Sex offender granted monitored release from Minnesota lockup

Minn. Sex Offender Program high-security facility
This April 19, 2010 file photo shows the Minnesota Sex Offender Program's high-security facility in Moose Lake, Minn.
Martiga Lohn | AP 2010

A 68-year-old man who has spent two decades in the Minnesota sex offender treatment program is on the verge of provisional release after a special court panel granted his placement in a four-bed residential facility in rural Olmsted County.

The three-member panel's order last month paved the way for Benjamin Gissendanner's conditional release. It came to light Tuesday when the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office announced a community notification meeting is set for Aug. 18 in the township southwest of Rochester where Gissendanner will live as soon as September.

Gissendanner, who previously served prison time for rape convictions, will be subject to electronic monitoring, outpatient treatment, regular chemical screening and several restrictions, including on Internet use. He's only the fourth offender in the program to reach this stage, with one of the others returned to the secure treatment program due to violations of his release conditions.

A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with Gissendanner's attorney, Lisbeth Nudell.

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Minnesota's treatment program has been ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts, in part because so few of the 720 current patients have re-entered the community after being civilly committed by a county judge. In the program's 21-year history, no one has ever been fully discharged. A federal judge and state lawmakers met privately on Monday to discuss potential changes, but the elected officials indicated after that any retooling is a ways off.

Gissendanner was convicted in a 1970 rape in New York City and later in a 1981 Minnesota sexual assault. After being paroled from prison, he was admitted to the Minnesota Security Hospital in 1992. A year later, he was civilly committed as "a mentally ill and dangerous and a psychopathic personality." He has been confined to secured facilities in St. Peter and Moose Lake since.

Aside from his sex offenses, Gissendanner struggled with alcoholism and drug use in the past. He has severe learning disabilities, with an IQ of 70 and an educational assessment putting him at a third-grade level, according to public records on his case.

Court papers say Gissendanner has been sober since 1989 and lacks a sex drive due to an array of medications he now takes. He has participated regularly in group counseling sessions. A court file said program doctors who have extensively analyzed Gissendanner concluded that he "has likely reached maximum treatment benefit in his current setting."

Gissendanner applied for provisional release in 2014 and was granted it by a special review board. An appeal by the Department of Human Services put the discharge on hold, but the state and two county attorney offices later indicated to a judicial appeals panel they were not opposed to the step.

In reversing her initial opposition, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson wrote in a February letter to the judicial panel that Gissendanner's "sex offender treatment has adequately addressed his dynamic risk factors and that he himself has shown significant engagement and progress in treatment despite his cognitive limitations."

In announcing the notification meeting, the local sheriff's office indicated it had no say in the placement.

"This notification is not intended to increase fear in the community. Law enforcement believes that an informed public is a safer public," the sheriff's department wrote in a fact sheet. "The Olmsted County Sheriff's Office may not direct where the registrant does or does not reside, nor can this agency direct where he/she works or goes to school."