Is Minnesota sex offender program illegal?Critics say mistreatment and an overriding, unspoken directive to keep clients locked away make the state program unconstitutional.
To many former employees at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake, the unspoken reason that no client has ever been released is that’s the way state leaders and program administrators want it.
“They felt (the clients) couldn’t be cured,” said Nicci Trierweiler, a former security counselor at the facility and one of a dozen former employees who made similar comments to the News Tribune. “Most of the men that are in there will tell you, if you ask them, that they don’t think they’re going to get out of there. They will tell you that it’s a life sentence and they’ll be going out feet-first.”
“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said another former security counselor, Jeremy Jatkola. “I don’t think the patients there are getting the treatment they should be doing.”
“The overriding directive is not to progress patients,” he added.
MSOP senior administrators deny those claims. But if the allegations are true, it’s a problem.
While supporters of MSOP argue that public safety is served by locking up sex offenders deemed to be sexually psychopathic, sexually dangerous or both, the stated purpose of MSOP isn’t to incarcerate but to rehabilitate.
Nearly all the resident offenders have served their prison or juvenile sentences and are committed for treatment at the facility for potential reintegration into the community. The sex offenders aren’t called inmates but patients or clients.
State and federal courts have held that the program is legal only if adequate treatment is provided. If not, the program could be found unconstitutional, which is what happened in the state of Washington in 2000. A federal court judge ordered the state to revise its program after finding it provided a punitive treatment environment and inadequate treatment, staffing and staff training.
A review by both the legislative auditor and the Duluth News Tribune has found many similar problems at MSOP: The treatment environment is violent and punitive toward offenders. Treatment averages six hours a week, and the program has had trouble hiring and keeping qualified staff. Some clinicians and therapists don’t have the educational backgrounds necessary to treat sex offenders.
And, among both current and former employees, there is a history of infighting and troubling behavior.
Those problems, along with the fact that no one ever has been permanently released from the program since it began in 1994, raises questions about whether MSOP is constitutional, said Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
When the program was created by the state Legislature and approved by the courts, Janus said, it was done with the understanding that offenders would eventually be treated and released.
“A legitimate program, among other things, releases people when they no longer need civil commitment, when they’re no longer dangerous enough to justify being locked up in a secure facility,” Janus said. “We know the program has not provided for that kind of a system.
“You have a picture, in my view, of an unconstitutional program,” he said.
Employee became pregnant after sex with client
Since 2003, 67 of 530 staff members currently employed at Moose Lake — from security counselors to nurses to food services workers — have been disciplined for 103 separate violations, records show. Another 44 employees no longer at MSOP were disciplined for 71 violations.
Among those violations: bringing in contraband such as drugs, pornography and cell phones to sell to patients; abusing residents; providing poor medical care and having sex with clients. One former security counselor got pregnant by a client, records show.
“There is so much sex in that building that it’s not even funny,” said Trierweiler, adding the sex was also between staff members while at the facility. “Staff knew just where to go where there were no cameras.”
Records also show that clients were mistreated by staff, and in one case one of the facility’s most violent offenders was given substantial financial compensation because of it.
In 2010, a federal jury awarded more than $400,000 to MSOP client Elliott Holly after he sued the program for violating his rights by keeping him in protective isolation — similar to solitary confinement — 23½ hours a day for almost two months in 2004.
Holly has been committed to MSOP since 1991 after serving eight years in prison for committing four violent rapes in the 1980s, including robbing a woman in her car and threatening to kill her 7-month-old child. He then raped her six times, including as she held her crying infant, according to records.
Since his commitment, he has been charged at least half a dozen times for assaults against staff members and other clients, among the highest of any offender in the facility.
A year before the trial, Holly was held in protective isolation for 23 hours a day without any criteria for what he could do to be released. His attorney, Michael Wilhelm, said he used that confinement in his closing statement to argue that conditions at the facility were inhumane.
“When you’re civilly committed, the purpose shouldn’t be punishment but should be treatment,” Wilhelm said. “I told the jury that if we don’t stop MSOP now, they’ll just keep doing this.”
Many former employees interviewed by the News Tribune said contempt and disdain among the workers toward patients like Holly was common.
“You had people in direct contact with these guys treating them like criminals, who didn’t treat them like human beings,” said Jean Holman, a former security counselor. “There were some employees who were very compassionate and some who didn’t give a damn.”
When clients were treated poorly, said George Klaskin, another former security counselor, they acted poorly in return.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “You get what you give.”
That may help to explain why MSOP is such a violent place, as the number of assaults of other residents and staff members at the facility is far higher than at the prison in Moose Lake only a few hundred yards away, the News Tribune has found.
From January 2007 to March 2011, Moose Lake police responded to 88 reported assaults and 21 criminal sexual conduct complaints at MSOP. By comparison, the department responded to two at the prison during the same period.
Terri Port Wright, a Cloquet attorney who represents Moose Lake clients, said she believes the system is set up to prevent clients from advancing in treatment.
“How we’re treating them now,” she said, “they’re set up to commit crimes.”
More problems ‘dealing with staff’
High employee turnover at Moose Lake, from the administration down to frontline workers, has caused problems with providing clients adequate treatment, and has possibly led to staff being promoted to high-paying positions of providing therapy to clients despite a lack of education in the field, records show.
A News Tribune review found that three of Moose Lake’s therapists had only high school diplomas, while one had an associate’s degree. Their average salaries are almost $57,000 a year. The state auditor found that the current administration “inherited some clinical staff” even though they lacked a background in therapy. Some clinicians were former security staff with backgrounds in criminal justice, according to the report.
“They’ve always had problems with having people that aren’t well-trained there,” said Margretta Dwyer, a psychologist and a certified sex therapist who was the director of the sex offender treatment program at the University of Minnesota for 17 years. Dwyer has also served as an advocate to clients at MSOP.
Dwyer said it’s crucial to have well-qualified people to treat the level of psychosis found at Moose Lake.
“If I send you to marriage counseling to a therapist who’s not trained in that, it’s unethical and can harm your marriage even more,” she said.
Clients and employees who were interviewed told the News Tribune that senior-level turnover — three executive directors and four clinical directors in the past seven years — resulted in offenders having to restart treatment from the beginning stages.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, Bonnie Martin, said that while it’s true the treatment programs have changed, the changes haven’t held patients back.
“Client progress is determined by the personal changes that they have made, regardless of the treatment design,” Martin said.
While the auditor’s office gave several reasons for high employee turnover, ranging from burnout to low salaries to MSOP’s poor reputation, former employees contacted by the News Tribune gave another reason: the fierce internal politics of the facility and back-biting among fellow employees.
“It was much more difficult to deal with other employees than it was with clients,” said Klaskin.
Many former MSOP workers said that if they questioned how clients were being treated, they’d be targeted for retribution by other staff or administration. Klaskin said he was fired after he was accused of sending private client data via his state e-mail account. He claims that never happened.
Trierweiler was fired for what was deemed harassment and inappropriate communications with another co-worker, allegations she denies.
“I didn’t like what was going on there,” she said. “So they got rid of me.”
‘You lose hope’
When David Prescott was recruited to serve as Moose Lake’s clinical director in September 2008, he said he saw many of the same problems at MSOP described by the auditor’s office and the News Tribune.
Prescott had served as the treatment assessment director for Wisconsin’s sex offender commitment program, which has successfully reintegrated offenders back into the community. Minnesota’s program, he said, was “in extremely deep trouble.”
Less than two years later, Prescott left. He said other senior-level administrators believed in the mission to rehabilitate sex offenders, but at the same time, the message from then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office was: “Nobody gets out on my watch.”
It’s almost impossible for sex offenders to be successfully treated, Prescott said, if a program is repeatedly changed, has a violent environment, is rife with internal fighting and has staff that neglects or wrongly punishes patients.
“I had zero confidence that the various systems in place in Minnesota were truly working together to build safer communities and create healthier lives,” he said.
If no offenders are released, the environment at any sex offender program is only to going to get worse, Prescott said.
“If you don’t have a release date, you lose hope,” said Prescott, who now provides oversight and consultation to adolescent group homes across northern New England. “They tell themselves they’ll never get out. They then believe they’ll never get out, and then they behave as if they’ll never get out.”
Ultimately, said MSOP executive director Dennis Benson, offenders should be released from the program. Since the audit report, his administration has taken more steps to encourage movement toward successful program completion, he said.
As his strongest evidence, Benson points to the number of offenders in the highest level of the program — a less-restrictive, homelike setting in St. Peter that is one step short of release. In January 2009, only one offender was in that program. Now there are seven.
“I believe that we will provisionally discharge somebody from this program in the future,” Benson said. “I don’t believe this is a sham. I don’t believe we are hiding behind false treatment here.”