At least 10 sex offenders held for years at a northern Minnesota treatment center have launched a hunger strike to protest conditions at the facility and a law that enables the state to detain them indefinitely beyond their prison terms.

A few of the men said they were prepared to be hospitalized from starvation if their demands are not met for a clear legal pathway for release from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), which confines nearly 740 convicted rapists, child abusers and other offenders in prisonlike treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

The hunger strike entered its sixth day Tuesday and is the latest action by offenders seeking to call attention to a state-operated civil commitment system that has long been criticized for detaining too many offenders for too long.

In 2015, a federal judge declared the program unconstitutional, saying it had become more focused on punishing people than treating them. Though later reversed, the ruling galvanized many detainees and their lawyers, who have been pushing back against the indefinite confinements.

"We want a clear pathway home," said Lawrence Cooper, 37, who has been held at the Moose Lake center for seven years. "A lot of us are watching our friends die, and we don't want to end up as another statistic in the books."

Officials at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees the MSOP, disputed the hunger strikers' assertion that they do not have a pathway out of the program, pointing to figures showing that record numbers of clients are being approved for release by judicial panels. Last year, 11 clients were conditionally discharged from the program after they petitioned for a reduction in custody — the most since the program's inception, according to the DHS.

Thirty clients who have been granted provisional discharge by the court are living in communities under MSOP's supervision.

"It all goes in steps, and I understand the frustration because they can be fairly long steps to move through, but [the program] is working," Deputy Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson said in an interview. "And we can see it working for a lot of clients who are engaging in treatment and able to successfully reintegrate themselves into the community."

Frustrations reached a boiling point in recent months following a large outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has killed three detainees at Moose Lake since Dec. 2 and sickened scores of clients and staff. Some offenders maintain the state-operated program did not move quickly enough to mandate mask-wearing among clients, and strict lockdown measures that followed the outbreak were inhumane, they maintain.

There are no active cases of COVID-19 among clients at any MSOP location, and just one active case among staff, the DHS said.

The recent deaths have heightened a sense of despair at the Moose Lake facility and fears among some men that they will never make it out of the program.

Only 13 offenders have been fully released — without conditions mandating supervision — from the MSOP in its 27-year history, while Moose Lake clients have counted at least 86 people who have died there.

Some of the men who have been confined there for years or decades say they have exhausted their treatment options and their legal avenues for release.

"I feel like I'm caught in a washing machine, being turned around and around," said Jacob Flom, 26, a Moose Lake client and hunger strike participant. "There is this crippling hopelessness and despair." Minnesota is among 20 states with civil commitment laws that allow people convicted of violent sex crimes — such as rape or child molestation — to be held in custody indefinitely past the end of their criminal sentences.

Under Minnesota's statute, offenders have a right to petition for release and state judicial panels have the sole authority to approve or reject them. No one at the DHS has the authority to discharge clients to the community, the agency notes.

"DHS is not the decisionmaker" on who is released from the program, Johnson said. "The courts have the final decision."

In theory, a civilly committed offender is treated and eventually released to less-restrictive community settings, like halfway houses. In practice, however, many remain locked up for decades and are never released.

Last week, five offenders said they notified staff that they were refusing meals and water. By Tuesday afternoon, the strike had grown to nearly a dozen detainees as word of the action spread through the sprawling complex surrounded by razor wire.

In interviews, several men participating in the strike said they were starting to suffer from dehydration, fatigue, muscle soreness and occasional lightheadedness. A few said they were prepared to go without nourishment until they lost consciousness or had to be hospitalized.

The exact number of clients participating in the strike has been fluid, as new people joined while others have resumed eating.

"I'm willing to go all the way with this," said Russell Hatton, 40, who has been held at Moose Lake for 14 years and co-founded an internal newsletter. "Everything else has been tried."

Charles M. Geiger, 45, a Moose Lake client, said he was about to give up on the hunger strike Monday when he learned that his primary therapist had left the program, which made him despondent. Geiger said he has been giving his meal trays to other detainees.

"I'm ready to die," Geiger said. "I truthfully don't see a way out of here."

In a written statement, the DHS said clients who "have the mental capacity to make such decisions may refuse to eat or drink, even when doing so may injure their health or endanger their lives."

Nursing staff at the MSOP are monitoring the vital signs of the strikers and making daily reports to the treatment team and medical staff. Each client participating in the hunger strike has also received a leaflet from MSOP describing the physical effects of going without nourishment.

These include increased susceptibility to infection and the possibility of death after 30 days, or "much sooner" if one goes without fluids, the handout states.

"We want everyone to stay healthy and hope they will re-engage and not put their health at risk, and so we're going to continue to monitor that," Johnson said.

Minnesota has the largest number of civilly committed sex offenders per capita among states with commitment laws, and is third behind California and Florida in the total number of committed offenders, according to a 2019 survey of such programs.

The cost of operating the MSOP, including treating, housing and providing medical care for offenders at the two facilities, totaled $93.2 million in the 2020 fiscal year, according to a legislative report. About 450 of the 737 clients in the program are held at the Moose Lake facility.

"The pandemic has exposed under a bright light a number of problems with this program that were pre-existing and perhaps exacerbated them," said Eric Janus, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and author of a book on sex offender laws and policy.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4318

Twitter: @chrisserres