A new chemical dependency treatment program started at North Idaho Correctional Institution is being touted as a way to get inmates to stay off booze and drugs - and stay out of prison as well.

The treatment program, which began two weeks ago, is based on statistics that show about 85 percent of all crimes are committed while the perpetrator is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Without adequate treatment programs, inmates are far more likely to repeat their offenses once released from prison."It's the same as anything else," said Gene Cwalinski, the program's director. "Once you educate the person, he can go ahead and make changes, but if you don't show them why it's happening, they can't do anything about it. It's like trying to teach a blind person to read."

The program, which is sponsored by the chemical treatment agency Port of Hope, is one of only four in the nation. If successful, it will be used as a model program for other prisons in the state.

Cwalinski said the program had been tried at a prison in Baker City, Ore., and only one of 90 inmates who completed the treatment had a relapse and was returned to prison.

At the North Idaho facility, Cwalinski said 85 percent of the inmates have chemical dependency problems. The program will work with 19 inmates over six months and be evaluated at that time to see if it can be expanded into other state prisons.

"I show them where they're at and show them where they'll be if they don't start making changes in their lives," Cwalinski said. "A lot of chemically dependant people have been told for years and years to stop drinking, but nobody ever showed them how and until somebody shows them how they can't do it."

The first inmates in this program, he said, have been "just amazed" to suddenly recognize the patterns of chemical abuse and criminal behavior that have taken place in their lives.

"They just thought things just happen to them. They begin to see there's a pattern, there's a reason for it. It did not just happen."

Cwalinski tries to distinguish between the person who is drawn into crime because of chemical dependency and the person who may be chemically dependent but suffers from "criminal thinking behavior."

"Do we have a criminal who is using alcohol or drugs or do we have a chemically dependent person who is doing criminal thinking?" he says. "We keep telling them their best thinking got them here. Now they need to change their thinking."

Inmates accepted into the program are ones who have been screened and who have been determined to have chemical dependency problems. The prisoners are then asked if they want to participate. It would do no good, Cwalinski said, to try to help someone with a drug or alcohol problem if he is not chemically dependent.