Throwing Away the Key

There is no cure and no way out. So why does the state spend more than $20 million a year to treat 179 former sex offenders?

Meyer maintains that he was only acting in self-defense: "If somebody hits me, and they keep hitting me, and they keep coming after me, I'm sorry--I am going to hit them back. I am going to defend myself."

About an hour after the incident, Meyer was informed that he would be spending the next three months in "protective isolation." From that point forward Meyer was locked down for more than 23 hours a day. As he describes it, the cell was roughly 9 feet by 13 feet, with a concrete slab for a bed and a one-piece stainless-steel toilet/sink unit; during his daily stints of freedom (between 15 and 30 minutes) Meyer was handcuffed except when showering. As for treatment, he was directed to write in his journal about how his behavior had resulted in seclusion.

Meyer immediately began firing off grievances to the Moose Lake administration. He contacted Michael Woods, who monitors the facility for the state's Office of the Ombudsman for Mental Health and Mental Retardation, as well as the Minnesota Department of Health's Office of Health Facility Complaints. He even filed a civil lawsuit in Carlton County against the administrators responsible for his confinement.

Shawn Barber

Despite these protestations, Meyer was a model citizen throughout his stint in protective isolation. According to notes kept by the guards assigned to monitor him, he slept an average of seven hours a night, ate his meals without incident, and generally acted "appropriately." Only once did Meyer draw reprimand, when he informed a staff member: "You are all like the Nazis, you may just be following your orders, but that doesn't mean it's right."

On October 26 Prof. Peter Erlinder, Ombudsman Woods, and psychologist Margretta Dwyer sent a letter to Rick Harry, director of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, protesting Meyer's confinement.

They pointed out that Meyer had no previous history of violence during the seven years that he'd been committed as a sex offender and that no staff member had witnessed the physical altercation in question. "To impose such harsh conditions for 90 days on an individual, for what amounted to a simple scuffle, is, in our opinion, unwarranted and psychologically damaging," the missive read.

Five days after it was faxed to Moose Lake, and 27 days after the scuffle, Meyer was moved out of protective seclusion. "I felt like I was going nuts," he says of the time spent in seclusion. "I felt like I was about to have an emotional breakdown. It was just so hopeless and helpless back there."

The ramifications of Meyer's punishment go beyond just his mental state. Because of the disciplinary infraction, his security rating was dropped, limiting the number of hours he can work, and further restricting his movements within the facility. More significant, his treatment came to a standstill. Because of the period in protective isolation, Meyer was unable to complete the fall therapy session. After six years of civil commitment, he is less than halfway through the program.

In the wake of Meyer's detention, the Hospital Review Board--an outside panel established in January by the Department of Human Services to monitor the Minnesota Sex Offender Program--is reviewing the use of protective isolation. Although the board has no authority to implement changes, its recommendations could pressure administrators at Moose Lake into reevaluating the policy.

Harry says that the Moose Lake staff is already considering shortening the length of time that patients spend in protective isolation. He defends the need for such a disciplinary tool, however, noting that the men being held can be extremely dangerous: "We believe that in order to safeguard other patients and staff, there are times that a patient has to be removed from the general population."

Margretta Dwyer, former head of the sex offender treatment program at the University of Minnesota, doesn't dispute the need for a means to subdue dangerous patients, but she argues that such measures should be employed sparingly. "It should be used like a timeout for a kid: You're in there until you're in control," Dwyer says. "The more cruel you become, the more cruel they become."

The use of protective isolation to discipline patients is just one piece of the ongoing battle over what rights the committed men should have. In January the Department of Human Services decided that a vast majority of patients should be required to get rid of their personal computers.

According to Harry, patients are using their computers to store prohibited sexual images, including child pornography. "We have a population that is very adroit at getting contraband into the facility," the program director notes. "The monitoring of the computer system to determine whether this contraband is in the facility and on the computers takes a tremendous amount of staff time." Harry says that charges have been filed against at least one individual for possessing child pornography, but he declines to elaborate.

On February 25 three patients-- Bert Daby, Joseph Givens, and Rodger Robb--filed suit in Ramsey County District Court charging that the proposed computer policy is overly broad and punishes them for the transgressions of others. "The point about this computer thing that is so angering to so many people is that they painted with this real broad brush," says Robb. "I have never been accused of misusing my computer for anything. I have never misused my computer for anything."

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