Sex offenders at a treatment center in northern Minnesota, fed up with political gridlock over their controversial program, are taking matters into their own hands: They are running for elected office.
For the last three months, a group of sex offenders has quietly run a voter-registration drive up and down the hallways of the prisonlike treatment center in Moose Lake, where about 460 convicted rapists, pedophiles and other offenders are locked away indefinitely behind razor wire.
Some 155 are now registered to vote — amounting to nearly 20 percent of all voters registered in Moose Lake.
Their goal is to elect sex offenders to as many as eight city and county offices, where they can push for more freedoms and reintegration into the community. Among their demands, the offenders want the right to leave the facility without shackles and handcuffs; and for the city of Moose Lake to allow for halfway houses for offenders who progress in treatment for their sexual disorders.
"The Holy Grail is to get outside the razor wire," said Ben Alverson, a leader of the get-out-the-vote drive. "We want to demonstrate to the world that we're not monsters and can live in the community."
Yet sex offenders admit they are their own worst political enemy in this city of 2,700 people. As word of their effort has spread, the city's established candidates have intensified their campaigning. In 2002, a similar get-out-the-vote effort faltered once city residents caught wind of the action and registered to vote in large numbers.
Doug Juntunen, a Carlton County Sheriff's deputy who is running for Moose Lake City Council, said he expects voter turnout in Moose Lake to be unusually high this year.
"I don't think people here appreciate candidates with ulterior motives," Juntunen said. "And to me, the sex offenders clearly have an ulterior motive. They just want to be able to walk about [in Moose Lake] and aren't looking out for the best interests of the city."
But the sex offenders say they are unusually well organized this time. They watched with disappointment as state lawmakers earlier this year failed to address problems identified by a state task force and a federal judge. Minnesota has the largest per capita population of civilly committed sex offenders in the nation. Only two offenders have been provisionally discharged from the program in its 20-year history — in what many argue is a de-facto life sentence.
After action stalled at the Capitol, offenders hoped for relief from the federal courts. A group of sex offenders has sued the state as a class, alleging that the program violates their due-process rights by failing to provide them with effective treatment and the opportunity for release. The judge hearing the case appeared sympathetic, calling the program "clearly broken" and "draconian"; but a trial has been delayed until February.
"People here are fed up with what isn't happening and should be happening," said Kenny Daywitt, a sex offender who is running for Moose Lake City Council. "They want big changes, and getting our people elected is one way to make that happen."
The voter drive already appears to be bearing fruit. As of Tuesday, 45 residents at the Moose Lake center had cast absentee ballots in the fall election. That compares with just 10 people who live outside the facility, state data shows.
Although many sex offenders at Moose Lake have felony convictions, they are allowed to vote once they have completed their prison terms and probation.
Even if elected to local office, the sex offenders will lack the power to close the Moose Lake center or to change treatment rules, which are overseen by the state Department of Human Services. It is also unclear how they would actually attend City Council meetings and court hearings if they are not allowed outside the Moose Lake facility; they have discussed Skype. In addition, prior criminal convictions may prevent them from being sworn in to certain local offices.
But these obstacles have not kept the group from compiling a long political wish list — including an end to random room searches, better food, and the right to go on occasional outings.
"People are a little giddy about it," Alverson said. "They start thinking about just what might happen if we could actually get someone in [office]."
The effort began with the facility's resident and family advisory council, which recruited eight fellow sex offenders who would run for local offices, including the mayorship, two City Council positions, four judgeships and county coroner. Representatives from each of the center's 11 units distributed lists of the write-in candidates and urged fellow sex offenders to register.
Charles Stone is among the write-in candidates for Moose Lake City Council. He was convicted 31 years ago of molesting two girls, ages 8 and 9, but says he is now "rehabilitated." Like many at the treatment center, Stone supports the development of alternative housing arrangements that would enable offenders to move freely — under supervision — outside the razor wire. Currently, offenders who leave the facility, even on short trips to the doctor, are placed in leg irons and handcuffs.
"They say this is a world-class treatment center that allows for reintegration into the community, but they can't show it," Stone said.
The idea of creating a less-secure facility at Moose Lake is not new. It was part of the plan when the treatment center was built in 1995, said Dr. Michael Farnsworth, a forensic psychiatrist who helped design the state's sex offender program. However, local opposition intensified after the 1999 killing of Katie Poirier, 19, whose videotaped abduction from a Moose Lake convenience store led to tighter scrutiny of sexual offenders. The man convicted of Poirier's killing was not a resident of the Moose Lake center.
The state's main program for integrating sex offenders back into the community, known as Community Preparation Services, was instead located at the sex offender treatment campus in St. Peter.
"In Moose Lake, they always wanted the jobs [at the center], but not the men," Farnsworth said. "I can't blame the [offenders] for getting creative."