To see how different the Willow River Challenge Incarceration Program is from a normal state prison, all a person has to do is listen.

Every sentence uttered by one of the khaki-clad offenders taking part in the boot-camp-style program begins or ends with the word "ma'am" or "sir."

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Squads of men march about the campus to the rhythm of cadences - think of the "left, left, left, right, left" chants soldiers in boot camp learn to help them stay in step ¬- written by the men themselves.

Now open your eyes.

There are no visible guard towers, no tall fences, no barbed wire.

Located in the heart of a tall pine forest between Sturgeon Lake and Willow River, hundreds, maybe thousands, of trees surround the compound, which consists of several one-story buildings, reminiscent of military barracks from the outside. There is a corn field, gardens and an area for a two-man saw, where offenders are sent when they aren't getting along with a particular person.

There are also words of wisdom. They're everywhere, painted on the outside walls of buildings, written on squad signs in the cafeteria.

"Success is a journey, not a destination," one squad's sign states for all to see.

"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but rising every time we fall," Echo 22 squad wrote, adopting a saying by Confucius for their motto.

The Challenge Incarceration Program, or CIP, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. CIP is a voluntary program for inmates who meet certain statutory and department requirements. If they successfully complete the CIP program, those inmates can get up to four years off their prison sentences.

"We believe that with intense interventions, certain people don't need to spend tax dollars sitting in prison," said Deanna Alvord, program manager at CIP. "If we can help them change their behavior, they can become responsible citizens."

CIP is not for career criminals, noted Alvord. Most inmates there have been convicted of drug or property crimes. State statute prohibits CIP placement for offenders who have been convicted of any of the following crimes: murder, manslaughter, criminal sexual conduct, assault, kidnapping, robbery, arson, or any other offenses involving death or intentional personal injury.

CIP consists of three phases, each generally lasting for six months. The first, highly structured, phase for men takes place at the Willow River site, which now holds 180 offenders, double what it did when the program began. Female inmates can qualify for CIP Togo, which has a capacity of only 30. Work, specialized training, chemical dependency programming, education and physical activity are planned for virtually every minute of the day from 5:30 a.m. to lights out at 9:30 p.m. There is no recreational television, and visiting and telephone privileges are severely restricted.

In the second and third CIP phases, offenders are under intensive, close supervision in the community. Following successful completion of all three phases, offenders are placed on supervised release for the remainder of their sentences. Failure to complete CIP phases 2 and/or 3 may result in a return to prison.

It's tough, but it works, Alvord said.

"CIP increases public safety by reducing crime and victims of crime," she said, explaining that a study comparing CIP participants with a control group (with similar criminal factors) found that CIP decreased the chance of reoffending with a new felony conviction by 32 percent and the chances of re-incarceration for a new crime by 35 percent.

The same study also showed monetary savings for the state. The early release provision for CIP graduates has saved nearly 1,500 prison beds. That, combined with the reduction in recidivism, saved the state an estimated $18.1 million from 1993 to 2002, the years covered in the study.

Snapping the ends off a green bean he just picked, Jason Spillum said he feels lucky to have been accepted into the CIP program and especially lucky to have gotten a job working in the CIP gardens.

"It's a good way to pass the time," said Spillum, who began serving a 104-month sentence for first-degree controlled substance possession in February 2011 and transferred to Willow River CIP on June 13. "In some ways it's almost meditative. You can garden, think and relax and, at the same time, you're helping feed the whole facility."

In the 18 months since he was first incarcerated, Spillum said he's lost more than 75 pounds.

Now, he said he would like to become a nutritionist.

"Before I was incarcerated, I pretty much just ate out all the time, at buffets, wherever," he said. "Here, you learn how to eat well, how to take care of your body. It's been an eye opener."

Community service is also an important part of the Willow River CIP program. CIP work crews work on projects for nearby communities approximately 10,000 hours per year, according to Sgt. Dan Lilya, who is in charge of the restorative justice work crew program. They work for free, and any non-profit organization can apply for CIP assistance.

"A couple days ago, we were cleaning buses in Willow River; today we are helping the folks in Kettle River get ready for Ma and Pa Kettle Days," Lilya said during a tour of the facility last Thursday. "Any kind of manual or physical labor they can't take care of on their own, we'll go and help with."

CIP work crews played a huge role in sandbagging in Moose Lake during the June flooding. When the flood waters of the Moose Horn Lake and River were rising fast, Moose Lake Police Chief Bryce Bogenholm called on CIP to help make sandbags. Between Wednesday and Friday, volunteers and work crews filled and placed approximately 80,000 sandbags.

CIP was there from start to finish.

"I think walking alongside our community, being part of the community, made such an impact," said Eileen Quittem, a member of Moose Lake Covenant Church who comes into the CIP facility to work with inmates who want to learn the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Lilya agreed.

"On the first day, you could easily see who was a community member and who was from CIP," he said, estimating he took a total of 140 men to help over the course of the flood and its aftermath. "They were working separately. Within three hours, though, everyone was intermingled, working together.

"One guy told me, 'All my life I've just taken from my community. It really felt good to give back.'"

The citizens of Moose Lake showed their appreciation to the CIP work crews by inviting them to participate in the city's July 4 parade. The crews even wrote a special cadence for the parade. (See www.pinejournal.com for the words to that cadence.)

"It was the first time in 20 years they were invited to march in the parade," Lilya said. "The standing ovations they got, the feeling there, it was just incredible."