The Challenge Incarceration Program helps inmates and communities

Inmates in the Challenge Incarceration Program learn skills and interact with the community as part of an early release program. Photo courtesy of Department of Corrections.

In early August, the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced the pending closure of two of its prisons due to the state’s budget crisis. Both are among the smallest of our prisons. They are also the two sites of the Challenge Incarceration Program, a widely heralded and successful program enabling first time offenders to do community service while learning new skills. Both are located in relatively small towns where their presence is welcomed, both for the services they provide to local governments and nonprofits and for the modest numbers of jobs they support: 51 in Willow River and 48 in Togo. 

The state’s decision runs against the grain of many other states’ responses to budget shortfalls and to what many consider excessive sentences for minor offenses. The combination of budget shortfalls and high rates of COVID-19 in prisons have prompted many states to release thousands of inmates. In November of last year, Oklahoma — the state with the most prisoners per capita — released 462 inmates doing time for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes. By the end of this month, California will have released more than 11,000 prisoners early, largely nonviolent offenders with less than a year to serve, reducing the state’s prison population to a 30-year low. 

On Aug. 13, I attended a rousing “Stand up for CIP” rally in Moose Lake to oppose the Challenge Incarceration Program closings. Community members of all sizes, ages and genders plunked down their lawn chairs and listened to a panel of state and local leaders addressing the proposed closing. Moose Lake Mayor Ted Shaw welcomed everyone, recounting many of the ways that the CIP inmates had contributed to the city, including cleaning up and rebuilding after the terrible flooding of June 2012. The head of the area’s Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable owner-occupied homes for low-income people, described how extraordinary the inmates’ work has been to his organization. 

I’ve had first-hand experience with CIP work crews. Over the past decade, a group of eight or nine of them under the leadership of Sergeant Steve Whited have helped area cross country skiers clear our Fond du Lac State Forest trails in late fall and early spring. They arrive well-clad in heavy boots and with a huge trailer of equipment behind their van. The men jump out, extract tools, and head along the trail. I introduce myself to each one and explain to the group the challenges of downfalls and saplings along the trail. Because the state does not allow them to use power tools, they have to cut up the largest downed trees with old-fashioned cross-cut saws. We spend four or five hours working hard together.

The CIP program has been widely admired — and in some cases replicated — in other states. It dramatically reduces recidivism, which saves the state money in the long run. It teaches first-time offenders skills they can carry back to their home communities. The small town/small city setting offers them an opportunity to see how communities work. How mayors and city council members and workers tackle problems like the Moose Lake flooding. How nonprofits and ordinary citizens pitch in to build housing for people, care for houses of worship and clean up city streets. 

At the rally, Minnesota Commissioner of Corrections Paul Schnell unconvincingly explained why these two prison camps should be closed as a cost saving measure. His department’s plan is to keep the programs but consolidate them with one or more of the state’s existing larger prison complexes, including possibly the Moose Lake prison. 

We did not have a chance to inquire just how this would save money. Would the program enroll fewer offenders? Would the current seasoned staff members have to move from their communities or lose their jobs? 

Let’s let our legislators and elected officials know that this isn’t the way to deal with our state’s budget crisis. Let’s cut our incarceration costs by following the lead of other states: reduce sentences and release first-time and low level offenders. 

Our voice can matter. State Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, reports that the Minnesota House passed a supplemental budget earlier this year that included funding for the CIP programs, but it stalled. There will likely be a special session of the Minnesota Legislature soon. Let’s press our legislators on the crime prevention payoffs of the CIP and encourage them to champion its preservation.