Martez Gibson calls himself blessed.

The 47-year-old spends his days driving a truck for the South Carolina Department of Transportation, picking up roadkill and litter-filled trash bags. The job pays $15 an hour and comes with state benefits and a 401(k).

It's a modest living, but it would have sounded like a fantasy to Gibson five years ago, when he was starting his fourth prison term in Minnesota, this time for possessing a firearm. As the former Chicago gang member knows well, checking the felony box on a job application is a non-starter for many employers.

Gibson attributes his success to an intensive early-release program he entered during that final prison stint in Willow River, Minn., officially called the Challenge Incarceration Program, and colloquially known as CIP.

"I think I'm lucky," he said. "I'm thankful to CIP. I'm glad that I went there, because nothing else ever worked for me."

Minnesota corrections officials tout CIP for its success in rehabilitating inmates and integrating them back into society, citing lower rates of recidivism for its graduates. It also serves as a back door for prisoners, moving them through the system faster.

The only problem, they say, is lack of space. As of mid-May, 166 eligible inmates were stuck on the waiting list.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) is asking the Legislature for $3.5 million to expand the program this year, which Deputy Commissioner Terry Carlson says is critical for addressing prison overcrowding and reducing reconvictions among former inmates.

The Senate included funds in its bonding proposals, but on Wednesday, when the Republican-led House introduced its omnibus bonding bill, it made no mention of money for CIP. And with only a few days to go before the end of the session, it remains to be seen if the program will get that funding.

From boot camp to release

The state launched CIP in 1992. It now holds 297 inmates and saves $1.8 million a year. The bonding money would make way for 75 more inmates by creating additional programming space, repurposing an existing building into a housing barracks and updating an antiquated septic system.

Only nonviolent inmates can participate in the voluntary CIP program. It begins with a six-month, military-style boot camp, during which inmates live and eat separately from the general prison population and complete a highly structured regimen of classes for things like addiction treatment, cognitive skills and restorative justice. The inmates also perform community service, such as chopping wood, cleaning up trash and painting.

"These offenders come in and they have complex cases and complicated lives that they have to unravel," said Guy Bosch, associate warden at the Shakopee prison. "CIP addresses every aspect of that."

About 86 percent make it through boot camp, according to DOC. After graduating, inmates are freed from prison under intensive supervised release. They check in regularly with their release officers and take routine drug and alcohol tests.

Becky Dooley, warden for the Willow River and Moose Lake prisons, acknowledges that some victims are not pleased when they learn inmates are getting out early. But she defends the program's effectiveness in rehabilitating those who complete it.

Lower reconviction rates

A 2006 DOC study, the most recent available research on CIP, found that 32 percent of inmates who entered the program were reconvicted of another felony. In contrast, 46 percent of a comparison group of inmates who didn't participate in the program were reconvicted of a felony after getting out.

"The Challenge Incarceration Program really changes offender behavior," Dooley said. "Not only do they physically change, but internally they process and make decisions differently."

Gibson served only one of his five years. He said the hardest part about the program was group sessions where he had to open up about all the people he hurt during his days as a criminal.

"CIP brought all of that out on a higher level and really made you think," he said. "They get into your head a little bit."

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036