Roughly a dozen men at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake have participated in a hunger strike to protest facility conditions and their ongoing confinement, according to an advocacy group and the state agency that runs the program.

The strike began late last week, with the total number of clients varying day by day, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The agency considers clients to be on a hunger strike when they provide notice and refuse three consecutive meals or have not had anything to drink.

"It's just time to stand up and be done with it," said Joshua Brooks, an 11-year incarceree. "There needs to be change. There needs to be a clear path home."

MSOP houses nearly 740 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 13 full discharges and 45 provisional discharges over that time.

Most of the men have already served prison terms. The clients and their supporters argue that indefinite commitment in a high-security facility, with little chance of release, is tantamount to a life sentence.

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“It was my understanding that I was to do the treatment, then be released," said Mike Whipple. "Twelve years later, I'm still here, doing the same thing, over and over and over. My family is getting frustrated and discouraged. What's wrong with this place? They're costing the taxpayers millions of dollars per year."

The program has a $96 million operating budget for 2021.

The Department of Human Services said in a statement to the News Tribune on Wednesday that there are currently "fewer than 10" clients on the hunger strike. The agency said there have been infrequent, short-lived strikes over the years and that there are "extensive" protocols in place for the situation.

“We want our clients to stay healthy and we’re closely monitoring those who have decided to go without eating or drinking," Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson said.

“We recognize that the length of time it takes to complete treatment can be frustrating. But the key to release is to be fully, actively engaged in treatment. That carries the most weight when clients petition the court for discharge. And it has been the clear pathway to provisional and full discharge for dozens of clients.”

While DHS is responsible for housing the offenders, it is the judicial Commitment Appeal Panel that is responsible for hearing petitions for a reduction in custody.

A group calling itself the "End MSOP Coalition" has been circulating a petition to establish a "clear path home" for the long-incarcerated offenders. The group, which released oral statements from several committed clients, said about 25 men intended to participate in the hunger strike.

While not mentioned in the release, the facilities also have weathered COVID-19 outbreaks. A total of 85 clients and 103 staff members at the two MSOP facilities have tested positive, and three Moose Lake residents have died. The agency said there was only one active case, a staffer, as of Wednesday.