Chris Jackson celebrated his 19th birthday by checking into Minnesota’s treatment program for sex offenders.
Jackson had been in and out of therapy and juvenile detention in Anoka County since he was 12, when his family discovered that he’d sexually abused other children, including his younger step-brother. Even at that age, Jackson said, he was having almost daily sexual interactions with his peers.
But on his first day in the adult Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) in 1998, Jackson immediately felt out of place. The first person he encountered was an elderly sex offender named “Doc” who asked Jackson to help him hang up some curtains. Jackson obliged.
“He didn’t want his curtains hung up, he wanted to try and touch me while I hung up his curtains,” Jackson said. “I was a kid. I didn’t feel right being there. I kept thinking, ‘Why am I here?’”
Sixteen years later, Jackson isn’t the only one asking that question. Today, he is one of 52 people who were civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after turning 18 — but who have never been charged with a crime as an adult, a legal limbo that has threatened to upend the way the state deals with sex offenders.
In February, in response to a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of offenders in MSOP, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank raised numerous concerns about the constitutionality of the program, which keeps clients like Jackson locked up in a prison-like facility that rarely lets anyone out. Now, a court-appointed panel has recommended the release of at least one offender in the program, with more likely to follow.
For the first time since the program began 20 years ago, in other words, people like Jackson are facing the prospect of freedom, sometimes after decades of being institutionalized. And no one, from lawmakers to MSOP officials to the offenders themselves — is quite sure what will happen when they get out.
The tip of the iceberg
Minnesota has had a law addressing what’s known as “civil commitment” on the books since the 1930s. Back then, it was primarily used to determine if someone should be considered mentally ill and constituting a danger to themselves or others. In the 1990s, sex offenders were added to the law, and MSOP opened in 1995.
Generally, after a sex offender completes his or her prison sentence, they can be recommended for civil commitment and treatment in the program. A county judge where the offender committed the sex offenses makes the final call if he or she should be released or sent to MSOP.
But in its nearly 20-year history, only one person has ever been released from MSOP. Over that same time period, the number of offenders committed to the program has exploded, from about 150 in 2000 to nearly 700 today, a figure that is expected to rise to 1,109 patients by 2020, according to the state’s legislative auditor. The dramatic increase in referrals to MSOP can be traced to specific incident: the 2003 murder of Dru Sjodin, a North Dakota college student who was abducted and killed by a registered sex offender from Minnesota who had recently completed his prison term. Minnesota now commits more offenders per capita than any other state with a comparable program.
In the wake of Frank’s initial ruling, state lawmakers were supposed to address the issues of constitutionality raised in the decision. But facing a contentious election season this fall, legislators failed to strike an agreement on how to fix the troubled program. So Frank and a court-appointed panel of experts have taken matters into their own hands, reviewing each case of civil commitment to MSOP.
The issue of juvenile offenders is the first one their plate, and the panel has already recommended the release of 24-year-old Eric Terhaar, who was put into MSOP in 2009 for various sexual offenses he committed between the ages of 10 and 14.
Officials at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) have opposed Terhaar’s release. At a hearing in late June, Deputy Attorney General Nathan Brennaman recommended instead that Terhaar be moved, from “phase one” — MSOP operates on a three-tier treatment system — to “phase three” the final and most developed stage before release. A sudden release could be hard on Terhaar, Brennaman argued, as he’s been institutionalized for more than a decade.
Frank has called for an evidentiary hearing in mid-July on Terhaar’s case, as well as that of the only woman confined at MSOP. A ruling is expected to follow shortly after.
“The questions that are raised by these two individuals are also questions that are raised for many of the other people [in the program], so this is really just the tip of the iceberg,” Dan Gustafson, the attorney arguing on behalf of MSOP clients, said. “This is the beginning of the evidence that we contend shows that the Minnesota program is being administered unconstitutionally.”
‘I never thought it was wrong’
Jackson is not so different from Terhaar, he says, except for the fact that he’s been in treatment for much longer.
Both were committed to the program for offenses that occurred before the age of 15, and both suffered from sexual abuse as children. Jackson says he was raped at the age of 4 or 5 by a group of boys at the St. Joseph’s Home for Children in Minneapolis. “Four of them held me to a bed and did horrible, nasty things,” Jackson said. “I was quickly ushered out of there and tried not to mention it.”
It was also around that time that Jackson’s mother remarried. That was the start of regular physical abuse from his stepfather, Jackson said. By the time he was 10, Jackson had started sexually experimenting. When he was just 11, he thought he had a 15-year-old boyfriend. The day he was finally caught, Jackson asked a young girl to lift up her shirt. She ran away, but her father eventually caught up with Jackson. The incident led to a confession of all of his sexual encounters, including the rape of his stepbrother.
“At no point in my acting out did I think what I was doing was against the law,” Jackson said. “I never thought it was wrong. It felt good. The day I got caught was a complete shock to me.”
He’s been in treatment in some shape or form ever since. For the first few years in MSOP, Jackson said he didn’t care about “getting better.” He “sexually acted out” and stopped taking medication. Eventually he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which changed the course of his treatment.
Now 35, Jackson said he has quietly worked his way into the program’s second phase of treatment, and he’s had no major behavior issues over the last few years.
A normal day for Jackson starts at 6:30 a.m. and is broken up with three meals, several hours of therapy, the occasional time with the facility’s Xbox — a new perk offered to clients in the phase two of treatment — and time outside in a highly secure, fenced-in yard. He plays in a softball league once a week and does horticulture work for 20 hours a week.
After 16 years in MSOP, Jackson said he’s run out of things to talk about in treatment. Yet his last polygraph test — done periodically to see clients are actually progressing — showed he still had an attraction to children. Jackson said the test was several years ago, and now he just wants a chance to have a serious relationship with an adult. He came out as gay during his time in the program, and a rainbow pride flag now hangs on his side of his small, two-person room.
“It’s become less about the sex for me and more about intimacy,” he said. “They don’t let us have relationships here, so how do I know how to have a healthy relationship?”
Change and uncertainty
That could soon change. Jackson is one of 50 clients in the more advanced stages of treatment who are being moved from the MSOP campus in Moose Lake, a rural town of roughly 2,700 in northeastern Minnesota, to the St. Peter sex offender treatment campus three hours southwest near Mankato. That’s where clients receive the final stages of MSOP treatment.
On a recent tour of the MSOP facility, some clients expressed excitement about the move to St. Peter. A motivational board on one wall displayed photos of offenders walking around the city under supervision. Others were motivated by the lawsuit. One client said aloud to the tour group, which included DHS officials, “I want to be like Terhaar!”
This spring, the Legislature passed funding to expand the facility in St. Peter, which has made the move possible for so many clients in the more advanced levels of treatment, a DHS spokesperson said.
Jackson has his own suspicions. “They are being sued in court, and one of the things in the lawsuit is people aren’t progressing, so to make it look like people are progressing, they are giving a bunch of people phase two status. Now once we are in St. Peter, I know they are going to get the guys as fast as they can into phase three,” Jackson said. “So now they can say, we have 100 clients in phase three, your honor, you’re crazy. I know the game.”
But there’s uncertainty all around about what will happen if judge Frank simply tells DHS to start releasing offenders. The state currently has no plan to house offenders, and virtually no experience actually transitioning offenders back into society.
For clients like Jackson facing potential release, they have little experience to draw on from the adult world. Jackson has a high school diploma, but college-level classes aren’t offered until phase three of the program in St. Peter. His stepmother and grandfather have offered him a place to stay, but the only jobs he’s ever held were at the MSOP facility in Moose Lake.
“It’s scary. What is it going to be like when I fill out my first job application? I have terrible penmanship. What about car payments, or how will I even get a car? I’ve never even driven a car. I’ve never had a driver’s license,” Jackson said.
“People are either successful or not successful when they get out based on what resources they had,” he added. “They’ve really let the 52 juvenile guys that are here down.”