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Men at Moose Lake sex offender facility end 2-week hunger strike

The sex offenders in the program are demanding a "clear path" for release from the facility, and state officials have agreed to discuss that with them.

A group of men at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program's Moose Lake facility have ended their hunger strike after nearly two weeks.

The group went on strike Jan. 21, demanding a "clear path" for release from the program, which has facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter, where "treatment is a death sentence" because despite serving their prison sentences, they're remanded to the facilities for an unspecified amount of time, a news release says.

The group of about a dozen men called off their hunger strike Wednesday night and, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), which runs the program, they're all eating and drinking again. 

They ended the strike after DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead met virtually on Tuesday with advocates of the strikers and agreed to hold monthly meetings between the strikers and program leaders, but not Harpstead, to discuss their primary concern of having a "clear path" for release from the program and its treatment centers.

“I have agreed to these discussions out of concern that some of the strikers would cause themselves serious harm, and I believe that no harm will come from us listening to what they have to say," Harpstead said in a statement.

Details regarding the meetings are still being worked out, but DHS has agreed "in principle" to hold listening sessions that will start this month and go through May. 

It will also develop a report about the program with recommendations based on the discussions from the listening sessions, DHS said.

"The only promise I can make is that we will engage in conversation with clients and their families," Harpstead said in a statement.

The program

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program serves people, such as rapists and sex offenders, who are ordered by the court to receive sex offender treatment after they've finished their prison sentence. 

Currently, there are 737 people in the state's sex offender program, DHS' website shows, which costs more than $93 million to operate annually, a 2020 legislative report says.

The problem critics have with the program is that people are civilly committed to the jail-like facilities for an "unspecified" period of time, with the hunger strikers and advocates for them calling it a "death sentence" because there's no clear way for a person to be released from the program.

The only way out of the program is to petition the Minnesota Commitment Appeal Panel for a release or a reduction in custody.

The hunger strikers say they've counted 86 people who have died at an MSOP facility since the program began in 1994. 

In comparison, only 13 people have ever been fully released from the program in its 27-year history, DHS' website says

Another 30 have been granted a provisional discharge by the court and are living in a community where they're supervised, while a few others are still waiting for their community placement. 

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And while an increasing number of people in the program have been granted some sort of release in recent years, Minnesota still civilly commits more sex offenders and rapists per capita than any of the other states that have such laws, the Star Tribune reports, citing an unnamed 2019 national survey of the programs.

Families of those in the sex offender program, human rights organizations and others have been pushing for changes in the program for years, and they've since created an End MSOP coalition to support the release of those civilly committed. There's a petition, an online newsletter and a Facebook group dedicated to their cause.

“The strikers have asked for a clearer pathway to release. 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," Harpstead said in a statement.

DHS continues to stress that it doesn't control who gets put into the program or who is released (the courts decide that), and only the Minnesota Legislature has the power to change the MSOP process that's laid out in Minnesota's civil commitment law. 

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