Roberto Garcia rose from his prison bunk one morning last week with a deep sense of peace about what lay ahead. Another leg in prison was almost over, and he was about to embark on an even tougher stretch: a self-imposed sentence to remain sober for life.

It was his graduation day among the felons in Cottage J-1 at the state correctional facility in Lino Lakes -- Minnesota's so-called "treatment prison.'' It would be a day of laser stares and brutal honesty, with no sheet cake at the end. But in a locked-down world where self-respect is as hard to find as the truth, he felt ready.

Garcia, who walked out of Lino Lakes on Monday, is a success story in a public safety program that is under threat.

The number of drug treatment beds in Minnesota prisons has not kept pace over the past decade with the state's soaring inmate population, and two-thirds of offenders directed to drug treatment do not receive it before their release, according to the Department of Corrections (DOC).

Now state lawmakers have proposed a 25 percent cut in treatment funds -- enough for 200 beds and 12 counselors -- arguing that Minnesota has more urgent law-enforcement needs.

Gov. Mark Dayton and corrections officials say the cut would be counterproductive. An internal department study found that drug treatment cuts an offender's chance of recidivism by more than 25 percent -- a staggering number in a state where 85 to 90 percent of inmates have drug or alcohol problems. Cutting the number who reoffend is seen as a key way to improve public safety while controlling prison costs.

Corrections officials acknowledge the state's budget squeeze but say cutting treatment funds would be a mistake. "They're going to be your neighbor. Do you want them sober, or do you want them doing what they were doing?'' said Dianne Seger, director of chemical dependency services at the department. "Treatment helps them practice a self-disciplined way to live, to show up every day and get a job.''

The funding dispute is now locked in the larger budget standoff between the governor and GOP legislators.

Running out of time

Without a necktie to wear, Garcia had buttoned his shirt collar up to his thick neck to signify the formality of the day's ceremony. In a few hours, he would go eyeball to eyeball in a circle of 13 men, all trying to defeat their addictions.

Garcia, who was born in Texas but grew up in Minnesota, has been in and out of prison since 1992 on assault and drug charges. He had prepared to speak this morning of dreams ahead and the violence he had perpetrated. The waste of living half his life inside Minnesota's prison system, of telling lies for drugs and, the worst of hurts, being an absent father to his nine children.

An old friend from prison in Stillwater gave a one-line introduction that coldly set the tone for the ritual: "Roberto, man, you're running out of time.''

Officially they are called "therapeutic communities.'' The fact is, the Department of Corrections runs the largest treatment system in Minnesota, some 900 beds serving 1,200 offenders per year.

At Lino Lakes, offenders in treatment eat together, sleep in the same unit and attend 25 hours of classes a week. On graduation day, the departing offender is required to read a "goodbye'' letter to his drug of choice, then move around the circle, facing each of his peers knee to knee.

Garcia pulled his glasses down from his shaved head and, in a soft voice, began to read a painfully honest document about his drug use; it sounded like a bitter farewell to a lover.

"You have created nothing but pain and suffering ... it was hell to get rid of you ... I had dreams ... you have destroyed my life over 30 years and I regret every minute I spent with you. ... I feel like crying ... addiction has been killing me slowly.''

Hardened men stared at their shoes.

Long-term savings

Department officials say the cut in treatment funds, while only a fraction of the proposed $18 million in cuts to their overall budget, would undermine a long-term strategy to reduce recidivism among hardened, repeat offenders.

"If we get significant cuts, we lose a public safety tool,'' said Steve Allen, director of behavioral services. "It takes a lot of work for [offenders] to learn new social skills other than with your fist or through the bottle."

Dayton's budget would give the department $1.3 million to replace an expiring federal chemical-dependency grant -- about one-quarter of the department's overall treatment budget.

GOP legislators say scarce funds would be better spent on other anti-crime initiatives.

"It's a question of priorities, and chemical dependency certainly is one,'' said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. "But when you have task forces knocking down doors in neighborhoods to wipe out drug houses to make us safer, that's an immediate priority that has to be addressed.''

Limmer said he intends to make chemical dependency a "high priority'' next session.

Allen and his staff, however, point to studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that found that every dollar spent on an offender's dependency treatment saves taxpayers $12 in future costs from drug-related crimes, health care and overall criminal justice.

A foreign land

For more than an hour, Garcia exchanged greetings with his peers and listened to their concerns for his future. Repeatedly, they used the term, "out there'' -- the streets -- as if it were a foreign country full of danger and temptations. "Stay away from your associates'' was a constant reminder.

He was near the end of the ceremony when he got to Connie Garritsen, his counselor, who has been running DOC treatment groups for the last decade. She handed him his certificate of completion and said: "This, you have earned.''

Garcia, a man convicted of assaults and drug use, smiled like an innocent schoolboy. "I've never had anyone push me in such a positive way,'' he said.

In prison, an offender is never allowed to have physical contact -- even an elbow brush on the sidewalk -- with staff. Garcia had waited nearly a year for this moment. He reached out and shook Garritsen's hand for the first time, one more step toward acknowledging his worth.

His 47th birthday was Friday, and this week he starts job training to become a forklift operator. He knows how to weld. Most important, he's found a mediator in Carver County to help him reunite with some of his children.

"I have to build that relationship,'' he said. "I'm tired of doing bad things.''

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

• That's enough to provide 200 treatment beds and 12 counselors.

• Up to 90 percent of Minnesota inmates have drug or alcohol problems.

• Corrections officials says drug treatment cuts recidivism by 25 percent.

$18 million in overall cuts to DOC budget proposed