A Prison by any Other Name

At the Minnesota sexual psychopathic personality treatment center, they lock up men who are dangerous--or unlucky--enough to be tabbed menaces to society even after they've done their prison time

*Editor's note: William Wyatt and Joe Bagnold are pseudonyms.

THERE ARE FEW things William Wyatt* seems to relish more these days than the simple act of stepping outside his front door and inhaling the evening air. He has his reasons. If officials from Le Sueur County and the Minnesota Attorney General's office had their way, he would not be living with his wife on a suburban Twin Cities cul-de-sac. He would be sequestered away in a long, low, flat building deep in the woods of Moose Lake, some 110 miles north of Minneapolis.

The facility, known as the Minnesota Sexual Psychopathic Personality Treatment Center, is the most tightly secured complex ever built in the state. It is where Minnesota sends sexual offenders who have completed their prison sentences yet have been judged by the state to be suffering from mental disorders that make it highly likely they will repeat their crimes. Wyatt, a convicted rapist who finished doing his time in 1995, was tabbed by officials as one of those people. As a result he spent more than 18 months at Moose Lake and a similar facility in St. Peter under a 1994 sexually-dangerous-persons statute. But in March of this year, he became one of only two--out of dozens tried--ever to triumph over the civil-commitment process, and was released.

Over the past decade, public fears about sex crimes have been exacerbated by sensational media stories, emotional victims' rights groups, and grandstanding politicians. One result has been to step up the pace at which Minnesota and numerous other states are using noncriminal commitment procedures to lock up sex offenders who have already done their time. Facilities like Moose Lake are expensive, intensely supervised, and legally dubious. Many of their flaws are readily acknowledged by the people whose job it is to run them. If you have been convicted of a sex offense, it isn't hard to land in Moose Lake after your sentence expires; the standards of proof in such a civil proceeding are considerably lower than in a criminal court. But for nearly all the men sent there in the past decade, it has proven impossible to get out.

 

THE ROAD TO "sexual psychopath" laws and civil-confinement facilities began in 1938 with a missing girl. In the St. Paul neighborhood where it happened, the rumors built to a hysterical pitch, coalescing around the theory that the girl had been kidnapped by a sexual pervert who molested and killed her. No trace of the girl was ever found. But Harold Stassen, a candidate for governor that year, declared that if he were elected, there would be a law protecting communities from those unfortunate but dangerous wretches who were unable to control themselves. Minnesota's first sexual-psychopathic-personality law was passed by unanimous vote in the 1939 state Legislature.

The law was almost immediately challenged, and the challenge made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had struck down a similar Michigan statute in 1936. But in 1940 the court ruled that, although badly written, the Minnesota law was constitutional (even renowned civil libertarian William O. Douglas assented), creating a model that many other states soon copied when enacting their own statutes. Despite its national influence, the Minnesota law was enforced in a motley fashion. It tended not to be a means of dealing with proven violent offenders so much as with window peepers, consenting homosexuals, rural teens who fucked sheep, and husbands or wives who wanted to have sex more often than did their spouses.

The fervor to lock up deviants gradually moved down the public agenda, and the law fell into disuse during the mid-to-late '50s. For the next three decades, only about two people a year were confined under its terms. Its resurgence was kindled primarily by two factors: In 1978, Minnesota shifted from indeterminate sentencing of criminals to specific and fairly rigid guidelines later deemed by the public to be too lenient. And beginning in the late '80s, a spurt of particularly grisly violent sexual crimes galvanized the mood of the citizenry toward more protective, and vengeful, laws against sexual predators. In 1989, an attorney general's task force on sexual violence recommended that the 1939 law be utilized more often. Two years later, the Department of Corrections began screening sex offenders coming up on the end of their sentences. As a result, the number of commitments quickly rose, from one in 1990 to nine in 1991 and 20 in 1992.

In 1993, convicted rapist and murderer Dennis Linehan challenged the 1939 statute in an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. In its July 1994 ruling, the court noted that there are three requirements to satisfy commitment under the '39 law: First, the offender must have established a "habitual course of misconduct in sexual matters." Second, it must be likely that he will "attack or otherwise inflict injury, loss, pain or other evil" on members of society through that misconduct. And third, he must have "an utter lack of power to control sexual impulses." While Linehan certainly satisfied the first two requirements, the court ruled that, far from being powerless to control his impulses, he was a cunning predator who knew exactly what he was doing, and thus was not eligible for commitment under the statute.

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