Supporters Gather for Rally to Save Willow River Prison

Dozens gathered outside the Riverside Arena in Moose Lake on a sweaty Thursday evening with one goal - save the Willow River Prison.


The facility is one of two the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced it planned on closing to make up a $14 million deficit in its budget. The closure would affect nearly 100 jobs and the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP).


The program is a year-long highly structured and intensive program that rehabilitates inmates through education and work crews who operate within the local community.


The August 13 rally was organized by Byron Kuster, a former employee of the Willow River Facility who had worked with the program for over 20 years. Kuster said he organized the event after prompting from State Senate candidate Michelle Lee and a few other people.


Paul Mickelson was one of the people asked by the state to help create the Challenge Incarceration Program in the 90s. During his speech, Mickelson said that this program and the local community go hand in hand.


"CIP is Willow River. CIP needs to stay here. It needs to evolve here because this community knows how to create success," Mickelson said. "The CIP atmosphere cannot be replicated inside the fence of a medium-security prison."


Not only would the movement of CIP to another location affect the surrounding communities, but the loss of over 50 jobs could also affect hundreds of people according to Moose Lake Mayor Ted Shaw.


"They're at the base of our economic system in these small towns, that's how important these jobs are," Shaw said. "When you consider the impact, how it ripples out, it's huge. To us, it's very important."


DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell made an appearance during the rally to speak before those gathered in support of the facility. Schnell sympathized with those in favor of keeping Willow River open but said a decision had to be made.


"We know the value of this program from the standpoint of these community organizations. I know from talking to the men and women who are in the CIP program that their experience there is changing their lives... The only way we can do this is we have to be able to resource it," Schnell said.


State Senator Jason Rarick responded to Commissioner Schnell with a call to action.


"Give us a month. Give us a chance. I believe that supplemental budget clean would pass both bodies of the legislature and that the governor would be willing to sign."


Last month, a supplemental budget proposal, with aid for the DOC, failed to pass legislation. Rarick asked rally-goers to contact Governor Tim Walz and the four leaders in the legislature and ask them to bring a clean supplemental budget forward so the facilities can stay open.


Schnell told KBJR that if the facilities had to close, CIP would be moved to the Moose Lake Prison.



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