Minnesota Jails & Prisons



How bad is Minnesota's budget deficit? Mega-bad
Today's two-year projection could be as high as $6 billion; "every spending program, every tax has to be on the table." The news will be delivered at an 11:15 a.m. press conference.

By PATRICIA LOPEZ, Star Tribune 

Last update: December 4, 2008 - 8:33 AM

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State budget officials will release a two-year economic projection today that is expected to show Minnesota facing a deficit of anywhere from $4.5 billion to as much as $6 billion. At the upper end, the red ink would equal nearly 17 percent of the state's total budget.

"This is without question going to be the worst deficit in modern history," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. "We're heading into a terrible storm, and we have nothing left to face it with."

The state's budget reserve stands at a wafer-thin $153 million -- about one-tenth of the minimum recommended amount -- and that is about to disappear as the state attempts to head off its most immediate crisis: a short-term deficit for the remainder of the current budget period, which ends on June 30.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that immediate shortfall will be "noteworthy" but will be dwarfed in size and scope by the two-year deficit projection. Budget officials have not publicly stated the amount, but Cohen and others say they are anticipating $5 billion. "I would not be shocked to see $6 billion," Cohen said.

Unlike the federal government, the state is constitutionally required to balance its budget, a constraint that will force elected officials to consider options they've never looked at before.

"We can't tax our way out of this problem," said Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "You cannot raise taxes by that much. You can't cut the state budget by that much, either. I would argue that everything -- every spending program, every tax -- has to be on the table. This will require a major reprioritization of programs."

Health care, schools, prisons, road projects, local government aid, all could come under the budget knife in the coming months.

"This isn't one of those things where you can tinker around the edges," Bakk said.

Worse than before

Minnesota has weathered mega-deficits before, most notably in 2003, when it stared down a $4.2 billion shortfall. The state's budget still bears the scars from that one -- year-to-year actual reductions in K-12 spending, cuts in health-care rolls, a thousand nicks from fee increases, higher property taxes.

The state avoided deeper pain by availing itself of several sizable pots of money, including about $1 billion in endowments from its 1998 settlement with tobacco companies.

This time, the cupboards are virtually bare and the downturn comes amid a national financial meltdown.

Tom Hanson, commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget (formerly known as the Department of Finance), said his staff has been frantically plugging in new numbers as economic conditions change, sometimes hourly.

The conclusion? "This recession is going to be longer and deeper than any in a generation," Hanson said. "We're going to be slow coming out of it."

Pawlenty has warned that he plans to take immediate action to stanch the flow of revenues out the door even as the deficits pile up. From a gathering in Philadelphia where he and other governors met Tuesday with President-elect Barack Obama, Pawlenty said that he will meet with leaders in the DFL-controlled House but is prepared to reduce spending in this budget period single-handedly if necessary. When faced with an immediate deficit, the governor has the power to "unallot," or rescind previously approved spending.

That could mean swift cuts in health care and social services, an area Pawlenty has repeatedly said is spiraling out of control. Bakk agrees.

Health and Human services went up 14 percent in the last budget, he said. "That spending somehow has to get under control. Health care is going to bankrupt this state."

Other options

Few options will bring in much on their own. A 75-cent increase in the cigarette tax would yield $300 million.

A 5 percent across-the-board spending cut would yield $1.8 billion, Cohen said, but that includes K-12, Take K-12 out of the mix, he said, and you'd have to cut everything else 17 percent to achieve the same savings.

Some old ideas, previously rejected, may get dusted off in the hunt for revenue. State gambling casino, anyone? Slots in bars? "I've heard talk about both already," Cohen said.

Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, and Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, on Wednesday pitched privatization of some state assets, specifically the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Minnesota State Lottery.

Chicago recently privatized its secondary airport, Midway, Michel said, which fetched a cool $2.5 billion. DFLers have said such a proposal could compromise national security.

One controversial source of immediate funds could be the state's newly passed constitutional amendment raising the state sales tax by 3/8 of 1 percent. The revenue, projected at $300 million annually, is dedicated to environment and the arts. Using that money to shore up the budget would prompt criticism and challenges, but the alternative, some legislators say, is allowing new spending on arts and lakes while schools lay off teachers and families lose health care.

"I've never been at as much of a loss as I am with this one," said Cohen, who together with Bakk is tasked with crafting the Senate's budget proposal. Pawlenty's budget proposal is due in late January.

Bright spot

A possible infusion of federal funds, in the form of a stimulus package aimed at states, could help, Hanson said, although Pawlenty has already registered his disapproval of federal deficit spending. Hanson noted that the state's national forecaster, Global Insight, is building the prospect of such a package into its assumptions.

"We're going to need all the help we can get," Bakk said.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288


Bigger, safer, stronger: A prison for the future


Construction workers made their way into the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault grounds to work on updating some of the buildings. The challenge has been daunting for the state Department of Corrections: Many of the dozens of buildings on the 140-acre campus weren’t fire-safe, and officers often had to maneuver narrow stairwells along with inmates they guarded in old building

The Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault - with new living quarters, high-tech security and a remodeled "senior" unit - will soon become Minnesota's largest prison. 

Last update: September 30, 2008 - 11:33 PM

FARIBAULT, MINN. - From where Toinette Gliem sits she can watch all four wings inside one of Faribault prison's new living units. Computer technology allows her to lock and unlock doors, explore corners of the wings with video cameras, even switch lights and water on and off. ¶ "There's a lot more control," said Gliem, 25, who works at computers designed to detect trouble. "It's just good all around. It's safer for the inmates, it's safer for the staff."

Because of legislative appropriations totaling $129 million over the past three years, this sprawling medium-security institution in southeast Minnesota is rapidly transforming into the state's largest prison, already rivaling Stillwater. New, more secure buildings are opening while others are being remodeled or razed. 

As the landscape of this former hospital for the developmentally disabled changes, the Minnesota Department of Corrections has begun shifting an additional 600 inmates to Faribault. By the end of 2009, the prison will house 2,025 men.

"In our old buildings, we had four, six, eight guys [per room] in some of those dormitories," said Connie Roehrich, Faribault's warden. "Too many people, too many problems."

Many of the new inmates will come from Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison in Appleton, Minn., where the state rents about 770 beds because of crowding at the state's eight adult prisons, said David Crist, the DOC's assistant commissioner of facilities services.

When the 140-acre Faribault campus became a prison in 1989, many of the 40 buildings were dilapidated and dangerous for corrections officers. When construction and demolition end next year, the prison will have about 20 remaining buildings, many of them new.

Gliem's high-tech K-3 building, shaped like the letter K, is one of three of identical size that opened this spring. A fourth K building will open soon. The prison also has other living units, including a minimum-security dormitory outside the security fence, and Linden, a remodeled "senior" unit for older and disabled prisoners.

One of the disabled inmates is William Myears, 30, convicted of murdering a 24-year-old Brainerd woman in 2002. Because of a neurological ailment that paralyzed his legs a couple of years ago, Myears uses a wheelchair. After remodeling began on the Linden unit, he was transferred to K-3, which has adapted cells for people with disabilities.

"I do very well here," said Myears, who has nine years remaining on his sentence. "I am going to hopefully stay here because everything was built here for people with certain needs. I would prefer to stay here."

High-tech security

It's early afternoon at Faribault prison. The streets are empty on the 140-acre campus except for officers scooting past on golf carts. Three officers wearing rubber gloves lead a hulking handcuffed inmate in blue pajamas down a sidewalk. This is "count" time at Faribault, when officers lock up every inmate to make sure nobody's given them the slip. Within an hour, the streets again fill with inmates on their way to jobs, the clinic and the dining hall.

These are mostly men who have decided they've had enough of prison, Crist said. "They're tired of wasting their lives," he said, and want to return to their families. Many of them, however, have lived at Faribault prison long enough to think of it as home.

Because of the surge of construction money, the prison looks much different than it did even two years ago. 

The old food service building -- a crowded, troubled place -- has been remodeled into the prison's gleaming new health services building where pills are dispensed, teeth are pulled and doctors tend to a gamut of illnesses. 

Nearby, the new food service building accommodates four times as many inmates as the old one. It has features such as "blind" serving windows to prevent eye contact and therefore favoritism and bullying, and dividing walls to isolate trouble in the event of a disturbance. Several officers converge there at meal times to watch over the dining room, because when full, it seats 632 inmates.

"No discussions here about what's on your tray. You get what comes out," Roehrich said. "You don't pick and choose your buddy, your table."

The state's commitment to upgrading the prison is evident in the stark contrast between the K units and a former hospital building being torn down nearby. 

The old Redwood building, a relic from the mental hospital era, housed 250 men but had hundreds of blind corners. Fire danger -- and no running water -- meant prisoners couldn't be locked in their rooms. Officers had to navigate stairwells with the men they guarded and often were out of view of fellow officers.

That's not the case in K-3, where floor officers watch inmates under pools of white light. Officers in individual wings can see each other through reinforced glass. Each wing houses 104 men. Gliem, at the hub, can lock all the doors in one wing from her computer if officers need to leave their posts to help their colleagues.

"They all can pay attention to each other so it's much more of a team sort of atmosphere, taking care of each other," Roehrich said. "For officers, it's a whole different sense from how it used to be in our other buildings."

Technology being installed at Faribault is similar to new technology at other Minnesota prisons, even supermax Oak Park Heights, which houses the state's most dangerous inmates, said Lynn Dingle, the DOC's deputy commissioner for facilities. The difference is the degree of security. 

More inmates, more beds

At least for a couple of years, Faribault's expansion will take pressure off Minnesota's prisons and reduce the state's reliance on the private prison at Appleton.

"It's not new to us," said Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, which runs the Appleton prison. The company will fill the beds of departing Minnesota inmates with federal prisoners or prisoners from other states, he said.

Crist said that Minnesota's prison population is expected to rise again after 2010, but the Faribault project creates much-needed space for medium-security inmates. 

"The prison's been a good neighbor," said Chuck Ackman, mayor of the city of 22,800. "It kept some good jobs in Faribault. Stable jobs, stable employment." 

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

Inmate William Myears sat in his jail cell designed to accommodate his disability. The new room is located in one of the three new housing units built on the prison grounds. 

The Minnesota Department of Corrections is using $129 million in Legislative appropriations to remodel a former state mental hospital in Faribault into a secure, high-tech prison. Shown is a diagram of the prison and the phases of construction and renovation.  Click Link  The Making of a Prison

Locked in limbo

Jim Gehrz, 

James Poole was committed in 1999 as a sexually psychopathic personality and sexually dangerous person. Poole is a former Wheaton, Minn., physician. He was commitment after he served an eight-year prison sentence for sexually touching female patients during pelvic exams.

Minnesota commits a greater proportion of sex offenders to treatment lock-ups after prison than any other state. No one has been released, costs are mounting, and questions are increasing.

By LARRY OAKES, Star Tribune 

June 11, 2008

MOOSE LAKE -- In the 14 years since Minnesota's Sexually Dangerous Persons Act cleared the way for the state to detain hundreds of paroled sex offenders in prison-like treatment centers, just 24 men have met what has proved to be the only acceptable standard for release. 

They died. 

"We would say, 'Another one completed treatment,'" said Andrew Babcock, a former guard and counselor in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). 

Minnesota now has 544 men and one woman behind razor wire as a result of sex-offender civil commitments -- nearly one of every seven nationwide, and the most nationally per-capita. 

Most have completed their prison sentences. They are being detained for the stated purpose of treating them until they are no longer dangerous. 

Only Washington state preceded Minnesota in handling paroled offenders this way. Now, 19 states and the federal government, which last year began its own commitment system, are detaining a total of nearly 4,000 former prison inmates for indefinite treatment. 

The MSOP began with support from the public and legislators angered that paroled rapists had murdered several young women in the late 1980s. The 2003 killing of college student Dru Sjodin by newly released rapist Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. prompted a new surge of commitments of all types of sex criminals, from rapists to nonviolent molesters.

"This is a very unique group that goes after vulnerable victims," said former state Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, who helped draft the Sexually Dangerous Persons law. "Society has a constitutional and moral obligation to keep people from hurting others."

Pam Poirier, the mother of Katie Poirier, who was murdered by released rapist Donald Blom in 1999, said she would be content if no one in the MSOP is ever released. "You can't even call these men animals," Poirier said. "I say build more prisons and put them out in the desert somewhere." 

But the MSOP's rising cost -- now $67 million a year -- and lack of measurable success are causing growing unease among legislators, victim advocates, judges and even the program's designers.

The financial burdens imposed by the program raise compelling questions:

• Taxpayers have spent at least a half-billion dollars on the MSOP and the commitment system feeding it, but the program can't point to the successful treatment of a single offender.

• Each "patient" costs taxpayers $134,000 a year -- three times the amount state prisons spend to treat sex offenders. Yet the state has only about 300 adult treatment beds in prison, while the MSOP has plans to double its 400-bed capacity.

• The MSOP deals with less than 3 percent of Minnesota's 20,000 predatory offenders but consumes more than half of what the state spends yearly to control and track them.

• The MSOP's budget, which has tripled since 2004, is more than seven times the amount the state spends to monitor the 3,500 sex offenders on probation. The state spends less to keep 31 offenders on electronic home monitoring each year than it does to keep just one offender in the MSOP. 

"It's just an awful lot of taxpayer money for what we're getting,'' said Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the budget division of the Health and Human Services Committee, which oversees the program's funding. "We've cut everything else in God's green Earth, but we've spent a lot of new resources on this group. They go in but they don't come out."

Ratcheting up

The MSOP was created to treat small numbers of the state's worst sex criminals. But the killing of Sjodin prompted officials to begin committing soon-to-be-released prisoners at a much higher rate, from an average of 15 per year before 2003 to 50 per year since.

That same year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty prohibited releases not required by law or court order. His order came after then-Attorney General and eventual gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch accused the administration of planning releases to save money.

Pawlenty declined to discuss the program with the Star Tribune. The governor's order barring releases remains in effect, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said late last month.

The MSOP's population surged past all similar programs except California's, which has 703 hospitalized offenders in a state with a population six times greater than Minnesota's. An 800-bed, $131 million expansion is underway at the MSOP's Moose Lake facility to handle the influx.

"It's kind of gotten way out of control. ... We're filling these treatment facilities as fast as we can build them," said Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, who cosponsored the Sexually Dangerous Persons law. "Rodriguez ratcheted everything up. No one wants to be blamed for letting anybody slip through the cracks."

And no one wants to release someone who might reoffend -- although 13 other states have released a total of more than 250. Experts say the MSOP's lack of discharges increases the odds that the courts will declare the program unconstitutional and order the detainees released.

"At some point a federal judge might say all you're doing is incarcerating people after their prison sentences," Betzold said. "At some point you have to show some result."

Some state judges have already reached that point. In February, Olmsted County District Judge Kevin Lund refused to commit rapist Robert Tolbert, even as he ruled that Tolbert, 30, is a sexually dangerous person.

Instead, the judge ordered Tolbert back to prison for treatment or until the end of his sentence in 2012.

"Since no patient has ever been discharged," Lund wrote, "... the [MSOP] is not a treatment program, and [MSOP] facilities are not treatment facilities. These facilities are nothing more than detention facilities."

The county, joined by the state Corrections Department, has appealed.

Wes Kooistra, assistant commissioner of the Department of Human Services, which runs the MSOP, said the lack of releases "deserves public discussion." But he added that the bar for release should be high.

"That's why they're in our program -- because they have victimized innocent people," he said.

Most molested children

The patients, as the program refers to its residents, range from 19 to 81 years old. While state officials refused to release their names, citing privacy laws, the Star Tribune obtained names and other information on about 350 of them through other means, including their commitment papers and other public records.

Of the 350, seven are convicted killers, and a few dozen have histories of violent rape. The majority molested children, usually by means of coercion or manipulation. Many victimized their own children or other relatives. About one in 10 have only juvenile records.

Many were molested themselves as children.

Their histories are disturbing but don't all fit the violent predator stereotype. Here are four examples:

• Christopher Welin, 29, was committed on his 19th birthday. He spent most of his teens in juvenile detention after being declared delinquent at 12 for molesting and raping his little brother and other children.

• Dr. James Poole, 69, was convicted in 1991 of molesting female patients and imprisoned for eight years. He also admits sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl and several teens, including his daughter. He was committed in 1999.

• Ben Alverson, 32, had sexual relationships with two girls, ages 13 and 14, while he was in his early 20s. He was imprisoned three years and committed in 2005 after violating probation.

• Dwane Peterson, 28, is one of two patients with no sex crime on his record. Peterson, however, had sexual fantasies about children and wrote to them. He also kidnapped an elderly man. He was committed based on his history of sexual obsession and stalking, and the risk that he might offend.

Then there is Dennis Linehan, 67, who calls himself the MSOP's "poster child" and whose history is a parent's worst nightmare.

Imprisoned for killing 14-year-old Barbara Iversen in 1965 during an attempted rape, he escaped in 1975 and was caught while trying to assault a 12-year-old girl.

His prison release was approaching in 1992 when authorities committed him as a "psychopathic personality." The state Supreme Court overturned the decision, saying he didn't have an "utter lack" of control over his sexual impulses, the standard required by Minnesota's 1939 Psychopathic Personality law. The Legislature responded by passing the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act, allowing the recommitment of Linehan and lowering the standard. Judges can now commit any offender deemed by psychologists to have a mental or personality disorder and likely to reoffend. 

In 1995, the state opened the $20 million, 100-bed Sexual Psychopathic Personality Treatment Center in Moose Lake. As the program grew, it divided offenders primarily between Moose Lake and another site in St. Peter, though about 100 of the 545 inmates now are housed elsewhere and typically not reported as part of the population. Sixty-three of the about 100 were sent back to prison for release violations, to be returned to the MSOP afterward. An additional 37 who are developmentally disabled or elderly are in different facilities, including three in a state nursing home.

More treatment in prison

Both prison-based treatment and the MSOP provide group therapy, classes and other meetings. But the MSOP provides less treatment at a higher cost. According to prison officials, it costs about $100 a day to treat and house a sex offender in prison. In the MSOP, it costs more than $350 a day.

While the state says MSOP residents get five to 18 hours of treatment weekly, treatment records released by patients show that many got only five to six hours. Margretta Dwyer, former director of a sex offender outpatient program at the University of Minnesota and a volunteer adviser to MSOP residents, surveyed patients and came to the same conclusion.

"It averaged out around 5 1/2 hours per week, which makes it more like outpatient treatment,'' said Dwyer, a critic of the program. In contrast, Lino Lakes prison offers a minimum of 12 treatment hours weekly, according to the Corrections Department and former inmates.

The disparity widens when breaks are factored in. The MSOP has monthlong breaks between "trimesters," each of which contains its own weeklong break. That adds up to almost four months a year without treatment -- a deficiency cited by the Department of Human Services' own Licensing Division.

In contrast, Lino Lakes prison has four weeks of breaks a year.

A 2005 report by the Vermont Legislative Council concluded that Minnesota "is essentially warehousing sex offenders in mental health facilities at a cost far higher than that to incarcerate them in prison."

In most ways the MSOP is indistinguishable from prison, with cell blocks and lockdowns for searches. Residents earn modest wages cleaning bathrooms or making signs for state office buildings. They can also work out in the gym, read in the library and visit a computer room, though it lacks Internet access.

The MSOP counts work, classes and exercise as treatment because each is therapeutic, said assistant commissioner Kooistra, who added that the number of breaks is something "we're going to look at." But he said that the breaks are more than the term implies.

"What's going on during that time is a lot of assessment, a lot of team meetings," Kooistra said. "There's an increase in patient activities," such as work and recreation. "It's not like everybody's watching TV."

Administrators say that constant supervision also is part of their treatment, done mostly by "security counselors" trained to guard patients and document day-to-day behavior.

Growing uneasiness

Last year, the MSOP published a mission statement: "To promote public safety by providing a safe and secure environment in which civilly committed sex offenders are offered the opportunity to participate in high-quality treatment programs that enhance the success of their re-entry into society."

In theory, then, eventual releases from the program are a given. But in February, Ann LaValley-Wood, the assistant clinical director, wrote in a memo to a patient that "the focus of the program is not completion. It is consistent demonstration of behavioral change."

As the program grows older and larger, so too, critics say, grows the distance between its promise and what it delivers.

Dr. Michael Farnsworth, the psychiatrist who helped design the program, quit his post after the 2003 exchange between Pawlenty and Hatch, saying the MSOP was "mired in politics.'' Farnsworth said the state has a dilemma: "How do you release somebody after building them up as monsters?"

The MSOP's rapid growth has forced the Legislature to appropriate additional money for it in every bonding bill since 2003. Berglin said that meanwhile the state has cut millions from programs for at-risk kids -- the pool from which experts say many sex offenders emerge.

"You'd have to conclude that the only people we're concerned about in the state of Minnesota during the past four years are [committed] sex offenders,'' Berglin complained during one hearing. Other legislators have asked why treatment costs so much less in prison, where 83 offenders have completed the two- to three-year program since 2002.

Last fall, Dennis Benson, then deputy commissioner of corrections, told a House-Senate subcommittee that the prison system offers better "economy of scale" -- larger facilities and more inmates to spread out the costs.

Benson said corrections officials were castigated after the Sjodin killing for referring too few offenders for possible civil commitment -- only eight in 2001. He said employees "were accused of saving money -- all kinds of what I think are ridiculous accusations." After Sjodin, he said, "we tried to tighten it up," jumping to 170 referrals in 2004.

"We are trying to put the right people through the process so that we don't have another tragedy," he said.

Berglin replied: "When it was eight or 13, I said it wasn't enough. But I didn't think that meant we'd get 150." In an interview, she added: "The vast majority of sex offenders in this state are not committed. They're living out in the community, and for the most part successfully. ... You know, it's very possible that some of the people who have been committed would have been in that [group]."

This spring the state appointed Benson to head the MSOP. Almost immediately he and some legislators toured Wisconsin's program for civilly committed sex offenders. The program has discharged 14 people after what was deemed successful treatment. An additional 19 won release in legal challenges or risk reassessments, according to director Steve Watters.

Of those 33, only two have reoffended sexually, which Watters attributes partly to the close tabs kept on those transitioning to freedom.

Benson said he'd like to model more of the MSOP after Wisconsin's program.

A 'Pandora's box'?

In 2006 the MSOP's citizen review board observed that the program "is beginning to look like a black hole. ... There has to be a way to assuage the public's fear while providing a genuine therapeutic intervention.''

A former member of that board, retired state District Judge Linn Slattengren, said that "the system is so restricted by political pressures that some offenders are effectively imprisoned for life" after committing crimes that wouldn't merit that sentence in criminal court.

Slattengren said the system fails to distinguish between those who belong there and those who don't.

"There were a large number of patients who ought to be restrained indefinitely. There were a small number who should never have been sent there in the first place, and some who society no longer needed to restrain in an institution," Slattengren said.

Testifying to Berglin's committee, Eric Janus, president of William Mitchell College of Law, argued that the civil commitment of criminals is a "Pandora's box" that could reach beyond sex offenders.

"We as a society will be locking people up for years, based not on a crime that they committed ... but because they pose a risk, and we think they might [someday] commit some undefined, unspecified crime," said Janus, author of "Failure to Protect -- America's Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State."

Some experts say the emotion evoked by sex crimes makes it hard to craft policies that recognize differences among offenders or the pervasiveness of sexual violence.

"We can't incarcerate and punish our way out of this problem; it doesn't get at the root causes," said Nancy Sabin, director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, named for the St. Joseph, Minn., boy who was abducted in 1989 and never seen again.

"Where are these guys coming from? They're coming from our own homes," Sabin said. We have to own the problem so we learn how to get past the hysteria in order to find better solutions."

Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504


Treatment, or shadow prison system?
By Nancy Barnes, Editor, Star Tribune 

June 7, 2008

Larry Oakes, our longtime northern Minnesota correspondent, regularly drives through Moose Lake, home to one of the state's treatment centers for sexual offenders. He has seen the place grow over time, and he became curious about who was in there and why.

That curiosity led to a three-part series, starting today, exploring why Minnesota has become the nation's leader in civil commitments of men who have completed their prison sentences but have been judged to pose an ongoing risk for sexual violence. On a per capita basis, Minnesota has more offenders in its Sex Offender Program (MSOP) than any other state and is second in raw numbers only to California, which has six times the population.

One major reason: Unlike other states with similar systems, no one in Minnesota has been released from treatment.

That raises some important questions about whether this is really a treatment program or a shadow prison system.

This project was not particularly popular in our newsroom. No one wants to see another case like that of Dru Sjodin, who was murdered in 2003 by a recently released sex offender. Her case resulted in a surge in the number of offenders sent to the program. Earlier that year, controversy over the possibility of someday easing certain offenders back into the community prompted Gov. Tim Pawlenty to issue an order that no one be released unless required by law or by a court. That order still stands, and Pawlenty declined to answer questions about the system.

"There's a justifiable reaction to these crimes from the public and state officials -- never again," said Tom Buckingham, a senior editor who worked on this project. "But if the MSOP is supposed to be the answer to 'never again,' it has to have accountability and some demonstrable success. Otherwise, the courts could rule at some point that it's merely a parallel prison system that must be disbanded.''

I urge readers to put aside their emotional responses to the question of sex offenders -- I respond that way myself -- and read these stories to get a true understanding of what is happening here. If our society wants to throw away the key, lawmakers and judges have that power. But in Minnesota, prisoners are being committed based on a consensus of psychologists. They are treated, with the stated goal of allowing them to reenter society, but never released. Meanwhile, the costs to taxpayers are staggering.

"We're questioning whether this is a smart way of dealing with sexual offenders," Oakes said. "Everyone knows sexual violence needs to be dealt with, but a lot of people who examine this program come away with pointed questions. The MSOP costs three times more than treatment given in prisons. So far, the treatment has never ended for anyone in the MSOP except when they die. It puts the taxpayer on the hook forever."

Oakes spent many months reporting this story. He faced difficulty getting information on the residents of the MSOP, because the state took the position that they were patients and thus their records were private. He had to go directly to the patients and ask them to release their records.

Last month -- after nearly two years of trying -- he was allowed to tour one of these facilities.

Many of the patients you will read about over these three days committed terrible crimes. None of us would want to see them on the streets again unless they receive successful treatment. But the parameters under which commitment is allowed are expanding, raising the prospect of an ever-widening population locked up indefinitely.

Some patients have been detained, first in prison and then in the MSOP, since they were juveniles. And two didn't actually commit a sex crime -- they are there for sexual obsession and stalking and the fear that they could rape or molest someone.

Oakes has covered some heinous crimes involving sexual offenders -- he knows the danger they create for society. "I've seen the damage that predators can do. ... I don't feel sympathetic to them. It's the system that needed examination, not because it is treating sex offenders poorly, but because of the effect on taxpayers and because of the legal template it creates. It can grow into something larger."

Everyone fears that someone released from the MSOP could commit a new crime. Our role in reporting this project is not to suggest that this fear is unfounded; it's to raise questions about the way the state has responded to it.


A decade lost and a decade gained

Photo by Jennifer Simonson , Star Tribune

Sherman Townsend, center, talked with reporters after his release from the Hennepin County jail on Tuesday. At left is Michael Davis, one of Townsend's lawyers from the Innocence Project of Minnesota.

A St. Paul man was freed from a 20-year burglary sentence -- after serving nearly 10 years of it -- because another inmate confessed to the 1998 crime.

By Rochelle Olson, Star Tribune

Last update: October 02, 2007 – 9:48 PM

A St. Paul man who once held a spot on the Minneapolis Police Department's "Top 40" list of repeat offenders walked out of the Hennepin County jail a free man Tuesday after being released from the last half of a 20-year burglary sentence.

Sherman Townsend's first-degree burglary conviction will stand, but he was released from his sentence after the testimony of a key witness in his trial was called into question. He will avoid serving at least another four years of the sentence and six years on parole. 

He went free within an hour of Hennepin County District Judge Deborah Hedlund's ruling. "You are not a danger to the public. It is not incompatible with the welfare of society to have you out there. All right. Go," Hedlund told Townsend.

When he emerged from the jail with his Innocence Project lawyers into a rainy drizzle, Townsend was wiping away tears.

"I don't think they took my life away. I think I go from this day forward," he said.

He was convicted of first-degree burglary in 1998 based on the testimony of David Jones. 

Jones told police that a heavyset black man the size of former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith had run into him near the burglary site at 2 a.m. In May of this year, Jones bumped into Townsend in the chow line at Moose Lake Correctional Facility and Jones confessed to the burglary.

Townsend notified the Innocence Project, a national legal clinic that attempts to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, setting in motion the events that led to his freedom Tuesday. 

Convicted by a 'habitual liar'

Prosecutors agreed to the release in large part because of two problems with Jones. For one, he had changed his testimony. But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman also said that at the time of the trial, prosecutors didn't know about Jones' criminal convictions in Illinois. Those convictions would have been used by the defense lawyers at trial to impeach his testimony.

No one should be convicted on the testimony of a "habitual liar," Freeman said. "It's one of those interesting wrinkles. We're not dealing with a group of church choir members," Freeman said.

At the time of the trial, prosecutors offered Townsend a plea bargain of four years in prison -- so he has served more time than if he had taken the deal. But Townsend said he didn't regret it because he said he couldn't admit to a crime he didn't commit.

He said he wouldn't characterize his 10 years in prison as wasted time because he kept up his job skills and learned to play gospel on the piano.

Townsend, a printer by trade who will start looking for a job, had a criminal record dating to 1971, earning him the spot on the "Top 40" list, reserved for career criminals who specialized in property crimes and had at least three felony convictions.

Speaking to reporters after the release, Freeman held a map of Townsend's prior crimes and convictions in the years leading up to his sentence. He noted that the crimes all were in Dinkytown.

He was a model prisoner

Townsend's Innocence Project lawyers, Julie Jonas and Michael Davis, noted that Townsend was a model prisoner. Even though the court action didn't exonerate him, they insisted that he is innocent. "Our primary job was to show Sherman's innocence. Frankly, I think we have done that," Davis said.

With his sister Mary Collins by his side, Townsend said he wants to get to know his grandchildren and reconnect with his five children. Collins said Townsend can stay with her in St. Paul and the family is pulling together money to pay for her brother to take a trip to visit their mom in California.

The experience of being released from prison was overwhelming. Townsend said he barely knew how to spend the day, although he said he is eager for some extra crispy chicken from KFC. "I'm just going to walk for a bit, but get in before dark," Townsend said.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Rochelle Olson •  raolson@startribune.com

Death in “The Hallway to Hell”

By Marco Fernández Landoni , La Prensa de Minnesota 

A horrible death in the desert is just one of the many risks thousands of undocumented workers face in order to find their American Dream. Not many of them would ever imagine that death may find them in a prison cell, far from the desert and the coyotes, due to the lack of medical attention for a serious condition, while waiting to be removed from the country. 

Over 60 people have found death in a prison that way over the last five years, including Maria Iñamagua, an Ecuadorian immigrant who died in Ramsey County Prison, here in Minnesota, in April 2006, waiting to be deported to her beloved Ecuador. Three more people died in less than a month just a few weeks ago, raising new concerns. But, even while people are dying, most of those deaths remain uninvestigated and no one has been held responsible for them yet.

The rapid explosion of undocumented immigration over the past ten years has brought, as a natural consequence, a big amount of pressure over immigration control agencies. These agencies have been forced to pay state, county and local prisons systems to detain the ever growing number of undocumented immigrants awaiting trial and removal, every year.

These prisons, as the weaker link of the chain, are suffering serious problems to take care of the growing amount of inmates. Overpopulation of several sectors and insufficient medical attention are only two of the many problems these prisons face. Budgetary cuts and slow refunds from the federal government are bigger issues that they face every day in caring for these federal inmates.

The situation gets worst when the thin line that divides each of the agencies’ –involved in the process- responsibilities blurs and becomes no one’s land. Some of them claim that they just don’t have the resources to provide medical attention to ICE’s detainees and that ICE should be responsible for those expenses. ICE simply claims that since those people are under the prison responsibility, the prison is responsible for their health care. ICE doesn’t have the premises or the budget to deal with those situations and that is why it pays those prisons to take care of its detainees.

In the meantime, people are dying. Over sixty in the last five years, and the recent death of these three people, two of them undocumented workers and the other a legal resident, have set the stage for a new nickname for the immigration system, “The Hallway to Hell”.

Maria Iñamagua, April 13, 2006; St. Paul, MN

Maria Iñamagua’s death became the first ever from an immigration detainee in a facility in Minnesota. Maria died as a consequence of a massive stroke [due to an untreated brain parasite infection].

Maria, 28, and her mother, were detained in early spring 2006. They were both moved to Ramsey County Prison the very same night of their detention. A legal loophole made Maria’s case longer than expected, while her mother was removed to Ecuador a few weeks after her detention. On April 4th, after several weeks of complaining of a head ache –for which she only received Tylenol-, Maria collapsed in her cell. She was discovered by the guards, lying on the floor, unconscious, by 4:00PM. She was taken to the infirmary and later, around 11:30PM, almost 8 hours after she was found unconscious, she was taken to Regions Hospital. Her condition was critical at her arrival and vital signs were almost lost. She was taken immediately to the intensive care unit, where she was evaluated and put on a ventilator.

After a week of intensive screening and testing, doctors attending her case reach the conclusion that the brain damage was so massive that there was nothing else science can do for her. Her brain was ruled dead and they asked her husband for his consent to take her out of the ventilator. After a long day of meditation, he decided that turning off the ventilator is the best thing to do. She died on April 13th, a few minutes after the ventilator was turned off, at 1:30PM.

Victor Arellano, July 20th, 2007; San Pedro, CA

Victor Arellano, 23, born in Mexico, was also known as Victoria Arellano, after his sex change operation. She was detained in May 2007, after ICE agents found him under a removal order for reentering the country after being previously deported. She was taken to a detention center in San Pedro, California, awaiting deportation.

Her advanced stage of HIV –AIDS- made her completely dependent on her medication, which she needed in order to prevent infections and stay alive. During her almost three months of detention she ran out of her prescription and though she requested the prison several times to refill her prescription, her request was denied.

Finally, on July 20th, her prison mates begged the guards to take her to a hospital. She was vomiting blood and had very high fever. She was taken immediately to a medical facility in San Pedro, where she died a few hours after her arrival.

Rosa Isela Contreras Dominguez, August 1st, 2007; El Paso, TX

She was a legal resident in the country. Born in Mexico, she was taken to a detention center in El Paso, Texas, after serving eighteen months for federal charges on drug smuggling. Rosa, 38, was waiting to be removed to Mexico, when she began complaining from incessant pain in one leg. She was evaluated at the prison’s infirmary and it was determined that she was 7 weeks pregnant and she was suffering from high blood pressure due to the pregnancy.

The staff at the infirmary treated her as best they could with their scarce resources and poor equipment. Finally, on August 1st, she suffered a stroke from blood clot and vanished. She was taken to an emergency room near the detention center, in El Paso, but she died only a few minutes after her arrival.

Edimar Alves Araujo, August 7th, 2007; Woonsocket, RI

This Brazilian immigrant was detained on a traffic violation on the morning of August 7th, 2007. He was on his way to see his sister, Irene. Police officers checked his driver’s license and found out that he had a pending deportation order after he overstayed his visa and refused to leave after ordered by a judge.

He was taken to Woonsocket Police detention center, where he called his sister and updated her on his situation. She ran immediately to the detention center where she begged police officers to give him his medication –he suffered from a severe case of epilepsy and needed daily medication to control it-. Police officers denied her request several times and later, that same day, at 4:00PM, due to the stress of the detention, he suffered an epilepsy episode. Emergency personnel were dispatched to the detention center but there was nothing they could do after they arrived. He died a few minutes after the episode began.

People’s comments after these events

The Washington Post printed an article about these incidents on its August 15th edition. The article, written by Darryl Fears, received tons of negative comments on its web site. From a little under 50 comments on the article, 43 were absolutely negative. Some of them estate that these people were nothing but “criminals” and that they deserved what happened to them. Others say that they were “illegal aliens” and because they decided to break the law coming illegally to the country, they had no rights to any benefit and their tax money was better invested in border security than in healthcare for these “criminals”.

Milton J. Valencia wrote another article, published by The Boston Globe on August 9th, 2007, on the same events. His article received similar comments at a similar proportion than The Washington Post’s. Other articles published by smaller publications all over the country saw the same phenomenon.

Unfortunately, while the public opinion turns to the other side on these events, these deaths remain uninvestigated and no one will be held responsible for what happened. Our country is a country of laws and though these people broke the law entering the country illegally, we can not turn our eyes to the other side. We have a moral responsibility and we must ask for accountability, even for those dying in “The Hallway to Hell”. That’s the American way. 

Posted: Sat, 09/08/2007 - 23:57


A child is violated, and two lives are haunted

Article Last Updated: 02/09/2008 05:22:45 PM CST

Laura R. was 7 when a 50-year-old man who rented a room in the family's Arden Hills home sexually molested her. 

Soon afterward, Laura was diagnosed with genital warts. She carried the hurt and the guilt into her teenage years, cutting her body and leaving scars that are still visible. Now 30 and living in California, Laura occasionally attends group therapy sessions for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. She still gets angry when she thinks about her molester, though she stresses that "I don't drink at all from that poison pill every day.'' 

But in some ways, she is very much the shy and frightened girl who sat on her mother's lap, a blanket pulled over her head while awaiting a physical examination no child should ever have to undergo. 

"I don't know which was worse, can't tell you,'' Laura writes in a recent e-mail. "The sexual abuse, the reaction of my parents and family, the doctor visits ... being interrogated by countless adults, or getting the (genital) warts burned off my body." 

The divorced renter, who to this day adamantly denies he committed the 1985 crime, was convicted by a jury and served less than a year in the Ramsey County workhouse. 

So it came as quite a jolt when, on Dec. 22 - 22 years to the day since cops showed up at her Arden Hills home to investigate the allegations - Laura searched the Internet for the name of her convicted molester. 

Up came Gary George Vadnais, now 72, as December's "volunteer of the month" for the Friends 
of the Mississippi River, a nonprofit conservation agency in St. Paul. The accompanying profile described a man who has "taught countless children the art of chess." 

Laura tried to track down the Ramsey County sheriff's investigator and prosecutor in her case, only to learn both men are deceased. She called the St. Paul-based Jacob Wetterling Foundation, which seeks to prevent the exploitation of children. The foundation suggested she inform the volunteer agency that wrote the profile. And then she called me. 

Laura's inquiry, fairly or unfairly, has opened a Pandora's box bursting with vexing questions surrounding the thorny issue of child sexual abuse and child sex offenders. 

What are the lifetime effects of child sex abuse? Can offenders truly be rehabilitated and integrated successfully back into society, only to be haunted continuously by their pasts? 

Are background checks beneficial or harmful? Is there a perfect balance between ensuring public safety for our most vulnerable citizens - children - while also giving people with criminal records, including sex offenders, a real and fair shot at reintegration? 

What's certain is that encounters like these between victim and offender will become more common with the increased availability of online criminal records and sex-offender registries. Learning about a criminal past, or locating or learning something about a victim years later, can be just a mouse click away. 

More offenders may face similar scrutiny as more states ratchet up sentencing and registration laws such as the Adam Walsh Act. The federal legislation, passed in 2006, mandates more public disclosure about where sex offenders of all types live and work. Juvenile offenders as young as 14, as well as predatory offenders, could face lifetime registrations. One homeless sex offender in Georgia faces lifetime imprisonment because of the law's registration criteria. States that don't adopt the measures by 2009 could lose 10 percent of federal criminal-justice funding. 

However, the law has come under criticism from civil rights lawyers, legislators and even some child-advocacy groups in an increasing number of states. Some see it as a draconian ''one-size-fits-all'' approach that is ineffective and could be counter-productive. Minnesota may debate the pros and cons of the law, which includes a national registration database provision named after murder victim Dru Sjodin, in the coming legislative session. 

"There are numerous stories nationally of men losing jobs, being murdered, homes being burned etc., as a result of publicly available information and the bias of the public,'' said Steve Sawyer, whose St. Paul-based Project Pathfinder treats sex offenders and works with families and supporters to make their transition back into society a success. 

"Most offenders do not re-offend after correctional consequences and treatment, and those offenders go on to live productive lives without harm to others," Sawyer said. "So those men (and their families) deserve their privacy and the social support to 'do the right thing.' " 

Complex Issues / One central question needs airing: Is Laura's inquiry legitimate, even if it could be unfair and damaging to the man convicted of molesting her? 

Brook Schaub, a retired St. Paul sex crimes investigator, believes Laura's concerns are more than valid. 

"I would be concerned, and as a parent I would report it to law enforcement,'' said Schaub, who works as a member of an elite team of child-abduction sleuths for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

"Any cop investigating sex crimes against children can recall a case where a preferential sex offender may have been dormant criminally for years, only to reoffend again,'' Schaub noted. "Not all reoffend, but I tend to err on the safety of the child. It's better to have the information and not need it than to need the information and not have it." 

The Friends of the Mississippi River profile of Vadnais, which has been pulled from the group's Web site, says: "Over the past 26 years, Frenchie (Vadnais' nickname) has coached hundreds of youth at various St. Paul schools in the art of chess.'' 

One of those schools was the Talmud Torah School of St. Paul, where Vadnais taught chess to first- through sixth-graders in an after-school group setting for nearly three years until last fall. Neither entity knew of Vadnais' criminal past. 

"If I read that he was like a pizza-delivery person or something like that, I would not be so concerned,'' said Laura, who is married, is attending college and is an on-call plumbing inspector for a Southern California city. "But the fact that he has been around kids ... I feel a responsibility to let people know what happened to me, and I wondered whether these people knew about what he did to me.'' 

The answer is no. Neither the staff at the school or at the Friends of the Mississippi River knew of Vadnais' child-related criminal past. Like many budget- and staff-strapped private nonprofits, they do not conduct criminal-background checks on most volunteers. 

"We had no idea,'' said Whitney Clark, the conservation group's executive director. The disclosure, however, prompted a board review of volunteer procedures. Also, two online write-ups of Vadnais, as well as a picture of him posing with the 2-year-old son of another volunteer, were removed. 

Talmud Torah plans to begin running background checks on all volunteers who come into contact with children, whether in a group setting or not. 

Both entities stressed that they never received any complaints about Vadnais' conduct and that he never worked one-on-one with kids. 

Vadnais, who is also described in the profile as a published poet and Meals on Wheels volunteer, has not re-offended in Minnesota, according to a Pioneer Press review of available state criminal-history records. He also completed the terms of his 15 years' probation six years ago. 

Had background checks been conducted, Vadnais would be required by law as a volunteer to divulge his conviction. But state law does not prohibit him from coming into contact with children. All that remains is current-address compliance with Minnesota's sex-offender registration laws for another two years. There are nearly 20,000 registrants. 

"This is going to be devastating to me,'' said Vadnais, who lives in St. Paul, in a recent telephone interview. "I didn't do it (the child molestation), and she is trying to sink me all over again.'' 

Rubén Rosario can be reached at  rrosario@pioneerpress.com  or 651-228-5454. 


 AKA McGuire - Book about Minnesota Prison System

Minnesota Department of Corrections -  Sex Offender Recidivism in Minnesota

 Three Strikes Legal - Index