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A group of men held at a sex offender treatment center in Moose Lake, Minn., have ended a two-week hunger strike, after state officials agreed to discuss possible changes to the program that holds offenders indefinitely past the end of their criminal sentences.

A dozen men who had stopped eating called off the hunger strike Wednesday night after Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead offered to hold monthly meetings between the strikers and leaders of the state sex offender program.

The purpose of the meetings will be to discuss the strikers' primary complaint: They have no "clear pathway" for release from the program and its prisonlike treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

The strike was organized to protest Minnesota's civil commitment system, which confines hundreds of rapists and other sexual offenders long after their prison terms. Some men have been held at the Moose Lake facility for years or even decades, effectively turning civil commitment into what they describe as a life sentence.

The strikers and other detainees maintain that the state program is more focused on warehousing offenders than treating them, and they have demanded that officials increase the program's historically low rate of release.

The protest organizers had been refusing food since Jan. 21. Several of the men said in interviews that they were prepared to be hospitalized or starve to death if the state did not respond to their demands.

By early this week, the strikers reported feeling muscle pains, dizziness, nausea and rapid weight loss from lack of nourishment, according to organizers.

The men finally called off the protest and resumed eating after Harpstead offered to hold the monthly listening sessions, which are expected to begin this month and last through May.

Under the agreement, the Department of Human Services (DHS) will develop a report on the state sex offender program at the end of the discussions and produce recommendations. The agency has not made any commitments to specific changes.

"I am relieved that no one was seriously hurt or died, but this system of indefinite confinement has gone on far too long," said Merry Schoon of Appleton, Minn., whose 33-year-old son, Daniel A. Wilson, is being held at Moose Lake. "These men have families and they deserve a second chance to be productive members of society just like everyone else."

Starting a dialogue

Tensions have been building for years over the prolonged confinements at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) treatment centers, but frustrations reached a boiling point in recent months following a large outbreak of COVID-19 at the Moose Lake facility.

Three men have died at the Moose Lake center since early December, and dozens more clients and staff were sickened. Some men maintain the program did not move fast enough to mandate mask-wearing, and complained that strict lockdown measures kept them confined in their rooms for nearly 24 hours a day.

As of Thursday, no active cases of COVID-19 were reported among clients at any MSOP location.

Last Sunday, about 20 relatives of the hunger strikers and other supporters took the unusual step of showing up at Harpstead's home. Two days later, she met with members of the group via Zoom and listened to their concerns.

In a written statement, Harpstead said she agreed to the discussions "out of concern that some of the strikers would cause themselves serious harm," and because she believed that "no harm will come from us listening" to the men and their families.

"The strikers have asked for a clearer pathway to release," Harpstead said. "In the meantime, we continue to believe that the most persuasive argument that any MSOP client can make when petitioning the court for discharge is meaningful, engaged participation in treatment."

Only 13 offenders have been fully released, without conditions mandating supervision, in the 27-year history of Minnesota's sex offender program. By comparison, participants in the hunger strike said they have counted at least 86 men who have died while in custody.

In 2015, a federal judge in St. Paul declared the program unconstitutional, concluding it was holding offenders who had completed treatment and no longer met the state's criteria for commitment. Though later reversed, the ruling gave hope to offenders seeking a way out of confinement, and more of them began petitioning for release or reduction in custody.

DHS officials have repeatedly stressed that the agency has limited control over who is released from the program. Under Minnesota's civil commitment law, offenders have a right to petition state judicial panels for release or a reduction in custody.

"Only the courts have the authority to decide when a client may be provisionally or fully discharged from the program," Harpstead said. "The only promise I can make is that we will engage in conversation with clients and their families."

State officials also have disputed the hunger strikers' assertion that they do not have a clear pathway out of the program, pointing to figures showing that record numbers of clients have been approved for release by judicial panels.

Last year, 11 men were conditionally discharged from the program after they petitioned for a reduction in custody — the most since the program's inception, according to DHS officials.

All told, 30 MSOP clients who have been granted provisional discharge by the court are living in communities under the state's supervision.

Even so, Minnesota detains more offenders per capita than any of the 20 states that have civil commitment laws, and is third behind California and Florida in the total number of committed offenders, according to a 2019 national survey of such programs.

The cost of operating Minnesota's sex offender program — including treating, housing and providing medical care for offenders at the two facilities — totaled $93.2 million in fiscal year 2020, according to a legislative report.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres