Community Rallies Against Proposed Closure of Willow River DOC Facility

Willow River facility is minimum security boot camp program for non-violent offenders

MOOSE LAKE, Minn. – People rallied in Moose Lake Thursday protesting the closure of the Department of Corrections facility in Willow River.

This comes after it was announced both the Willow River and Togo facilities would close by the end of the year because of a Department of Corrections budget shortfall caused by the pandemic.

The Willow River facility is a minimum security boot camp available to non-violent offenders. It gives them chemical dependency rehabilitation programming, education, and opportunities to work in the community.

On Thursday, around a hundred people protested the facility’s closure at Riverside Arena in Moose Lake.

Paul Mickelson is a former DOC employee who helped organize the event. He believes the Willow River program is more beneficial than traditional prison to certain inmates and says it has kept many men from re-offending.

“You can really start to focus in on behaviors and turn their lives around by not having them living inside of a prison that is really more about criminal behavior than it is about changing your life,” explained Mickelson.

Non-profit organizations are opposed to the closure.

The Disabled American Veterans Chapter 18 of Carlton County rely on the Willow River offenders to help process hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies distributed to veterans every year.

“They come and they load it into our trucks. If it wasn’t for them, we would be doing it ourselves, and I have guys that are there that are in their late 60s, 70s, 80s that are doing this stuff,” said Disabled American Veterans commander Stan Heuer. “And myself, and I’m one of the young bucks of the group.”

The veterans group says it would be “devastating” if the work release boot camp program was moved to a Twin Cities-area prison, as has been proposed by the DOC.

People at Thursday’s rally hope to convince state lawmakers and officials that the Willow River facility is too important to close down.

The DOC has a $14 million budget shortfall that could grow to $25 million over the next two years because of the pandemic.

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