Challenge Incarceration Program, saved for now, should be a model for other corrections programs

Photo by Ann Markusen.

Once again, husband Rod Walli and I headed out to clear Carlton County’s Fond du Lac State Forest ski trail of annual downfalls and upstart saplings. Once again, the Willow River Challenge Incarceration Program men and Sargeant Steve Whited joined us.

We encountered more downfalls than usual but managed to get the A to B trails and back to the parking lot cleared. It helped that Rod brought his chain saw. He worked his way down through dozens of poplar and pine downfalls averaging a foot and a half in girth, some much larger. Alongside him, the men of the Challenge Incarceration Program hefted each chunk and flung it into the surrounding woods. Others used their pruners and loppers to cut off the saplings at ground level.

Readers may remember that the CIP program was on the chopping block this year, along with a similar one in Togo, Minnesota. The Department of Corrections was expected to undertake its share of cost-cutting, given the state’s budget shortfalls associated with the COVID-19 recession.

It was quite a battle. In Carlton County, where many of CIP’s employees live and shop, the City of Moose Lake hosted a huge August rally to oppose the closing. Every area politician — from the mayor of Moose Lake to our state legislators — gave passionate speeches about the value of the program to our communities. Eventually, the state rescinded its decision. At least for another year, the programs continue.

On the Minnesota Department of Corrections website, you can find current prisoner data for Willow River. As of December 7, the program housed 77 offenders. They range in age from 22 to 57, some 43% of them in the 26 to 35 age range. The majority are white, 22% are Black, and 13% American Indian. I enjoy meeting each of these men. I introduce myself to each one and learn their names. This year, we’re all masked. 

Lately, I’ve been following the growing movement among counties, states and the federal government to close prisons. They are expensive, they can be dangerous, and in this time of COVID-19, they may be breeding houses of disease. Many states — including Oklahoma and California — have released prisoners early this year, prompted by the coronavirus, but also by changes in both public sentiment and the costs of large-scale, long-term incarceration.

In Minnesota, Ramsey County, which hosts our State Capitol, has been a leader in reducing incarceration. A November 29th Star Tribune article by Shannon Prather reports that the county cut the number of people sent to prison by nearly half over the past decade, in sharp contrast to state and neighboring metro counties. A thoughtful column by Pete Radosevich, publisher of the Pine Knot News , argued that Carlton County should not take on an expensive new jail project. 

So it’s an achievement that public protest, the advocacy of our area politicians and and a lot of elbow grease helped to reverse the decision to close Willow River and Togo CIP programs. Why not more work options like this for first time offenders?

Back on the trail, we worked for about three hours straight, without even a coffee break. And in its own way, even though it’s mostly a second and third growth clear-cut popple forest, it’s beautiful. Many deer tracks criss-cross the trail. An occasional grouse is flushed. Ravens are grouping up for the winter, croaking and flapping around in the treetops. 

It was invigorating, speaking for myself. And a lot of good body workouts. Impossible to get cold. I always over-dress, so I was soaked by the time we finished. Arriving home, I stripped down inside the front door and headed for the tub. Delighted with the day and looking forward to another trail-clearing session and at least two good months of cross-country skiing.