MOOSE LAKE, Minn. – More than 100 people sat in lawn chairs in this small northeastern Minnesota town, wearing masks under the August sun as their mayor walked onto a makeshift stage on the grassy field outside the city’s arena.

“Every single job in these small communities is important,” Moose Lake Mayor Ted Shaw said to the locals gathered to support the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP), a military-style boot camp in neighboring Willow River that allows nonviolent inmates to earn early release by completing supervised work in the community.

As the Department of Corrections faces a potential $14 million budget deficit, officials announced last week plans to close minimum-security prisons in Willow River and Togo, another northern Minnesota town that houses the state’s CIP for women. About 150 prisoners at those sites would be transferred this fall to other facilities, where the program is slated to resume.

While many communities often fight backyard developments — particularly those with a stigma, like prisons — those congregated in Moose Lake on Thursday urged state leaders to reconsider moving inmates, describing a symbiotic relationship between the CIP and the city of 2,800.

The regional Habitat for Humanity director said he relies on the CIP inmates to help build houses every year. The local chapter of Disabled American Veterans said it depends on CIP labor for its biannual rummage sale. The director of a camp for children with health challenges said the men from the CIP work more than 50 hours a week to get the facility ready for kids’ arrivals.

Likewise, those involved with the program said the success is tied to the setting. The Willow River and Togo facilities feel more like military barracks than prisons, they said. Men and women who volunteer for the program, which was designed in 1993 to reduce recidivism and reduce the costs of incarceration, have thrived in the camp-like environment where they often spend 16-hour days training, completing manual labor and participating in rehabilitation treatments.

A 2006 study said the program decreased a prisoner’s chances of reincarceration for a new crime by 35% and reduced costs by $4,600 per participant.

“We need to expand this. We don’t need to contract it to save a couple dollars,” said state Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, to cheers from the crowd.

The DOC already cut 48 jobs last month due to “unforeseen budget shortfalls” related to the coronavirus pandemic. Closing the Willow River and Togo facilities would mean laying off 100 or more additional employees.

“At the end of the day, we want CIP to remain at Willow River and at Togo. That was and remains the goal,” Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said Thursday. He told the Moose Lake ralliers that the department appealed for more funding from the Legislature with a supplemental budget proposal and a bonding request, both of which failed to pass during this summer’s special sessions.

“There is nothing in the law that allows for our agency to spend beyond what’s appropriated to us,” Schnell said. “The longer we wait, the deeper that hole gets.”

State Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, encouraged the crowd to write letters to Gov. Tim Walz to ask for a one-month stay of any closures and to state majority and minority leaders to urge them to bring forward a supplemental budget that would “allow these agencies to get the funding they need to stay open.”

Shaw reflected on the 2012 floods that ravaged his community, covering the very spot he stood with 4 to 5 feet of water. He recalled the CIP inmates working side by side with community members to stack sandbags and save homes.

“When you consider the impact of this program — how it ripples out — it’s huge,” he said.