ultimately do die (there). That’s the reality of the world we live in.”
From flashers to rapists
Who are the people committed to MSOP in Moose Lake? The Department of Human Services considers them patients in a treatment facility and won’t release their names.
But a News Tribune review of hundreds of MSOP clients’ court and commitment records found that some have been committed for violent rapes, others for molesting their own kids or children known to them, others for repeatedly exposing themselves. Some have no adult criminal records and were committed for offenses committed when they were juveniles. They range in age from 20 to 89. Some use walkers and wheelchairs to get around.
“Should some of these people be locked up?” asked Port Wright. “Probably. But we have people who are flashers in the same category as people who are brutal stranger-stalker rapists.”
Norton appears to fall somewhere in the middle. Though he has never been convicted of rape, his history as a sex offender began at age 12 or 13, when he exposed himself to two young girls he was babysitting, according to court records.
Since then, he has admitted to exposing himself to 14- and 15-year-old girls 30 to 50 times. He was convicted in 1991 at age 21 of breaking into a woman’s home, reaching under her blankets, touching her leg and masturbating.
When he was 24 he broke into a woman’s apartment, undressed, climbed into the woman’s bed and pressed himself against her back. That same year he broke into another woman’s home and was found nude at the bottom of her staircase. In 1998, he was arrested for peeping into a woman’s window and found with a videotape showing women in their houses.
Norton told the News Tribune he knows he’s a sex offender and needs treatment to prevent reoffending. But he said the therapy he received in prison was better than the treatment he’s received at MSOP, which is why he said he has refused to enroll in the facility’s treatment program.
“The whole environment, the administration, staff, everybody that’s involved with how this facility runs, it seems like they go out of their way to make it non-therapeutic,” he said. “They go out of their way to make it seem hard or rough or a hostile environment. It’s a constant state of frustration and belittlement. The staff are constantly on people about every little single thing, that’s mostly trivial things, but seeing it day in and day out is just sickening.”
His complaints and others’ are backed up by the auditor’s report, which found that increased security measures implemented since 2008 — when Benson, formerly the head of the state’s Department of Corrections, took over — “have adversely affected the therapeutic environment.”
“In our interviews,” according to the report, “we heard widespread agreement among clinicians, clients, outside advocates, experts and some MSOP administrators that the program has recently focused on security to the detriment of therapy.”
Benson argues the increased security is necessary to maintain public safety. In March, the Department of Human Services spent $700,000 on ankle bracelets to monitor movement of the offenders inside the facility.
“We’re not dealing with your first-time sex offender,” he said. “We’re dealing with some very, very challenging individuals.”