A program at the Larch Corrections Center is a proving ground for the state's effort to remake the prison system — to transform it from revolving-door warehouses into factories for solid citizens.

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Richard Burdett strolls into the Larch Corrections Center’s discipline courtroom with the rolling swagger of the drug-dealing prince of Burien he used to be.

In that life, he was “Rick Dog,” counting so much re-up money from crack sales that his hands got grimy. He swiped cars and “lived by the gun.”

But today he is Department of Corrections No. 705687, near the end of his stint in prison for cooking methamphetamine. He settles his bulk into a chair and dips his buzz-cut head, resigned to answer for an allegation of misbehavior.

The accusation is something off a kindergarten playground: Burdett snickered as another inmate, barely literate, struggled to read aloud before a group.

Do you own that behavior? a prison counselor asks.

Burdett raises his head, looking genuinely grieved. “By no means would I ever laugh at someone who is struggling,” he says.

He does not protest or make excuses, or even ask for mercy. Instead, he suggests his own punishment: Write a paper detailing how disrespect harms both himself and society. “I’ll get right on top of it,” he promises.

As he saunters out with the same street-wise swagger, you have to ask: Is he for real?

If his words are to be believed, Burdett has finally, at the age of 33, left Rick Dog behind. “I’m going to college and get into human services,” he says later. “The first thing I want to do when I get out is go to the police department and find the detectives that said ‘Rick Dog is a nuisance,’ and say, ‘I’m clean and sober,’ and ask if there’s an opportunity to give back. There’s so many people like me out there, and you’ve got to break the cycle.”

The source of Burdett’s seeming redemption is a small, quirky drug-treatment program — called a “therapeutic community” — at Larch, a minimum-security prison tucked into the Cascade foothills just south of Mount St. Helens. Here, the feeling is more college campus than Alcatraz.

While cynics might say it’s just the latest version of pie-in-the-sky “hug-a-thug” approaches that came before, its goal is no less than to reprogram the very moral code of thieves, meth cooks and even a murderer or two through equal parts compassion and discipline.

What is more extraordinary: This little program is a proving ground for the state’s effort to remake the prison system itself — to transform it from revolving-door warehouses into factories for solid citizens.

IN THE PENDULUM that swings between punishment and rehabilitation, Washington’s prisons are leaning hard left, propelled by a near-universal belief among researchers and prison officials alike that warehousing inmates has been a failure.

In 1980, two out of every 1,000 adults in Washington younger than 50 were in prison. In 1990, it was three per 1,000. By 2006, it was six in every 1,000. If the trend holds, it will be 7.5 per 1,000 by 2020.

The financial cost has become staggering. In 1980, the average household in Washington spent $590 in inflation-adjusted tax dollars for criminal justice. Today, the bill comes to $1,130.

At this rate, Washington will need two new, $250 million prisons by 2020. Throw in operating costs, and staying the course amounts to a $1 billion decision.

State Sen. Mike Carrell, a Republican with solid tough-on-crime credentials, studied the state’s options as part of a committee he co-chaired in 2006, and came to a simple conclusion.

“The prison system has been failing,” he says. “It meets the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing and keep getting the same failing results.”

Last year, Carrell linked arms with liberal Democrats and pushed through the Legislature the biggest prison reforms since 1994. Other states across the nation are also launching inmate “re-entry” programs, but Washington has ponied up real money.

A $25 million down payment will begin financing a bouquet of new rehabilitation-focused programs: universal drug treatment for the 10,000 drug-addicted inmates — 70 percent of the population — by 2011. A near-doubling of reading-proficiency levels by 2010. And job training for every eligible inmate within a decade.

The Larch therapeutic community that took on Burdett is at center stage. Created a decade ago, it was the state prison system’s first such community. Since then, eight other state prisons and work releases have signed on, graduating thousands of inmates back to society.

Prison officials plan to take the next big step at Airway Heights near Spokane — running the entire 2,000-bed prison on this same model. The idea is to send inmates back into society with more than 40 bucks and a bus ticket. Chase Riveland is familiar with all of it. He championed inmate rehabilitation as the state prison director in the 1980s and ’90s. But a tough-on-crime swing of the pendulum in the early 1990s stripped prison vocational and education budgets to the point that today, 40 percent of inmates leave prison unable to read at the ninth-grade level.

Prisons stocked with treatment and classes are easier to run, Riveland says, “because the less time you give them to come up with devious things.” They also give offenders “a fighting chance” to thrive once they’re back in society.

TWO YEARS AGO, “Rick Dog Burdett was on a work detail out of Olympic Corrections Center, picking up storm debris along state Highway 101 near Forks in a driving rain, counting the days until he could get back to the drug trade. Then, out of the fog, Burdett claims, he heard the voice of God:

You don’t have to live like this, God told Rick Dog.

Until then, it was all he knew. His mother was the outcast of an upper-middle-class family. She’d had five husbands and — according to other family members — a major crack cocaine habit. Burdett’s sister, Stacy Reis, remembers coming home with her brother to find the furniture pawned and nothing to eat but “crack mac” — macaroni and cream of mushroom soup.

Burdett says he was still a teenager when his mother’s dealer, June Bug, plunked an ounce of cocaine on the dashboard of his white Cutlass and gave him a choice:

You can get high or you can make money. It’s up to you.

Soon, Burdett says, he was making about $400,000 a year dealing crack in Burien and White Center. He says he abstained to avoid his mother’s habit, but got “Rick Dog” tattooed across his neck to make a point. “I had guns, I had friends, I was the man. That’s the way I thought.”

His fall was quick. He developed a methamphetamine habit that made him forget he was a cocaine dealer. He got a girlfriend pregnant and they had a daughter, but he abandoned them and soon lost himself.

He was arrested so many times between 2001 and 2004 he lost track: for driving a stolen car with a joint behind his ear and a meth pipe in his lap; for stealing ephedrine capsules; for cooking meth in a seedy Tukwila hotel.

In 2005, he cut a deal, getting several charges dismissed but pleading guilty to car theft and meth manufacturing. His five-year sentence was cut in half as a first-time felon.

Humbled by the voice of God, Burdett wrote a letter to the judge who sentenced him, declaring himself “an empty shell of a man” sorely in need of treatment.

Larch offered an intense program that lasts up to a year.

A few months later, Burdett was on the “chain bus” as it wound the twisting mountain road to Larch, knowing little more than he’d made a mess of his life and needed a new one.

KAY HEINRICH, the state prison system’s den mother of therapeutic communities, came across the concept around 1995 while getting a graduate degree at night.

The program — also called the “right-living” model — was pioneered in Nevada in the early 1960s on the premise that compassion and behavioral modification could make drug addicts change their ways. It’s since been replicated around the country. Research on graduates has found as much as a two-thirds reduction in recidivism, so long as treatment continues after release. Larch’s program reflects Heinrich’s personality: an even blend of compassionate counselor and intense disciplinarian. A recovering addict, Heinrich works in Spokane researching and designing drug-treatment programs in the prisons. On her desk is a reminder she calls “Sober Kay in a Bubble” — a Barbie doll, tiny running shoes, textbooks, nutritional guides, all inside a small plastic ball. Stay in the bubble, stay sober.

On first glance, the program looks like the shotgun marriage between a boot camp and a cult. Inmates, their prison tattoos peeking out from beneath wine-colored shirts, address each other as Mister, and call corrections officers the “rational authority.” Everyone holds a job, giving the halls the antiseptic smell of an airport bathroom from frequent scrubbings.

They are forbidden to do so much as swear, and if given a directive, they universally respond with, “I’ll get right on top of that.” As a collective, they are “the family.”

And they enforce the rules on each other. In a normal prison, rule violations would merit a trip to “the hole.” But do so in a therapeutic community, and you are called out in front of the family, where you may have to read a paper or perform a skit (Burdett’s specialty).

The four-phase program is a regime of classes — such as Criminal Thinking Errors or Self-Discovery — designed to rewire the inmates’ thinking processes. Each man is also assigned a chemical-dependency counselor, acting as a guide and watchdog for slippage back into the sense of entitlement, rage and guilt that feed addiction.

“What it’s about is looking at your value system,” says Heinrich. “Have your old ways of criminal thinking worked for you? When you get to the answer, then you lay out healthy values like a buffet and let them pick.”

Burdett gravitated to self-awareness and regret. He joined Toastmasters and Narcotics Anonymous, which is not required but encouraged. He cut ties to old friends and began writing to his grandmother, sister and aunt, as well as the ex-girlfriend who had his daughter.

“I keep a journal,” Burdett wrote to his aunt, so if and when he talks to his daughter, “she will have something to read and know I love her and care about her and she has been thought about daily.”

His grandmother, Margaret Slaughter, sees “a new person” in the letters:

“I didn’t think he’d ever reach the capacity to see what he’d done is so wrong, but he has.”

IT IS WISE FISCAL policy to make post-prison transitions as smooth as possible, says Nancy LaVigne, a prison researcher with the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Otherwise, the expense of incarceration is basically wasted.

“Before their release, people say, ‘I’m going to make it, it’s not going to be difficult.’ They just don’t have realistic expectations of how hard it is going to be,” LaVigne says. “You’re setting yourself up for major disappointment, and you probably don’t have coping mechanisms for disappointment.”

Washington runs three work-release programs on the therapeutic-community model, including one on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. But the effect on recidivism in this state is unclear. The Department of Corrections had not been compiling the research until just recently.

But a cost-benefit analysis, based on studies from other states, found that the extra per-inmate cost of a therapeutic community — about $1,600 — saves taxpayers nearly five times that amount in lower crime rates and fewer victims.

The worth of a new approach can be measured in other ways. Larch superintendent Pat Gorman says the lock-’em-up model is like abandoning a car in a garage for decades, then expecting it to start right up when you turn the key.

“I’ve worked in corrections for 29 years,” he says, “and this is as close as anything I’ve seen to something that makes a difference.”

SPENDING TIME with the family at Larch, it’s easy to see the promise and the fragility of this program.

In August, grizzled inmates openly cried as they shared letters from their children. House rules were enforced with such vigor that an inmate was called out for taking a sugar packet from the dining hall.

Jim Grosz, head of the family then, talked of his pending release in a voice sanded with decades of smoking, which he has now given up. He’d done time before for drug crimes, he said, and his prison terms offered little more than further criminal education. But this time was different. Now he has “clarity of thought” to assess the consequences of his actions, to stay clean and sober. “I was a liar, cheat and thief,” he admitted. “I am not that man today.”

But just a few months later, the family was squabbling. Stashes of contraband — pornography, tobacco and meth — had been found. And the bedrock idea of the therapeutic community — inmates enforcing rules on each other — was endangered by a murderer named Gregory Brooks.

During a self-discovery group, Brooks, in the prison system since 1978, suggested that “family” members could face the “convict code” that calls for retaliation against snitches. That earned him what is known in therapeutic communities as a “haircut,” a talking-to by fellow inmates so harsh it slicks your hair back.

Grosz, in Brooks’ face: “I see you living in the old convict code. You must practice acceptance. You must learn to deal with society on society’s terms . . . You will not last in society a week if you keep that up.”

But Brooks is not alone. Prisoners often deride therapeutic communities as “rat programs.” Some newcomers are so fearful of breaking the convict code that they “cuff up” — starting fights so they’ll be bounced to higher-security prisons rather than sent to softy school.

Ed Galla, the lead corrections officer for Larch’s therapeutic community, acknowledges he had qualms when he arrived two years ago. But he is a convert. He’s found that therapeutic-community inmates get in trouble less than one-tenth as often as general-population inmates. And he now gets the occasional call from ex-inmates who tell him they’re doing well: “I get one of those calls, and it’s worth six months of job satisfaction.”

But even he wonders how the cozy family will be replicated at the much larger Airway Heights. Will inmate self-policing turn into a vindictive free-for-all? “I’ve no idea how they’re going to do that.”

It’s going to be a challenge, admits Rob Herzog, associate superintendent at Airway Heights, which is scheduled to open the first 600 therapeutic-community beds in June. He expects some inmates will “cuff up” and get transferred. But in talking with inmates, some said they see it as the easiest way to do the time.

Will all of them buy it? Herzog asks aloud. “Probably not.”

IN JANUARY, Richard Burdett left the cocoon of the therapeutic community for the work-release site on Capitol Hill — trading his prison-issue khakis for a pair of olive slacks, a black tie and a thick winter coat from his grandmother. A friend ponied up rolls of quarters for laundry money. The iPod and tickets to a Seahawks game Burdett covets will have to come later.

First, he needs a job.

For an ex-inmate, keeping a job has proved to be among the best ways to cut the risk of recidivism. But Burdett’s résumé is mostly white space. He’s not held a legitimate job since 2000, when he worked as a painter. He didn’t graduate from high school. And a felony makes many employers queasy. Still, he has to try.

And so, on a miserably wet morning, Burdett is hopping a bus to South Park, where he’s heard of job openings. He has 10 days to find work or risk being sent back to prison until June. He is so excited he bounces on the balls of his feet.

He barely gets a glance at his first two stops — a foundry and a cold-storage warehouse. But at a metal-fabricating company, manager Frank Millett greets him warmly. The felony and drug-treatment history are no problem, Millett says. “If I didn’t get a second and third chance, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.” No jobs open right now, Burdett learns, but he is encouraged to check back.

Shaking off what has become driving sleet, Burdett hops another bus to another interview and settles down in back alongside two men with drug convictions. One knew Rick Dog the meth cook by reputation.

“There’d have to be like $100,000 on the table to get me back into it,” the guy says.

Off the bus and out of earshot, Burdett shakes his head. “Talk like that, and he’s gonna fall.”

Stopping to chop the air with his hand, he’s resolute: “Not me. There’s nothing you could give me to go back to cooking dope. Not with all the support my grandmother and everyone is giving me. This is the only way for me.”

He trudges off to put in another job application.

Jonathan Martin is a Seattle Times staff reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. Thomas James Hurst is a Times staff photographer.