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Protesters honk for hunger strikers, call for end of Moose Lake sex offender program

Clients and their supporters are calling for an end to the state program, which discharges few of the hundreds of the men it locks up.

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Robert Johnson and Cherry Osborne hold a sign reading "End civil commitment now!" at the honk-in protest at the Minnesota Sexual Offender Program in Moose Lake on Sunday, July 11, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)
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MOOSE LAKE, Minn. — Loud honks were heard Sunday, July 11, as protesters gathered outside of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program Moose Lake facility to support the residents in a hunger strike.

According to members of organizing groups Ocean and End MSOP, around 40 detainees inside the facility started a hunger strike on July 4 to call for an end to "an indefinite detention program they believe is an unconstitutional death sentence." The strikers have put out calls for an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz or a sponsored bill to close the program.

"Our goal here today is to head over to the facility to honk and make some noise to let the people in there know that we care about them," said David Boehnke, organizer from End MSOP. "We're well into a hunger strike by the men in there and they're calling for action to end this kind of detainment."

MSOP houses approximately 743 sex offenders under court-ordered civil commitment for treatment, with about 450 at Moose Lake and nearly 300 at a facility in St. Peter. The program has been controversial since its inception in 1994, with courts granting only 14 full discharges and 45 provisional discharges over that time.

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Protesters drive down to the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program facility in Moose Lake for a honk-in protest on Sunday, July 11, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

According to protesters, three of the hunger strikers were hospitalized as of Saturday and 28 remain on strike. Protesters also claim the facility has told detainees that it's not considered an "official hunger strike unless they are refusing both food and water."

"We've already had four men on strike collapse, and two of them are still in the hospital today," Boehnke said. "We have members of their families here today to show support for them as they continue on."

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One such family member was Robert Johnson of Longville, Minn. His son Jeremiah has been in the facility for 16 years. He said when a psychiatrist talked to him about the program, he was told his son could be out in less than four years.
"So he said, 'OK, I'll plead guilty.' And there he sits, 16 years later, never getting a chance for parole," Johnson said. "They keep sending him to prison on assault charges. There's probably 20-30 cases there every month of assault charges on staff."

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Family members of men in the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program in Moose Lake honk and pump fists in solidarity after protesting at the facility on July 11, 2021. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

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Johnson said his son tries to follow the rules so that he can get visitor privileges but the environment inside the facility makes it difficult.

"He gets pretty frustrated and discouraged. But that's the problem they have there, every man in there is frustrated because they're never going to get out," Johnson said. "That's how they keep getting all these assault charges. The frustration builds up because they have no hope."

About 25 people gathered at the McDonald's restaurant near the facility to make signs and prepare for the honk-in. Family members piled into cars with bright signs and lined up to drive into the facility around 2:30 p.m. After about an hour of honking, the protesters dispersed when more law enforcement arrived and asked them to leave.

The protesters are also organizing a community conversation and rally at the St. Paul Capitol next Sunday, July 18, and more info can be found on the End MSOP Facebook page.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services and the MSOP didn't respond to a request for comment as of the publishing deadline.

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David Boehnke of End MSOP, talks to the family members and fellow protesters in the parking lot of a McDonald's near the Minnesota Sexual Offenders Program facility in Moose Lake. (Teri Cadeau / tcadeau@duluthnews.com)

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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