NEW RICHMOND -- The non-descript complex of buildings, tucked away on the western edge of town, has three letters outlined in stone to identify itself to passing motorists.
CIP is the Challenge Incarceration Program, an earned early release prison facility that has been changing the lives of criminals for 20 years.
Inside its walls, the buildings house some 100 to 130 inmates who are pushed to the limit in an intense, boot-camp-like program designed to change their criminal mindset, teach them the discipline needed to become productive members of society and give them hope for a brighter future.
As a testimony to the program's effectiveness, the facility hosts an annual reunion each June. This year's 18th annual reunion was June 18 and 17 former inmates and their families attended.
"We're the only prison that has reunions," said Cpt. Kevin Kosbab proudly. "It says a lot about the program. People want to come back."
On reunion Saturday, former inmates returned with big smiles on their faces and exchanged bear hugs with security staff who had previously barked commands at them and generally made their lives difficult during their 180-day stay at CIP. The graduates know now that it was the kind of tough love they needed and it helped each of them turn their lives around.
"Positive things can happen, even in prison," Kosbab said.
Marty McMillin, Madison, came to the St. Croix Correctional Center and its unique CIP program in 1998. At the time, he was a daily drug and alcohol user and he had had several serious run-ins with the law.
When he learned about CIP, which requires a prison inmate to voluntarily submit to the intense program, McMillin said he knew it was for him. The concentrated drug and alcohol treatment offered, along with instruction on critical thinking skills and the educational opportunities provided, was just the right mix for him.
"They took somebody who didn't want to change, and probably wouldn't change, and made it too uncomfortable for me not to change," he explained. "I owe a lot to this program. They gave me the tools I needed to make it."
McMillin, who now works in sales, said he's "had a lot of great years" since he completed the challenge incarceration program, and he appreciates the chance to return once a year to remember how far he's come and to say thanks to those who made a difference in his life.
"When I was here, I hated this place more than anything," he said. "But now, when I look back at it, I really accomplished something while I was here. It really changes the way you view things."
During the reunion event, McMillin, along with the other returning graduates, were able to talk with current inmates and answer any questions they might have about the transition back into normal society.
Kosbab said the interaction between current and former inmates is an important part of the CIP effort. Talking with those who have made it through the program and succeeded in the real world gives inmates hope that they can do the same, he said.
For the 50 staff members at the Challenge Incarceration Program, Kosbab said, the reunion proves that their efforts are helping criminals turn a new leaf.
"Many of the inmates come here at the lowest point of their life," he said. "When they come back, it reminds us that what we do makes a difference. It lets us know the challenge program is working."
It also helps reconnect the staff with graduates, Kosbab said, which is important as ongoing support is needed to help former inmates stay on the right path.
"One thing that makes us unique is that our doors are always open," he explained. "Graduates can call us at any time, and they frequently do. We'll give them a kick in the keister, if they need it. Or we'll give them words of encouragement."
Cpt. Scott Grady said nearly 60 percent of inmates who complete the challenge program stay out of trouble.
That's an impressive figure, when you consider that current Wisconsin recidivism rates indicate that almost 60 percent of ex-convicts will re-offend.
Of the 3,808 graduates who have gone through CIP since 1991, 2,139 remain in society as law abiding citizens. Some 76 graduates have remained on the straight-and-narrow for more than 15 years. Another 302 graduates have celebrated their salvation from the criminal lifestyle for more than 10 years.
"Something happens to the inmates while they're here," Grady said. "You can see the changes, and it's very rewarding to see."
Grady said the goal is to instill discipline in their lives, give them courage to meet any challenges they may face and encourage the determination they need to succeed.
"It's basic, fundamental living," he said. "We steer them in the right direction, but they're the ones who have to do it."
Despite the program's success, Grady said CIP remains a controversial concept in Wisconsin, because inmates must agree to submit to the rigors of boot camp life. That's why the concept hasn't expanded beyond the New Richmond facility.
Sgt. Larry Thatcher, a Wisconsin corrections veteran, said he thinks it's rewarding to work for a program that is helping people.
"At the end of the day, I feel like I've accomplished something," he said. "I'm able to be a positive role model for others. I enjoy my job."
The CIP program started in 1991 with space for 18 male inmates. Now they have 123 beds for men. Since 2003, women inmates have also been able to participate in the program. There is currently space for 12 females.
An inmate's day begins bright and early at 5:35 a.m. The inmates visit the restroom, get dressed and make their beds. During the summer months, the men and women have physical training right away in the morning.
Breakfast is served at 6 a.m.
The rest of an inmate's day is spent either on educational programming or drug and alcohol counseling, or on working as part of a crew in the community. Two and a half days a week the inmates work on a number of different jobs, including shoveling snow for elderly residents, cleaning cemeteries, providing maintenance help at local nonprofits or talking to area students about making good choices in life.
The other days inmates work toward their high school equivalency diploma. They also receive computer training, career counseling, job skills instruction and family skills training.
Physical training also is a key component of an inmate's day. Staff members hope the inmates retain their physical activity when they leave, because it's a positive way to relieve stress and encourages healthy choices.
"We've had some inmates lose up to 75 pounds while they're here," Thatcher said. "That may not be their goal when they come here, but they feel so much better about themselves when they leave."
After supper, the inmates participate in group counseling sessions. They are in bed at 9:30 p.m. each night.
The inmates get about a half hour of free time a day, according to Grady. They usually use that time to write letters to friends or family, or to read letters they've received. There is no television or movies to watch.
On the weekend the inmates might participate in an occasional recreational activity, like playing volleyball, but their day is still pretty structured.
"There's not a whole lot of free time," Grady explained. "We only have them for 180 days, so there's not a lot of time to waste. We have limited time to teach them the fundamentals of responsible living."
Talisha Lynch, 25, of Racine, is a new graduate of the program. On reunion day, she was awaiting the proper paperwork so she could leave and return home to her 9- and 7-year-old daughters.
She came to CIP after being sentenced to four years in prison and four years of probation for armed robbery.
"After the first five minutes after getting off the bus, I said 'oh no, what have I done,'" she said with a smile. "I never thought I would make it ... but this is exactly where I needed to be."
After several months of fighting back, Lynch said she eventually "surrendered" and began to realize that the program was offering her a chance at a new life.
"I understand why the program is designed the way it's designed," she said. "It's held me accountable. It's corrected my behavior. I have choices, positive and negative, and now I'm striving for the positive ones."
It took Lynch nine months, three months longer than the typical CIP stay, to complete the program's requirements.
"It's been intense," she said. "It's an awesome program, but it was definitely hard. This place has much to offer, as long as an individual is willing to work at it."
Lynch said she believes she will now be a better parent, and will also be a good employee and member of society, because of CIP.
"There will be a bright future ahead for anyone who goes through the program," she said. "I know I have a bright future. I'm excited for myself."
Lynch said her mom is equally excited.
"She can tell the change in me," she said. "She is proud of me for accomplishing CIP. I caused her much stress and pain over the years, now I want to show her she raised an awesome daughter."
Still, as her release approaches, Lynch admits that she's a little scared and nervous.
"I just have to take it one day at a time," she said. "I just have to use my tools and do the best I can. I have the ability to stay on a positive track."
Steven Pearson, 38, of Rockford, Ill., is another inmate approaching graduation. His graduation date is July 18.
Pearson came to CIP after serving five years in prison for armed robbery in Beloit.
An admitted drug addict, Pearson said he needed a highly structured and highly disciplined program to set his life straight.
"I wish I would have done this 15 years ago," he said, noting that he's wasted about 18 years of his life on the wrong side of the law. "I feel I've been given the tools and knowledge I need to maintain my sobriety and make good choices."
For the first time as a prison inmate, Pearson said he feels like staff members care about him and his future.
"I don't see myself as a dollar sign to the staff here," he said. "They don't want to see me come back to an institution."
As he transitions back to society, Pearson said he hopes to continue his career as a journeyman electrician. He also hopes to attain the status of a master electrician in the coming years.
Pearson also looks forward to reuniting with his dad, who has pledged to help his son succeed in society.
"He's become my best friend over the last five years," Pearson said with tears in his eyes. "I can't do it without him."