In this remote section of Minnesota woods, the 14 prisoners of Echo Squad march in seamless military formation, dressed in neat khakis and blue hats, repeating cadence calls that are more Dr. Phil than Sergeant Hartman:
"Now it's time to be a man; fix our problems while we can. Restorative justice, giving back; trying to get our lives on track."
The men are almost done with the boot-camp portion of a Minnesota program that gives early release to nonviolent drug offenders, most of whom are in on methamphetamine-related crimes. (A similar camp exists for women inmates.) The state's program has become a rare model. At a time when the federal and several state governments are moving away from boot-camp programs, Minnesota is showing how nonviolent drug offenders can return to society and remain sober.
With meth use becoming a serious problem across the Midwest and West, states are fighting back by restricting the sale of ingredients, like cold medicines, used to make the drug and increasing mandatory minimum sentences. The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would do both at a federal level.
But some states are also seeing economic and social benefits by replacing prison time with treatment, particularly with those who are in the drug business because of a personal addiction rather than for profit. Proponents say they alleviate the growing burden on prisons and improve the chances that drug offenders will be able to kick their habit and return to society.
Such early-release and prison-alternative programs can be controversial. In January, the US Bureau of Prisons decided to close its 14-year-old boot-camp program, calling it a failed concept. At its peak, that program involved more than 7,000 inmates in 27 states.
In Minnesota, by contrast, the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP) will double in size next year to 180 beds. It has earned support from even conservative state legislators, in part because of its very low 2 percent recidivism rate for those who complete the program. The CIP also has had good success with meth addicts, who can be particularly hard to treat.
"They're going to be released anyway," says Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian. "It is just so much wiser to actually change their behavior than to send them out unprepared. This is one of the only programs I've seen that really does that."
Minnesota, like many states in rural parts of America, has been hit hard by methamphetamine abuse. In 2001, 230 state prisoners were meth offenders. Since then, the number has grown 390 percent to more than 1,100, among the prison system's 8,700 prisoners.
"It truly is an epidemic," says Ms. Fabian. She works with corrections officials in Wisconsin, who are trying to start a similar program, and will speak about CIP at both a National Governors Association conference and a state commissioners meeting later this year.
Minnesota's program, which started two decades ago, was never intended to focus on meth offenders. But in the past few years it's changed to reflect the state's trends, and today about 70 percent of its prisoners are there because of the drug.
Mike Barsness is typical. An older man from the Grand Rapids area, he's married, has a daughter and two grandchildren, and has been using meth since 1990. "It got to the point where the drugs consumed my life," says Mr. Barsness, who hopes to return to his work as an auto mechanic.
He, like almost all the prisoners here at Willow River, says he applied to CIP for one reason: the reduced sentence. If he successfully completes the 12 months of supervision after six months of boot camp, he'll get about three years off his nearly eight-year sentence for possession. (Prisoners like Barsness, who have served enough time that they have four years or less to go, are eligible for the program). But he's come to see CIP, and even the jail time, as a blessing.
"Quitting was something I wanted to do, but I couldn't do on my own," he says. In the six months of boot camp he's changed physically - a good diet has brought his weight back up from 130 pounds to 176 pounds, and he can run four miles. He says the biggest changes have been mental: For the first time, he acknowledges his addiction, and is confident about being able to beat it.
Barsness and his fellow Echo Squad members speak in the platitudes of recovering substance abusers - the mantra of CIP begins: "I have choice and free will; I am accountable for my thoughts, feelings, and actions." They credit their 14-hour-a-week chemical dependency classes, which emphasize cause and effect and adjusting one's thinking, for effecting most of the change.
CIP program director Becky Dooley says those classes are essential, but other elements of the camp - the physical training, community service, education, and work crews - are more important than the men realize. Though the boot-camp aspects are secondary to treatment - one reason Ms. Dooley believes CIP has succeeded where many federal boot-camp experiments failed - she says the structure and repetition of military life are helpful to meth addicts, many of whom damaged their cognitive abilities with the drug.
The men march from place to place, often double-time, eat in silence, live in barracks, and use "sir" and "ma'am" when they speak. "You have to repair the mind, the body, the soul, so you provide program components that address all aspects of a person," says Dooley.
She and others who work with meth users also say that the lengthy time - six months at the boot camp after several years off the drug in prison - is important. Most community programs are only 30 or, at most, 90 days.
"What we're seeing is that it's taking between twice and three times as long to get to the same place with methamphetamine addicts as with others," says Patrick Fleming, director of the Salt Lake County Division of Substance Abuse in Utah, which saw some of the earliest use of the drug.
Mr. Fleming has been working with a pilot program in Utah for a proposed Drug Offenders Reform Act in which assessments of an offender's criminality and addiction level are given to a judge, who can recommend varying levels of supervision and treatment, instead of jail time, or can grant early release to already incarcerated offenders.
It's often hard to get politicians to back such programs, says Fleming, because of the desire to be seen as tough on crime. He'd like to see the money for small-time, nonviolent offenders targeted more toward treatment. Bills that increase mandatory minimum sentences, he says, "just harden the costs of the whole thing."
Indeed, economics are a big reason programs like Minnesota's are gaining traction. The cost of incarcerating a typical prisoner averages about $78 per day in the state, whereas CIP costs about $34 per prisoner per day. And early releases free up beds.
After boot camp, the offenders face six months of intensive supervision, including daily contact with a CIP agent, drug testing, full-time employment or education, and support groups. For the final six months, the supervision is reduced. The program has a big stick in addition to its early-release carrot: Those who fail the program must return to prison, with none of the CIP time counting toward their sentences.
"We have a responsibility to hold these guys accountable to follow rules after we discharge them into the community," says Dooley. "It's not an easy task to accomplish, but people can do it."
According to the prisoners, a program this rigorous - and even the jail time prior to it - is necessary. "With meth, you've got to sit for a year, year and a half, for your mind to start working differently," says Anthony Schwarz, a middle-aged meth offender. Though he needed that prison time, he says that it wouldn't have been enough. "Without this, I would have left prison and done exactly the same thing, without a doubt. I still would have had that chip on my shoulder. Now, there's the desire to do things differently."
Mr. Schwarz, who used to be a machinist and has two young children, says he has been using meth since 1982. Before prison, a typical day was "a line of meth, smoke, drink Bacardi and Coke, and that was breakfast."
He has an interview lined up for a forklift operator job, as well as community- service work and a support group. Schwarz also can't wait to spend time with the two children he hardly knows. Still, he's wary about the next few months.
"Is it possible to be happy and sober?" he asks. "I still have to prove that to myself."