Do pricey TVs treat sex offenders?

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2009 - 10:29 PM

Moose Lake sex offender program officials say the new plasma-screen TVs have some clinical benefit. Some offenders say they waste a lot of tax money.

Flat-screen TVs in Moose Lake

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MOOSE LAKE, MINN. - Sex offenders at Minnesota's newest treatment facility at Moose Lake can watch television on one of two dozen new, 50-inch flat-screen TVs, and more may be on the way.

The cost of the sports bar-type, plasma TVs -- $1,576 apiece, plus a $706 mounting bracket -- is a relatively small part of the state's multimillion-dollar effort to house and treat sex offenders.

But a debate has ensued over whether the TVs help make the offenders easier to manage and have a clinical benefit, or are a needless luxury for a controversial program that faces a skyrocketing budget and patient population.

Surprisingly, the loudest critics of the TVs may be the sex offenders. Two of them have complained to state legislators that the TVs mounted in common areas of the new 400-bed facility are a waste of money because most patients have small televisions in their rooms.

"I am appalled by the fact that there are children in school now that probably don't have schoolbooks, and that bridges are falling down, and old people are going without medicine, and we're sitting here in this 'white horse' bolting these huge sports bar televisions onto the walls," said Rodger Robb II, a sex offender living in the new $45 million complex that opened in July.

Robb maintains that the new TVs are watched mostly by security guards. "I just don't get it," he said.

Program officials bristle at suggestions that the TVs are a waste of taxpayer money, and say focusing on their cost ignores the complex treatment plans devised for a population for which there are no quick cures.

Since Minnesota decided to commit sex offenders to civil treatment programs after they had served their criminal sentences, the number of sex offenders has risen to 566 patients and is expected to nearly double in seven years. So far, no patient has been successfully treated and released by the courts.

Two weeks ago, state legislators toured the Moose Lake facility and heard program officials urge that money be appropriated to build another new wing at a projected cost of $96 million. Officials said it may include more big-screen TVs.

One legislator on the tour, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is a key player in whether the new building will get funded. She said she found the explanation of why the TVs were necessary to be "fascinating."

TV benefits unproven

Program officials see two minor, but important, benefits to the TVs. First, they said that after reducing staffing by nearly 200 even as the patient population increases, the TVs draw groups of patients to one spot and make them easier to keep an eye on.

Secondly, while officials acknowledged that 90 percent of the patients had TVs in their rooms, they said making television available in a group setting can have clinical benefits for a population with severe socialization problems. At the same time, the program's top officials acknowledge there is little research showing a conclusive clinical benefit.

Michael Thompson, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, said he wasn't aware of any research on using TV as a socialization tool for sex offenders. "I perused approximately 180 research abstracts to see if this issue has ever been studied. I could find nothing," he said.

The case for the TVs

But Dennis Benson, the program's executive director, argues that the TVs have value.

"We aren't going to hide anything from anybody -- including how many TV sets," he said. "You really want to see how they're going to interact with four other people watching the [Minnesota] Vikings play the [Green Bay] Packers."

Besides, he added, the TVs are located in common areas that are roughly 200 feet long, and are spaced at least 50 feet apart. Linked to a cable system, they give the sex offenders access to 62 networks such as the Disney Channel, ESPN, SPIKE TV, ABC Family and VH1.

"Could we have put up a 42-inch TV? I don't know," said Benson, who noted that the patients had access to TVs in their previous building. "Sex offenders are easy to hate ... I know what the public will say." Benson said there were "very clear clinical reasons" for purchasing the TVs and said observing a convicted sex offender reacting "to the stimuli of a 5-year-old on a television set" had potentially important clinical benefits.

Patients are watched by staff members to see how they respond to what is on TV -- a task made easier if TVs are located in an open area, said Janine Hebert, the program's clinical director. "TV is used as perhaps a social stimulus," said Hebert, who said a patient's treatment plan could be adjusted depending on how they reacted to an image on TV. Most patients have "a social interaction deficit at the simplest form," she said. "I'd rather have guys mingling, watching TV."

Plugging the budget shortfall

In March, the state sex offender program came before legislators with an urgent request to cover a $16 million shortfall, which the Legislature filled.

Much of the shortfall, program officials said, came because of construction delays at the new Moose Lake facility, which forced the program to temporarily rent beds elsewhere.

"We might find ourselves trying to figure out how we pay staff after April 1," Cal Ludeman, the state human services commissioner, told legislators last spring, in asking for the additional money. "We might have to delay payments to food service vendors, contractors." The sex offender program is part of the Department of Human Services.

Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who chairs the House Health Care and Human Services Finance Division Committee, said he was unaware of the TV purchase. "They certainly have a right to watch TV," he said. "I don't know if they need a big, flat screen. It has to be treated like a hospital -- it is not a prison."

But Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Public Safety Finance Division Committee, said legislators are likely to have questioned the expense, had they known. "If it came up, I think there would be probably some concerns about it," he said.

Larry Schultz, another sex offender who complained to legislators that the TVs were unnecessary, said he doubted that television provided any clinical benefit. "I don't know what dream world [Benson] lives in," Schultz said. "Right now, one TV is on. Nobody even watches the [others]. It's just a waste of money."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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