MSOP Moose Lake: Behind Barbed Wire Pt. 1

Multiple assaults on staff inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake in the past year is sparking another look into the controversial center.
Published: Oct. 31, 2023 at 10:39 PM CDT
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MOOSE LAKE, MN. (Northern News Now) - Recent violent assaults on staff inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake in the past year is sparking another look into the controversial treatment program.

Northern News Now Anchor Laura Lee investigates the claims made by some clients inside MSOP who say they are being given life sentences for crimes they have already served. The desperation of some of the clients is reaching a boiling point as some say they are so desperate to get out, they are willing to commit murder.

In a 3-part series, Lee goes inside the high-security facility and talks to clients who say they are losing hope. She also travels to the state capitol to question the Department of Human Services in charge of the program and review the statutes of the current law. Lee also sits down with legal experts who argue that the $112 million used to fund the program can better serve the community in other ways and she challenges why Minnesota is an outlier when it comes to civil commitment in the country.

On May 1, Nicolas Aron-Jones carried out a brutal attack inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in Moose Lake.

Carlton County Court Documents say while a staff member was completing rounds, Aron-Jones struck him in the head with a fan motor hidden inside a pillowcase. He then repeatedly hit and kicked the 53-year-old security counselor eight more times in the head. That employee suffered serious head trauma and was airlifted to the hospital.

Aron Jones pleaded guilty to attempted murder and in July a judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison. Our cameras were the only ones in the courtroom when he made chilling statements admitting to the judge, he intended to kill the employee that day and he said he would do it again if given the chance.

“Yes, I was meaning to kill somebody that day,” said Aron-Jones during a July 17 court hearing.

“I apologize it had to happen to you but at the end of the day, it will happen again.”

Aron-Jones claims he was mistreated inside the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, and he says committing murder was his ticket out.

“People should look into why people are trying to escape a treatment center to go to prison, that should be alarming,” said Dan Wilson.

Dan Wilson is a current client inside the state’s sex offender program. He says what happened with Aron-Jones has happened before and may happen again.

“The less hope we have, the more the courts doesn’t want to pay attention and the more the public doesn’t pay attention the less hope we’re going to have, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Wilson.

Just a week after the Aron-Jones attack, MSOP clients attacked four other staff members.

According to DHS, from 2019 through March of 2023, there have been 13 incidents resulting in OSHA recordable injuries to staff. Injuries investigated by OSHA include fatalities, need for medical treatment, loss of consciousness and broken bones or teeth.

“There is a pattern of clients going to extreme lengths to get out of here and go to prison, not to go home they’ve given up on that, because it’s not going to happen, but to get out of here to go to prison and be left alone and not abused over and over again,” he said.

In another ruthless attack, in 2019, MSOP client George Mack Jr. used a razor blade to slash the throat of a clinician. He was sentenced to 20 years for attempted murder and assault.

In a letter written to Lee, from the Stillwater Prison, Mack writes, “I’m not going to sit there and do life for something I might do. If I’m going to do life, it’s going to be because I did something.”

He goes on to write, “I’d rather die in prison respected and feared, than die there as the sexual monster that I know I’m not.”

The recent unrest and violence inside MSOP have catapulted another look at the controversial program. Clients want the public to take a hard look at MSOP and challenge its effectiveness.

“We’re not asking for a break, we’re asking for someone to pay attention,” said Wilson.

In the past decade, the prisonlike treatment center has been under fire after a class action lawsuit was filed by nearly 800 clients inside. They argue the program violates their constitutional rights by handing them pseudo-life sentences after they have already completed their prison terms.

Because of its historically low release rate, in 2015 a federal judge agreed and ruled the program unconstitutional. However, in 2016 the decision was reversed in the Eight Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Executive Director Nancy Johnston with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program says the pathway to release lies on the shoulders of those in the program.

“Human change is up to the individual client, we can’t force change, we can give clients the tools to learn about themselves and to hopefully reduce risk to harm, but what they do with those skills and how they apply them, the work they do is really ultimately up to the person,” said Johnston.

Minnesota is one of 20 states in the country with civil commitment. In a 2013 MSOP task force report, Minnesota has the highest number per capita of civilly committed sex offenders of any state.

According to the Department of Human Services, in its 30 years of operation in Moose Lake, only 21 clients have been fully discharged from the program.

Neighboring Wisconsin and Iowa both have civil commitment programs.

Both have less than half of the clients compared to Minnesota, yet higher release rates.

Wisconsin currently has 191 men civilly committed and about 167 have been released in its lifetime.

In Iowa, about 148 men are in its program and 69 patients have successfully left. More than 50 percent release rates for each state respectively compared to Minnesota’s release rate of just three percent.

However, Johnston argues the courts are granting at least 12-15 petitions a year, “it is a sophisticated program, it is hard work, it’s not something that they are going to change engrained behaviors overnight, so it has taken clients many years.”

“What is your solution besides abolishing this program, how do you strike a balance of allowing you your rights but also making sure the public feels safe that you guys can be rehabilitated,” Lee asked of Wilson.

“That’s a difficult question, but good question,” said Wilson. “Perhaps evaluations from psychiatrists, there are supposed to be psych treatment and abilities to determine who is dangerous and who is not.”

According to the Department of Human Services clinical treatment is provided to all clients. In fact, participation in treatment is the only way clients can move through the program.

However, some clients claim they are not getting adequate treatment and even if they participate, they are not being allowed to move through the program.

In part two of our investigation series, we talk to a former MSOP therapist who claims she was ordered to reduce assessment scores, so clients do not move through the phases of treatment.

Tune in Wednesday night at 10 on Northern News Now.

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