Detainee Resistance at MSOP “Shadow Prison” Intensifies

Detainee Resistance at MSOP “Shadow Prison” Intensifies

By Ridley Seawood 

A movement is growing amongst detainees inside the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program in Moose Lake, Minnesota. Since mid-August, dozens of detainees held at the secure treatment facility have been meeting in the yard for rallies, speak-outs, and peaceful demonstrations. They are calling for an end to their indefinite detention under Minnesota’s civil commitment law, which they say is a violation of their constitutional rights.  

On September 20, under a full moon, 10 prisoners “sat in a circle” and refused to return to their unit when staff ordered detainees off the yard. “We haven’t seen a star in 10 years,” said Peter, who reported the incident to Perilous. Detainees negotiated with guards for 2 hours before agreeing to exit the yard back to their units with a disciplinary hearing forthcoming.

A Minnesota Department of Human Services spokesperson confirmed that the detainees refused to leave the yard but said that after a few minutes of expressing their concerns to staff, the “clients complied without incident” when ordered to return to their units.

Minnesota is one of only 20 states in the U.S. with a civil commitment program. Minnesota’s civil commitment program is the largest of its kind and is enveloped in controversies ranging from racial discrimination to discrimination against LGBTQ detainees, to criminal behavior by staff. However, the primary contention with the program is that for many of the people committed there, it’s a death sentence

Perilous corresponded with 7 detainees about their experience in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Several detainees reported that they’d participated in a rally on Friday, August 13 inside the secure treatment facility at which 120 – 130 detainees met in the yard and held a speak out and protest calling for an end to the program — the largest demonstration inside the facility to date. A Minnesota Department of Human Services spokesperson contested the numbers stating “there were substantially fewer than 120 participants…it is more accurate to say there were 35 to 40 participants.”

Detainees organizing with OCEAN, or Overcoming Corruption Empowering All Nations, a detainee advocacy group founded and operated inside the MSOP, report that they have been holding such rallies every Monday and Friday with regular attendance of about 20 – 40 detainees. In between the demonstrations, OCEAN organizers lead workshops and informational meetings to educate other detainees on their constitutional rights and the process for appealing their diagnosis.  

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program is administered by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and began its operations at Moose Lake in 1995 as a treatment center for people who have been labeled by the state as “sexually dangerous” or as having  “sexually psychopathic personalities”. These terms are legal determinations assigned to people by a panel of judges during a petition process that the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) initiates as prisoners approach the end of their prison sentence. 

Civil commitment is a non-criminal process that allows for the indefinite detention of people deemed potentially dangerous to the public based on previous conduct and mental health diagnosis. It is a preventative measure that has garnered significant criticism from those detained and their advocates because few people have ever progressed through treatment to release and individuals detained within this system are not afforded the same rights as a person detained as a state prisoner.

In the wake of the ongoing demonstrations and organizing inside the facility, detainees and their advocates report that the facility’s administration has begun using retaliatory tactics to crack down on what they believe ought to be First Amendment-protected speech. “When we did our rallies, we didn’t have a lot of friction with the administration at the beginning,” Daniel Wilson, co-founder of OCEAN, told Perilous, “but when they realized this was something we were going to do every day, they started to come down on us.”

For organizers of OCEAN and End MSOP, an organization of families and other outside supporters, momentum has picked up this year with two hunger strikes taking place in January and July. Following the January strike, in which 10 detainees carried out a hunger strike demanding that the program’s administration provide a “clear path home,” Department of Human Services Director, Jodi Harpstead, agreed to meet virtually with detainees and their advocates to hear their concerns. In these meetings, detainees and advocates presented a document containing 17 Barriers to Release and Potential Solutions to the program’s administration.

In early July, 40 detainees at the facility launched a second hunger strike as negotiations with MSOP administrators stalled. This hunger strike was also an attempt to draw attention to the issues detainees face ahead of a July 18 rally held by End MSOP at which 80 people gathered on the steps of the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul to raise awareness and bring an end to civil commitment. 

Organizers with End MSOP are working to build a coalition of groups concerned with the prevention of sexual harm and the closure of the Moose Lake facility. “We are getting trained on how to make a bill into a law, how to write a bill, how to do lobbying,” says David Boehnke, a member of End MSOP, “there seems to be a turn towards trying to phase out the program and to invest in more effective solutions to sexual violence. I think that’s an exciting direction.”

A financial oversight hearing in front of the Minnesota state legislature committees that determine funding for the civil commitment program was held on August 2. According to David Boehnke, this hearing was framed as an update from the program’s administration regarding the changes that have been proposed following the negotiations prompted by the first hunger strike — “I think that the hunger strikers and their families have created a new moment of political possibility”

At stake is a 96 million dollar budget that advocates for the closure of the program say is a waste of money that could be better spent supporting survivors of harm and investing in evidence-based solutions rather than indefinite detention.

Janet Mackey, a survivor of sexual abuse, retired social worker, and author of Silenced Lives: The Sex Offenders Legacy, agrees that programs like MSOP don’t do what they say they do. “They call themselves treatment facilities, but they really don’t provide treatment,” she said. “What they’re trying to do is just keep people in there for the rest of their lives.”

At the hearing, End MSOP submitted a scathing list of  37 issues to be addressed by the state legislature, charging that the Department of Human Services provides ineffective oversight to the MSOP and can not be depended on to investigate its own budget and abuses. 

Ruby Brewer, a former Clinician at the Moose Lake facility, submitted testimony before the legislative committee as a member of End MSOP. She claims to have “heard other supervisors, unit directors, clinicians, and security refer to clients in derogatory, racist, and discriminatory ways.” Additionally, she and other clinicians were told “we had to lower the scores of quarterlies and annuals to avoid progressing detainees.”

Brewer asserts that though research suggests that sex offender treatment programs should be no longer than 3 years, for detainees sentenced to indefinite treatment at the MSOP, “it takes an average of 17 years just to get to phase 3.”

Eric S. Janus, President and Dean Emeritus of Mitchell Hamline School of Law and a leading national expert on sexual violence law and policy, spoke at the hearing, telling lawmakers that “there is broad consensus that the current system of civil commitment of sex offenders in Minnesota captures too many people and keeps many of them too long.”

“There is a culture of fear here coming down from the administration…”

Detainees say that their resistance has been gathering attention. “Since the rally at  St. Paul,” said Russel Hatton, a first nation Anishinaabe and co-founder of OCEAN, “there’s a lot more mental health professionals who are writing to us and encouraging us that we have to keep up the pressure on them, internally, and what’s going on externally.”

OCEAN organizers are working to build a broad coalition of detainees inside the Moose Lake facility. Lincoln Brown, an artist and detainee at Moose Lake since 1995, says Hatton and Wilson approached him looking for creative ideas to expand on their organizing efforts. Hatton, he says, is “good at community building” and “patient with listening to others and then getting his message through as a result of listening.”

Brown says that in his conversations with Hatton and Wilson, he suggested they put out flyers inviting others at the facility to share their experiences at a rally. “Lo and behold,” Brown said, “ it turned out a lot of guys here feel that they are oppressed, silenced, manipulated. There’s a culture of fear here coming down from the administration.”

Wilson said that he and other OCEAN organizers spent 4 days before their first demonstration on Friday, August 13 practicing the different activities that they planned to do during the rallies. It was important to organizers of OCEAN to decentralize this knowledge so that if the facility administration attempted to isolate the leaders, a common tactic of prison administrations to suppress organizing, there would be at least 5-10 people who were familiar with how to lead the demonstrations. 

OCEAN organizers developed 4 distinct group exercises to be used in collective demonstrations to advocate for the facility’s closure. “The 88 represents the men who have died here trying to get treatment from the state,” says Wilson. After a call and response of “remember the 88,” he says, “then they would put their head down and take a step back from the fence while I read off the 88 names.” Once the names are all called out the participants of the demonstration will then turn and walk in a silent march, weaving through the complex’s buildings.

Another exercise that the detainees do at the rallies involves detainees walking together through the outdoor areas of the complex chanting “Shut it Down” and a call and response of “What do we want? We want to go home! How do we get there? End M-S-O-P!”

After a rally on August 18, several detainees who spoke with Perilous reported that the MSOP administration handed out disciplinary infractions to approximately 25 detainees who were present at the rally. A Minnesota DHS spokesperson confirmed that some protest participants were “cited for behavior during or after protests that violated facility rules and policies.” 

Hatton told Perilous that as of mid-September more than 60 detainees have received protest-related disciplinary infractions, which restrict detainees to their room for up to 60 days and can strip them of privileges they previously earned.

On Wednesday, September 1, just over 2 weeks after the first rally, Daniel Wilson of OCEAN was placed in a segregation unit without explanation, where he remains today. He says that he has yet to be given an official reason for his transfer but that staff verbalized to him that “he wasn’t being transparent.” A Minnesota DHS spokesperson said they could not comment on an individual’s situation or confirm their participation in the program. 

“We just want answers…”

Transparency inside the Moose Lake facility is not a two-way street according to Norberto Salinas. He says that the administration refuses to tell people what their diagnoses are and that when OCEAN organizers lead workshops with other detainees to teach them how to request their files and appeal their diagnosis, the administration attempts to silence them. “We just want answers,” Salinas said he responded during one interaction with staff, “why are you not telling us what our diagnosis is?”

As a native Spanish speaker who spoke little English when committed to the MSOP 10 years ago, Salinas also feels like he faces language barriers and discrimination in the program, “I believe that by not understanding English as well, it is holding me back in treatment.” Salinas says he has been repeatedly denied the right to a bilingual primary therapist and that interpreters provided by MSOP lack the training and vocabulary necessary to adequately translate in a therapeutic setting. 

He added that the one staff member who speaks Spanish told him he was forbidden by facility administration to speak in Spanish to detainees. Salinas says this “one standard” way that the facility operates is forcing him to abandon his language and culture, “I feel like the Natives back then who were put into boarding schools.” 

Boarding schools, also known as residential schools for indigenous youth, were used across the U.S. and Canada to forcibly intern indigenous youth and assimilate them into Western culture. These schools are widely known to have been abusive and ethno-genocidal, violently stripping Indigenous peoples of their languages and cultures and displacing children from their families. 

Detainees report that the clinical staff and review board do not reflect in racial representation the people whose fate they are tasked with determining. “There’s no Native American psychologist, there’s no Hispanic American psychologist, there’s no African American psychologist,” said Hatton.

According to Makija Hakeem, a detainee at Moose Lake since March of 2010, such racial disparities are the status quo. In July 2012, Hakeem filed a lawsuit against 12 MSOP officials alleging various incidents of racial and religious discrimination. Hakeem told Perilous that he is regularly called the “n” word by both white staff and detainees at the facility and the administration has failed to adequately address it despite court orders to do so. 

The racial discrimination that Hatton, Salinas, and Hakeem face as racialized people inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program is emblematic of the state’s prison system. In a 2016 report, Ashely Nellis, Ph.D. found that people who are Black in Minnesota were 10 times more likely to serve time in a state prison than whites. 

One of several racially biased determinants Nellis cites as causing this disparity in representation between Blacks and whites in prison is that “people of color are frequently given harsher sanctions because they are perceived as imposing a greater threat to public safety and are therefore deserving of greater social control and punishment.”

Sitting around a table with 3 other OCEAN organizers on Friday 13 following the 120 person rally, Hatton remarked on the multiracial character at the rallies and how motivating it was to see that unity develop organically, moving one of the organizers to tears. “Native American, Caucasian, African American, Asian,” he said, “ that was pretty powerful.”

Ridley Seawood is a member of the Perilous Editorial Collective and is based in Tucson, Arizona. Email them: