- Sean Cayton
"GET DOWN AND TIGHTEN YOUR SHOE!" a guard barks.
The inmate does as he's told, but then he catches another guard's attention.
"GET UP! NO ONE TOLD YOU TO TIE YOUR SHOE!"
Fresh recruits at Buena Vista's Colorado Correctional Alternative Program quickly learn the basics: There are no right answers, only ones that are less bad. You can't do the correct thing, only the thing that will keep you out of trouble with your drill instructors.
You aren't funny. You can't be smart.
"WHAT'D YOU DO TO COME TO PRISON?" a guard asks one inmate, projecting his voice like an off-key trumpet.
"Sir, I drove without a license, sir," he answers.
Another guard senses an opening and swoops in.
"YOU DON'T DRIVE WITHOUT A LICENSE TO COME TO PRISON, STUPID. DON'T YOU TORCH THE PEOPLE. WHAT'D YOU DO TO GET TO PRISON?"
"Sir, I drove without a license, and I ran from the police, sir."
"OH, SO YOU DROVE WITHOUT A LICENSE, AND YOU RAN FROM THE POLICE?"
Yet another guard starts chanting in the inmate's ear: "AND. AND. AND I RAN FROM THE POLICE."
The questioning continues.
"YOU BETTER START TELLING ME WHAT THE FUCK I WANT TO HEAR, SWEETHEART. WHY ARE YOU IN PRISON?"
"Sir, because I fucked up, sir," he answers.
Wrong answer again.
"WHAT? WHAT? GET ON YOUR KNEES! YOU ARE GOING TO SIT THERE AND CUSS LIKE THAT AT US, SON? WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO CUSS AT US?"
"Zero day" at boot camp is an exercise in choreographed chaos. On this Wednesday afternoon, 40 inmates who've volunteered for the program as a way to get their prison sentences reduced, have arrived.
From cramped prison cells, they emerge into a sunny afternoon in the upper Arkansas River Valley. Fourteen-thousand-foot peaks sparkle overhead with the season's first snows.
It's doubtful many inmates notice the natural beauty. Most wince as drill instructors bellow in their faces, loosing darts of spittle that occasionally glint in the mountain sun.
By the time an hour's gone by, two inmates have quit.
Mike Perry, the program's director for its 16-year history, says in the past, five, six or more offenders would quit in the initial hours. After the first season, he started sending a staff member to talk with inmates the day before they arrived, and the number of people stunned out of the program immediately dropped, he says.
Watching the first day of boot camp, it is difficult to know whether to wince in sympathy for inmates or to laugh at the absurdity of their situation.
- Sean Cayton
- Inmates sometimes get the bucket for acting up.
Perry describes the process like a conductor who sees each piece of the performance as part of a correctional masterwork. The inmates are ordered off the bus, then they are told to get back on, crowding and pushing at the doorway.
Guards, with hands clenched behind their backs, jostle the inmates with their shoulders. Inmates learn they don't want to be last.
Those who show signs of resisting are singled out for extra attention with swarms of guards. "I OWN YOU!" "ON YOUR KNEES!"
On a roll
Drill instructors, taking a few moments away from their charges, immediately unclench their jaws.
"I feel like a doctor," one says, explaining the changes he sees in inmates during the 90-day program.
Perry talks about the program he designed with the air of a true believer. He based it on his experience as a Marine for 20 years. About 350 inmates finish each year, learning discipline from the military-inspired rituals. But instead of the aggression training that is part of military boot camps, Perry says, the offenders go through addiction-recovery classes and work on GEDs, if needed.
The program, the only camp run by the Department of Corrections, is open to prisoners 30 or younger who have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.
It works, Perry says. He cites a 2004 review of the program that showed 36 percent of those who completed the program 12 years earlier had gotten in more trouble with the law, compared with 52 percent of those who were qualified for the program but did not volunteer for it.
Hundreds of boot camps opened across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, as states started seeing them as promising alternatives to simply warehousing criminals in prisons.
But that tide of popularity has turned dramatically in the last few years. The federal government abolished its own boot-camp program in 2005, declaring there was no evidence the program worked despite a high cost for each inmate.
Boot camps, particularly private programs and those focused on teenagers, have come under even closer scrutiny following the death last year in Florida of a teenager who was beaten after he collapsed while running laps.
Perry says he visited the federal boot camp and other programs while designing the Colorado program, and he found them all defective.
"The problem is, there is no standard out there," he says. Most youth boot camps, he explains, "are not true boot camps at all."
Perry pulls aside three recent graduates of his program, all El Paso County residents, so they can talk.
Unsurprisingly, they speak highly of their experiences. Before coming to boot camp, one explains, "I felt there was nobody to help." In the program, he says, "I found out there are people who care."
Hard to measure
Ed Latessa, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati, is ready to accept that many inmates who finish correctional boot camps end up feeling better about themselves. Some also learn to work effectively in a team.
"But these aren't things we necessarily want to do with criminals," he says. "We don't want them to feel good about themselves."
It might sound callous, but Latessa believes the value of a correctional program can be judged only by its recidivism rate, or how often those who complete it go on to commit more crimes.
Studies on recidivism are notoriously difficult to undertake. Latessa, who has reviewed correctional programs and systems in 40 states, says he has yet to encounter any study showing boot camps actually reduce recidivism. In fact, if Colorado's boot camp has significantly curtailed criminal behavior, Latessa says, it could be the first program of its kind to do so.
And putting women many of whom have survived abusive relationships in a situation where they are yelled at and expected to follow orders seems to make even less sense, Latessa says.
"It's not a very therapeutic approach," he says.
Correctional programs that have been proven effective, Latessa says, tend to target particular risk factors and teach inmates skills to avoid old behaviors.
For his part, Perry says procedures at Colorado's boot camp teach prisoners to "control their behavior."
"Everything has a protocol," he says.
And by freeing up prison beds and shortening incarceration times, Perry argues, Colorado's boot camp actually saves taxpayer money.