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A group of sex offenders at a northern Minnesota treatment center is refusing to attend therapy sessions, while others are wearing black clothing as a show of solidarity, amid growing unrest after three men housed there died and scores more were sickened by the novel coronavirus.

The acts of defiance were organized to call attention to what offenders see as poor infection-control practices and the historically low rate of release from the state's prisonlike treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Most of the nearly 740 offenders held at the centers have completed prison sentences for sexual offenses but remain locked up for years or even decades under Minnesota's civil commitment law.

Tensions have been rising for months over the program's response to a large outbreak of COVID-19 within the state-operated treatment program, including complaints that many staff members and clients weren't wearing masks in common areas or remaining apart.

Since the start of the pandemic, 101 staff members and 88 clients at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) have had confirmed COVID-19 infections. At least three clients have died at the Moose Lake center since early December, and periodic lockdowns have been imposed to prevent the virus' spread in the sprawling complex.

"It was a catastrophe waiting to happen, and it did," said Matthew Feeney, 51, a Moose Lake client who contracted the virus last fall. "MSOP had nine months to see and watch the rest of the world prepare, yet their plan didn't isolate people who had contact with known infectious people."

The Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees the sex offender program, said stringent infection-control procedures have been implemented at both MSOP campuses, including voluntary weekly testing of staff and residents. MSOP has reduced group sizes and requires clients to wear masks whenever they're outside their rooms.

As of Friday, there were no active COVID-19 infections among clients, though three staff members reported being infected, the agency said.

"The health and safety of our clients and staff is our top priority across Direct Care and Treatment," the division that oversees the program, said Deputy Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson. "Since the pandemic began, we have taken aggressive preventive measures to keep the virus out of our facilities and have practiced rigorous infection control."

But while infections have abated, the fast-moving outbreak last fall heightened long-simmering concerns over civil liberties.

Last month, a group of offenders began wearing black on Mondays to honor those who have died and to protest what they contend is the absence of a clear path for release. The activism grew more serious last week when many of the Moose Lake clients stopped attending group psychotherapy sessions, a core part of the treatment program.

Beyond those visible efforts, offenders at Moose Lake have quietly been spreading their concerns to advocates, family members and others outside the razor wire. They recently launched a Facebook page and a print and online newsletter that highlights long-standing grievances with the MSOP's multistage treatment program, including the protracted nature of the confinements and disputes over diagnoses.

"Our hope is this [activism] will trigger the right authorities to do something about blatantly obvious, unconstitutional problems … and we can maybe address these issues from the inside out," said Daniel A. Wilson, 33, a Moose Lake client and co-founder of the newsletter known as OCEAN.

Even small protests have been rare at Minnesota's tightly controlled and secretive sex offender treatment program. Many of the convicted rapists, pedophiles and other offenders committed to the program are estranged from their relatives and have lost hope for release after years of indefinite confinement and multiple failed legal challenges. While releases have accelerated in recent years, only 13 offenders have been fully released without conditions from the MSOP over its 27-year history.

Yet offenders say attitudes began to change following a 2015 federal court trial that exposed the inner workings of the program. In a scathing ruling, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said a program designed to treat offenders for sexual disorders had become punitive in nature, wrongly confining offenders who could be treated in less-restrictive community settings. He ruled the program unconstitutional and ordered the state to release offenders who no longer posed a threat to public safety.

Though overturned by a higher court, the ruling fueled expectations for accelerated releases and emboldened some offenders to push back against a civil commitment system that captures many but releases few, according to offenders and outside advocates.

"People are finally getting to a place where they see that the MSOP won't do anything to assist [them], so now it's time for us to take the matter into our own hands," said Kenneth Daywitt, 38, who has been held at the MSOP since 2009.

Robert Lee Smith, 57, a client at Moose Lake, said he "screamed at the top of my voice" from his room when he heard news that the program had been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge. He was so convinced of his impending release that he began packing his belongings and called his mother to say he was coming home. After the ruling, Smith said he resolved "to walk through fire" to make it out of MSOP and to advocate for others. "[The ruling] has given me hope," Smith said.

Much of the recent activism has been triggered by the pandemic and concerns about mask-wearing. The DHS said it began requiring all staff members to wear masks in early May, but several residents at Moose Lake said masks were not consistently worn by the staff until late summer. Mask-wearing was less common among clients; many continued to wander the halls without them until November, the clients said.

In a statement, DHS said mask use evolved at the MSOP during the pandemic along with changing state and federal guidelines. On May 6, all staff members were required to wear masks, while all clients were required to wear them while working paid jobs. It was not until Nov. 6 — eight months after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Minnesota — that MSOP required all clients to wear cloth masks outside their rooms.

Daywitt said he and a number of clients had complained about the absence of a mask-wearing mandate for clients, but their concerns were ignored. "It's actually appalling that the MSOP thought it not necessary to make clients be mandated to wear a mask until November," he said. "This is a public environment. … We're moving about with other people and it's really difficult to socially distance yourself."

Feeney, who has been at the MSOP for a year, said he suspects the lax use of masks explains why he contracted COVID-19 in November. After testing positive, Feeney said, he was forced to stay in a locked room for five weeks and was only allowed out for 15 minutes a day to shower or make a phone call. Feeney said no one at the Moose Lake facility checked on his mental health during his first three weeks in solitary confinement.

"You would think that a mental health treatment facility would be exceptionally aware of the additional stresses and burdens put on those clients confined 23 ¾ hours a day, especially those who received the additional stress of a positive [COVID-19] test result," Feeney wrote in his personal journal that he shared.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres