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For high-risk sex offenders in North Dakota, there’s a place between prison and freedom

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news Fargo, 58102
Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

GRAND FORKS – When sex offenders in North Dakota are about to be released from prison, they are given a risk assessment by a committee with the state attorney general’s office. When they are released, they are given a low, moderate or high rating.

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However, some are given a more serious designation that prevents them from returning to freedom.

According to the state attorney general’s sex offender website, a person deemed “sexually dangerous” is “someone who has been committed for custody and treatment by a court after making findings that the person 1) engaged in sexually predatory conduct, and 2) has a disorder or dysfunction making them likely to engage in further acts of sexually predatory conduct.”

These people are civilly committed for treatment in the Gronewald-Middleton Building at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown.

The program, which began in 1997 with one sex offender, is not the same as prison. But those in the program are still secured away in a ward behind a set of at least three locking doors, and no offender has completed the program in less than three years.

However, without longer mandatory sentencing for sex offenses and the concerning results of offenders’ risk assessments, the state has little else to do but commit them for treatment. Additionally, the abduction, sexual assault and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003 by a level 3 sex offender – the highest risk level in Minnesota – living in Crookston created an outcry that spiked the number of offenders committed to the program.

Kerry Wicks, the clinical administrator of the program, said people began rethinking the re-entry of sex offenders in the community around that time, and the program’s population grew from the low teens to more than 50.

“People became very aware and very alarmed, and so I think the entire system started taking a harder look (at sex offenders),” he said.

Not quite prison

Currently 58 men are housed in the Gronewald-Middleton Building’s four wards. Those who refuse treatment or threaten violence to themselves or others are housed in a high-observation ward, while those who are progressing in their program live in a more communal ward.

Those responding to treatment work with a group of licensed therapists and a psychologist to work through the program’s stages, which help them move past rationalization in order to take responsibility for their actions.

With its hallway of lockers, bedrooms and lounge complete with TV, games and fish tank, the ward resembles an older college dormitory floor. The ward is very self-sufficient as well. Offenders are in charge of the cleaning, and jobs available to program members such as laundry and assembly shop go toward cleaning and refurbishing equipment for the hospital.

Like offenders in community-based programs, offenders in this ward work through the steps of the sexual assault cycle, which include poor self-image, withdrawing from the community, desire for power/control, sexual assault, guilt and repression.

Offenders who are progressing in their program are awarded more privileges, such as access to the basement, where the gym and workshops are housed.

Making progress

Loring Sky Rush is one of the men with basement privileges, which he uses to exercise. In 2007, Sky Rush was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl when he was 18.

After being released from prison, he was civilly committed to the State Hospital but didn’t cooperate with treatment. He said he broke out a few windows in the ward and was sent back to prison. After being re-released and returning to the program, he began to invest himself in his treatment.

On June 7, Sky Rush, now 28 and extremely courteous, took a break from his workout to discuss his current situation.

“I do believe there is a purpose here and there is treatment,” he said.

He said his reluctance to accept treatment came from his pride.

“I didn’t want to say I was a sex offender,” he said. “I didn’t want to take responsibility.”

However, for the past two years, Sky Rush has worked halfway up to step two of the program.

This kind of response is what the program is seeking, said Wes Heinley, who runs the vocational program.

“What you’re trying to do is prepare them for the out(side),” Heinley said.

The vocational program is open to those men who have basement privileges, and it allows men to work for minimum wage at jobs meant to teach them skills they can use to get jobs after being released from the program.

Brynner Rennecke, 23, works in the woodworking shop. He said he has learned to use nearly every machine in the woodshop, and he repairs and restores chairs and frames that are used on the ward and in the rest of the State Hospital.

Rennecke, who was charged with gross sexual imposition for sexual contact with children while he was a teenager, has been in the program since 2008. He said he only began taking it seriously about two years ago.

“You’ve got to be committed and willing to learn,” he said.

Since getting involved, he said both the staff and other members of the program have been very nice and helpful.

Closer to release

The men who have progressed far enough in their treatment move up to step three and are transitioned from the locked ward to a housing unit on the hospital grounds.

At this location, they wear GPS trackers and live a close simulation of a life on the outside. They work a full-time job on the hospital grounds, pay their rent and carry on as they would on the outside. They are also transported to community-based treatment in downtown Jamestown to prepare them for future community-based treatment wherever they might live.

There are currently three men at this point of the program, but it still takes about a year for an offender to make the transition from this step to society. Wicks said the shortest time it ever took someone to complete the program and be released was three years.

Despite the lengthiness of the program, Wicks said people are motivated to complete it because it is their ticket out of the hospital.

“That might be the biggest incentive,” Wicks said. “This isn’t a program where people can just come in and do time. They have to make the changes. It’s a very demanding program. The average length of stay is quite a lot longer than three years.”

Although the risk of reoffense for the program’s population is incredibly high, Wicks stands by the program’s ability to rehabilitate some of the state’s toughest cases so they are not confined interminably and can re-enter society.

“I think the program has been highly successful,” he said, adding that of the 26 men who have been discharged, only three have returned to prison, and not all three were for sex offenses. “I think there are (other) programs that rarely discharge folks.”

Sky Rush has not yet reached this point in his program, and he is hesitant to get ahead of himself when thinking about it.

“The past is part of me, but that doesn’t mean that’s who I am today,” he said. “I believe that changes will come.”

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