Willow River, MN (NNC NOW) - Monday morning, just outside of Sturgeon Lake at the Minnesota Correctional Facility's Willow River location, and--after six months of preparing--28 inmates are gearing up to graduate from "Phase I" of the state's early release program.
The men of the Team Alpha and Team Bravo units have been following an intense, highly–structured boot camp model for six months as a form of rehabilitation, and Challenge Incarceration Program manager Deanna Alvord stands by the model's apparent success.
"The purpose of giving them the skills in the boot camp model that we have is to prepare them to reintegrate into society in a safe and productive way," says Alvord.
The philosophy of the program, says Alvord, is to encourage the non–violent inmates to take responsibility for their poor choices in the past, and—through education, skill–harnessing, chemical dependency treatment and restorative justice—make things right with themselves, their loved ones, and community.
"We don't expect these men and women to be good—we expect them to be great," says Alvord.
...a greatness, and appreciation for a second chance, that the Bravo 39th Squad hopes is reflected in their unit's custom sign: "We came, we saw, we conquered" written in Latin to symbolize prison life, and a gold coin that represents their freedom more valuable than any earthly treasure.
Now—with a diploma in hand—Eric Bernard of the Alpha Squad says he owes his new outlook on life to the program.
"It's... almost unspeakable. For me, it's changed a lot in my life—it's been a major changing point. It's a part of life that I've never seen before," says Bernard.
And freedom, says Bernard, will now be appreciated on every level: "...just the fresh air, you know? I've learned from the program to take life in bits and pieces. I'm not looking for [anything] big—bits and pieces."
...bits and pieces that Bernard will now enjoy amidst his community peers.
The graduates of the program will now enter "Phase II" of their early release, which includes a supervised release within their community to facilitate a positive, productive reintegration into daily life.