At Moose Lake, a facility some say is more prison than therapy

Moose Lake Correctional Facility
This facility in Moose Lake, Minn., houses the state's sex offender treatment program.
Photo Courtesy of the Department of Human Services

Three fences topped with razor wire line the perimeter of the state sex offender facility.

Inside are two steel and concrete buildings that house more than 400 men who have completed sentences for sex crimes. The men are still behind bars because county judges found they were too dangerous to return to communities and placed them under civil commitment.

After weeks of debate, state lawmakers agreed in March to allot $45.7 million for an expansion of the Moose Lake facility that officials say is vital for treatment. It will allow the program to keep pace with Minnesota's growing population of people under civil commitment. Taxpayers will have to spend more in two years, and at regular intervals afterward, to stay at that pace.

As the expansion gets underway, advocates for the offenders are questioning the treatment program's true purpose -- and the conditions under which the patients are kept. The ACLU of Minnesota represents men at Moose Lake who allege it is more like a prison than a treatment center.

The Moose Lake facility houses more than 400 men who have completed sentences for sex crimes. Each man costs the state $328 a day.

Dennis Benson, director of the state's sex offender treatment program, said the men at Moose Lake are patients, not inmates. Each man spends between six and ten hours a week in therapy -- mostly group discussion sessions, he said.

"Treatment goes way beyond the two hours of group that they spend everyday," Benson said. "We're documenting how they interact when they go to their work portion of the day. We document if we see something in the visiting room. Clinical staff will tell you someone can do fine in a treatment room but can they carry that behavior over to the gym? That approach is very different to even a sex offender treatment program at a prison."

At Moose Lake, men walk through the halls in street clothes. A few stand in groups, talking quietly.

But County courts considered them too dangerous to put back in communities. Judges placed them under civil commitment, allowing the state to hold the men in treatment indefinitely.

Every patient has to take responsibility for their crimes. Therapists check if they're telling the truth with regular polygraph tests, Benson said.

But the state has no authority to force sex offenders into treatment. About 90 refuse to participate.

Among them is Wallace Beaulieu. He was in pre-treatment therapy at Moose Lake but stopped participating.

"Anybody can say they're providing treatment, but if you're never giving anybody the opportunity to be released, what's the treatment then?" asks Beaulieu, 38.

Beaulieu said he was convicted twice for a forced sexual encounter -- one of a woman, in 1990, and 1992, a teenage girl. He said he spent four years in prison and was released in 1996.

Beaulieu said he did not register as a sex offender and was sent back to prison. When he finished that sentence, a Cass County judge ruled he was still a danger to the community and civilly committed him.

Beaulieu complains that Moose Lake is designed not to release patients.

"The treatment program right now is so vague," Beaulieu said. "They don't really talk about any sex offender issues that a person should be addressing.

"You go sit in there and tell them what's on your mind and all they do is write stuff down."

Whether Beaulieu and others at Moose Lake are in treatment is key part of their lawsuit. The U.S. and Minnesota Supreme courts have ruled that civil commitment is legal, as long as those committed are in treatment.

"It is a question of whether or not these conditions are reasonably related to therapeutic goals. We argue they are not," said Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the ACLU.

"Depending on what the court rules in our case, that will have an impact on whether or not the program is found constitutional."

Instead of treatment, Beaulieu spends most of his days reading books checked out from the library or watching TV.

"We spend a lot of time in our unit," he said. "There's not a lot of activities made available for us.

"Once you serve your prison sentence you'd think you be treated better than we are here," he said. "It's like being back in prison."

As an example, Beaulieu points to his room, which he calls a cell. He said it looks just like the ones he had while in prison.

Most cells in Moose Lake are shared by two men. There are either 68 or 98 men in each living unit.

There's a living unit for patients under 20 and another for elderly or infirmed patients.

Patients are locked in their rooms from 9:45 at night to 6:25 in the morning. The cells are largely made of welded steel, with two windows about five inches wide and four feet high. Patients double bunk and share a single toilet. They have a writing surface.

"They can have what they can put in two foot lockers," Benson said. "They can have a TV. They pay for their cable charge. They pay for the TV too."

Outside the cell is a large two-tier open space with metal chairs, tables, a ping pong table, and a row of payphones. Showers are on each side.

"So this is kind of their life," Benson said. "So we have to occupy their time. You can see some of them put puzzles together, some of them play chess. This becomes their world."

The new money approved by the legislature will fund a 100,000-square-foot addition to the Moose Lake treatment facility. It will include a new dining area, additional treatment rooms, and security offices.

The improvements will allow Moose Lake keep pace with a growing population of sex offenders. Officials figure it will give them the room they need to provide treatment -- but just for two years.

Benson said about half of patients participated in treatment a few years ago, but today 90 percent do.

In part that is because patients can make progress by graduating to St. Peter, the state's other sex offender treatment facility, he said. It offers a new treatment stage that prepares patients for release.

"That's the final stage of treatment," Benson said. "We now have five people that the courts have placed in that program and that's brand new in the last two years. ... So I think that's given a lot of hope to these folks."

No one knows when or if someone in the treatment program will be released. Until that happens, the population of civilly committed people will only grow. And the cost to taxpayers will grow with it.

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