Loud honks were heard Sunday as protesters gathered outside of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program Moose Lake facility to support the residents in a hunger strike.

According to members of organizing groups Ocean and End MSOP, around 40 clients inside the facility started a hunger strike July 4 to call for an end to "an indefinite detention program they believe is an unconstitutional death sentence." The strikers have put out calls for an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz or a sponsored bill to close the program.

The Department of Human Services spokesperson Christopher Sprung disputes the number of strikers claimed by the organizations, and said 20 clients reported they began a hunger strike July 4. The number grew to 27 at one point, but Sprung stated there were 10 or fewer strikers as of Monday.

"Our goal here today is to head over to the facility to honk and make some noise to let the people in there know that we care about them," said David Boehnke, organizer from End MSOP. "We're well into a hunger strike by the men in there and they're calling for action to end this kind of detainment."

MSOP houses approximately 743 sex offenders under court-ordered civil commitment for treatment, with about 450 at Moose Lake and nearly 300 at a facility in St. Peter. The program has been controversial since its inception in 1994, with courts granting only 14 full discharges and 45 provisional discharges over that time.

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Protesters drive down to the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program facility in Moose Lake for a honk-in protest on Sunday, July 11, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)
Protesters drive down to the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program facility in Moose Lake for a honk-in protest on Sunday, July 11, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

According to protesters, three of the hunger strikers were hospitalized as of Saturday and 28 remain on strike. Protesters also claim the facility has told detainees that it's not considered an "official hunger strike unless they are refusing both food and water."

Sprung stated that 10 or fewer clients have been evaluated by the local hospital and discharged back to MSOP. No clients are still hospitalized due to the strike.

“We never want clients to do anything that could endanger their health or become life-threatening," DHS Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson said in a statement to the News Tribune on Tuesday. "That’s first and foremost. We can’t force them to eat or drink, but we are closely monitoring all clients who inform us that they’re on a hunger strike. We’re regularly tracking their vital signs and physical conditions and are reminding them that food and drink are available."

Audio: Ocean co-founder Daniel Wilson on July 10 explains the protest.

"We've already had four men on strike collapse, and two of them are still in the hospital today," Boehnke said. "We have members of their families here today to show support for them as they continue on."

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One such family member was Robert Johnson of Longville, Minnesota. His son Jeremiah has been in the facility for 16 years. He said when a psychiatrist talked to him about the program, he was told his son could be out in less than four years.

"So he said, 'OK, I'll plead guilty.' And there he sits, 16 years later, never getting a chance for parole," Johnson said. "They keep sending him to prison on assault charges. There's probably 20-30 cases there every month of assault charges on staff.

The DHS disputes Johnson's claim and stated there have been a total of 18 incidents of clients assaulting staff since 2019.

Family members of men in the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program in Moose Lake honk and pump fists in solidarity after protesting at the facility on July 11, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)
Family members of men in the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program in Moose Lake honk and pump fists in solidarity after protesting at the facility on July 11, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

Johnson said his son tries to follow the rules so that he can get visitor privileges, but that the environment inside the facility makes it difficult.

"He gets pretty frustrated and discouraged. But that's the problem they have there, every man in there is frustrated because they're never going to get out," Johnson said. "That's how they keep getting all these assault charges. The frustration builds up because they have no hope."

About 25 people gathered at the McDonald's restaurant near the facility to make signs and prepare for the honk-in. Family members piled into cars with bright signs and lined up to drive into the facility around 2:30 p.m. After about an hour of honking, the protesters dispersed when more law enforcement arrived and asked them to leave.

The protestors are also organizing a community conversation and rally at the St. Paul Capitol on Sunday, July 18, and more info can be found on the End MSOP Facebook page.

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David Boehnke of End MSOP, talks to the family members and fellow protesters in the parking lot of a McDonald's near the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program facility in Moose Lake. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)
David Boehnke of End MSOP, talks to the family members and fellow protesters in the parking lot of a McDonald's near the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program facility in Moose Lake. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

This is the second hunger strike in the past year at the facility. Sprung noted that to end the hunger strike in January, Commissioner Jodi Harpstead and state Rep. Tina Liebling met virtually with clients and advocates to hear their concerns.

A team of representatives met with clients, families and advocates to discuss potential changes to the program or process of release. Four meetings were held virtually between February and May with clients and three meetings with family members and advocates. The team is preparing a report based on those sessions.

“It’s disappointing that they’re taking this action now, especially since we’ve upheld our end of the agreement that brought the first hunger strike to an end in January," Johnson said in a statement. "Over several meetings, a team that included key MSOP leaders as well as an ombudsman and well-known defense attorney who has extensive experience with MSOP clients listened to the concerns of clients, families and advocates. Those sessions resulted in a report and recommendations that will be finalized in the coming weeks."

This story was updated at 4:07 p.m. Monday, July 12, with a statement and information from the Department of Human Services. It was first published at 7:50 p.m. Sunday, July 11.