NEWCASTLE, Wyo. — Corey Shellhaas never wanted the party to end.
But it did when Laramie County District Judge Steven Sharpe sent him to prison last year in connection with a 2013 felony property destruction case.
“I didn’t want to grow up; I didn’t want to, like, be mature or anything,” Shellhaas, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, said during an interview in late May at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp.
“Coming to boot camp — it let me see that, you know, if you expect to do anything with your life, you have to prioritize and be mature,” he explained.
“I have dreams that I want to accomplish, and coming here, it showed me that I can do that — like, I’m not, I don’t know — I’m not going to fail.”
Sharpe sentenced Shellhaas, now 24 years old, in August 2016 for not returning to the Cheyenne Transitional Center halfway house in April of that year, just four months after being sent there as punishment for a previous probation violation, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported . He ordered Shellhaas to spend one to three years in prison for the escape charge, to run at the same time as an imposed sentence in the property destruction case.
For the property destruction charge, Sharpe revoked Shellhaas’ first-offender probation — a chance to keep a felony conviction off of his criminal record by completing probation — and imposed a prison term of two to four years.
But Sharpe recommended Shellhaas for the youthful offender boot camp program run by the Wyoming Department of Corrections — yet another chance to turn his life around.
Offenders who complete the program can request a sentence reduction to serve the rest of their prison term on probation, and those requests are typically granted.
So far, Shellhaas is one of the Wyoming Boot Camp’s success stories.
There, something clicked for him. He graduated the day he was interviewed by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and is now out on probation with family in Pennsylvania.
When asked what kept him going through the mentally, emotionally and physically rigorous program, Shellhaas said it was having an opportunity to reunite with family in Pennsylvania and change his life.
But getting to that point wasn’t easy.
“It was pretty rough,” Shellhaas said of his first day at boot camp, which is called induction.
He described his experience as a roller-coaster — one that he definitely thought about getting off of.
“When we got here, the next day it was Friday, so we do a journaling group, and in my journal, my first entry was, like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,'” he said.
Four years ago, Shellhaas was one of three people caught vandalizing a local retirement home under construction. Now, though, he wants to go to college and study computer programming and game design.
“I feel like before I was just kind of wandering — like I wasn’t even really there,” he said.
“But coming here … I realized through groups and everything that I have to have goals. Otherwise, I’m not going to go anywhere — I’ll just fall back into working (one) dead-end job to the next, never really striving to accomplish anything.”
Boot camp basics
The Department of Corrections’ youthful offender boot camp program — described as an alternative to long-term incarceration — marries militaristic traditions, such as marching and physical training, with therapeutic interventions and education.
State lawmakers created the program back in 1987, and the facility opened in Newcastle in 1990. It started out as a 90-day program with 10 inmates and has since graduated more than 3,000.
Dustin Stoudt, the boot camp sergeant who oversees the day-to-day operations of the program, said the militaristic component of the program is important because uniformity breaks down the booters, as they’re called, to “that one level where everyone’s equal.”
“We try to keep as much military bearing as we can, so that these guys learn how to respect authority and keep to that schedule and be very mindful of what they’re doing,” Stoudt said. “To try to make them think before they act.”
The boot camp program also offers participants some vocational and mentorship opportunities.
But it is still prison.
Although it’s situated on the same campus as the state’s minimum security correctional institution, the boot camp program itself is not minimum security. The main facility is cordoned off by tall, barbed wire-topped fencing, living areas are locked down, and correctional officers keep a close eye on all inmates.
The program is open to male offenders from all over Wyoming who are younger than 25 when sentenced and has a capacity of about 64 inmates. It recently came under legal fire for not admitting female offenders, but the woman who filed suit has since been accepted to a similar program in Florida.
The boot camp curriculum is designed to be completed in six months, but booters have up to 12 months to make it through all four 45-day phases, because regressing is not uncommon.
Inmates who fail out of the program or quit are returned to the general prison population to serve the remainder of their time.
Booters in each stage are distinguished by a different colored hat: green, orange, blue and gold.
They live in four separate areas called bays — one for each hat color — that have bunk beds, laundry facilities, reading materials, tables and more. Large letters spelling out the word “freedom” in each bay do little to break up the boring beige walls.
“Green hats,” as they’re called, participate in anger management, as well as drug and alcohol classes, and must score a 25 percent on physical training tests.
The next phase, “orange hats,” involves more anger management programming, as well as criminal thinking and socialization classes, and booters have to get a 50 percent on their physical training tests.
“Blue hats” begin working on relapse prevention and parenting classes — regardless of whether they have children — and must score at least 75 percent on their physical training tests.
The last phase, when booters wear gold hats, involves more parenting programming, as well as a course on release and integration, and graduates have to earn at least an 80 percent on their physical training test.
In addition to completing various substance abuse treatment and other reformative courses, graduates must also study for and pass a high school equivalency test, if they haven’t already done so or earned a diploma.
Booters, such as Shellhaas, who begin the program already meeting that requirement can spend time researching Free Application for Federal Student Aid and various colleges.
“I think, if anything, this program definitely gave me an opportunity to . evaluate my life — the way that I make my decisions, my thinking — and just made me want to actually do something with my life,” he said.
With graduation, “gold hats” earn certain perks and privileges, such as freedom to not participate in structured workouts and permission to talk during meals.
Graduation ceremonies and induction days take place about every 45 days. And around that time, inmates in the middle of the program also find out whether they’ll be progressing to the next phase.
Shellhaas said two therapy groups were most helpful for him: criminal and addictive thinking when he wore an orange hat and relapse prevention when he wore a blue hat.
“I have a pretty bad drinking problem, and so it brought that to light for me and gave me an opportunity to look at that and identify it,” he said. “I was like probably most other people when they first get here — just, like, ‘I don’t have a problem.'”
In relapse prevention, Shellhaas said he had an opportunity to think about what he’s going to do with his free time once released.
“Before it was just like, ‘Well, I’m bored, so I guess I’m going to go out and try and find a drink or just sit there and get drunk,'” he said. “But (the class) let me sit there and think ‘What do I like to do, what do I want to try?’ That’s when I started thinking about computer programming stuff.”
Shellhaas said he really took to the physical aspect of the program as well and planned to find a gym to go to when released on probation in Pennsylvania.
“It’s pretty self-rewarding,” he said. “I’m definitely not a big fan of doing burpees, but I’ve come to find that I actually like running, so I’m going to keep doing that when I get out.”
Working out takes up a large part of the booters’ day, with morning and afternoon sessions totaling three or more hours.
The six booters who graduated in May — two of whom were sentenced out of Laramie County — all entered the program scoring below 45 percent on their physical training tests and completed the program scoring 91 percent or higher. One graduate went from scoring 28 percent to 97 percent, while another went from scoring 37 percent to 100 percent.
Shellhaas scored 44 percent on his initial physical training test and finished with a 91 percent.
The other Laramie County offender who graduated, Jory Bocanegra, began with a 26 percent and ended with a 91 percent as well.
“Probably the first, like, two months was terrible,” Bocanegra said in his interview with the Tribune Eagle.
“Every day, we were running; every day, we were pushing — whether it was snowing or raining or hot, (we were) constantly just doing pushups,” he continued. “But after I kind of started getting in shape, it started getting a little better. And once programming started, it was a lot cooler, too, because we didn’t just sit around in the bay all day — we got to hang out and do book work and kind of get more in-depth with what got us here.”
Bocanegra said he came into the program closed-minded and distrusting of the staff. But by the end of his orange hat stage, he started warming up to the drill instructors and trusting them more, which allowed him to open up.
“That’s when I started changing my attitude and my motives,” he said. “I came in pretty unconfident, no self-esteem at all. And, I mean, throughout this whole thing, I’ve definitely gained a backbone; I’ve been able to stick up for myself. I mean, the whole thing is definitely life-changing.”
Program officials say the physical training component of the program is especially important for fostering and growing booters’ self-esteem.
“Overall, I think the program itself does pretty well at incorporating PT and therapy,” said Ariel Dehart, one of two caseworkers assigned to work with the booters. “And I think if it was just one or the other, it would be very unsuccessful.”
Dehart said her job as a caseworker is to meet with booters for an hour to an hour and a half once or twice a month to help them achieve the goals they outline in their case plans and set up a stable re-entry plan.
“So if they really want to work on, say, improving maybe a relationship with a family member, then . I might give them an assignment to work on,” she said.
“A common one (would be asking) them to define what codependency means. And so they’ll define that over the next month and write something about it, and then bring it to me for the next month, and we’ll discuss that and talk about how does this, you know, go into your family — do you plan on going home with them?”
Boot camp graduates are either released to probation or placed in halfway houses. Some, such as Shellhaas and Bocanegra, apply to be released on probation in another state — whether that’s because they’re not from Wyoming or want to avoid bad influences.
“Some guys, you know, they’re like driving through Wyoming, and they catch this charge and so they literally have no one in the state,” Dehart said.
Shellhaas said he grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and moved to Cheyenne when his stepfather, who was in the military, got transferred here. He said he had a girlfriend when his stepdad retired, so he chose to stay here, rather than move with his family to Millbourne, Pennsylvania. But now, he’s joined them there.
And Bocanegra is now on probation with family in Texas.
Transferring probation to another state can take quite a bit of time, though, which is why program officials have begun having graduates mentor booters still in the program.
“We’ve had to think, like, ‘What can they do that’s proactive while they’re sitting here?'” Dehart said. “Because they’re not technically participating in the full program anymore, they’re not doing treatment anymore.”
Dehart and other program officials often highlight the importance of how participation in the boot camp program teaches booters how to take ownership of their choices — bad and good.
“Whether it was related to past family trauma, a lack of self-confidence or their own stubborn pride, I think each of them realize now that they brought themselves here through choices,” she said of the May graduates during their graduation ceremony.
Dehart told the small crowd of friends and family that initially the graduates tried to cut corners and questioned program policies, but, “They quickly learned that in order to be successful here, they had to trust our ability to make some of the decisions for them. And, overall, I think this has benefited them very well.”
She told the graduates, “I hope you all remember the pride and confidence that you have in yourselves right now. You all have the ability to make good choices and be successful . don’t take this moment for granted.”
Unit Manager Katie Steber, who is in charge of the program, touched on the importance of choices in her graduation comments as well.
When booters first come in, anyone other than themselves is to blame for incarceration — whether that’s a probation agent or someone else, she explained. But over six to 12 months, they learn to take ownership of the actions that got them there.
“Now they are able to fully claim their success,” Steber said.
Steber, who began working with the program as a caseworker in 2009, expanded in an interview on why she values teaching offenders how to take full ownership of their choices.
“We like to put the heavy on them when they get here — you are the person that got you here . because they can learn fully that everything was their responsibility,” she said.
“But the other beautiful thing . is they get full ownership on their successes — nobody else gets to take that from them — and that’s really powerful. When they come and say thank you, you know, for getting them through the program, it’s like, ‘I don’t think I did a pushup; I don’t think I did your book work; I don’t think I was the one that sat there every day.'”
Making a difference
Laramie County District Attorney Jeremiah Sandburg described the boot camp program as a “quick dip.”
“Usually we’re wanting to get their attention, we’re wanting to hopefully divert them from a future path of crime,” he said.
“You don’t want them to be there forever so they get institutionalized; you want them to be there long enough that they understand what’s awaiting them if they don’t straighten out.”
Steber also spoke about how the program hopefully prevents participants from being exposed to “the nasty” side of prison.
“If you expose them to something like this, and to amazing role models that are the staff — that I am able to call my staff — it really allows them to see something different than what long-term incarceration would,” she said, explaining that prison without rehabilitation and appropriate release leads to even greater societal costs.
But getting young men to come to the realization that they are better off working through and completing the program often requires a great deal of patience from the staff.
“Some of them we do drag through by their toes, but they get it — they do,” Steber said.
Steber explained that when she worked as a caseworker, she initially had the mindset that participants needed to be kicked out of the program for not “operating under what my perception of their behavior should be.”
She’s come to learn, however, that “it is up to you to offer them the opportunities to constantly get better . and to know that they are going to fail. But as long as it’s an affordable mistake, they can stay; as long as it’s something where they’re not inhibiting another person’s program, they can stay.”
“Some of these guys come in here and they have been raised in the most hideous lifestyles, and it hurts your soul to hear those things,” Steber said.
“And you expect them to understand what sunshine feels like and what life is — how it’s supposed to be good, and that they’re just supposed to make these good choices. But they don’t; they don’t know how,” she continued. “So you have to kind of show them what that looks like and what it’s like to do a good thing and to get something good back.”
Dehart, who previously worked as a victim advocate, said “the biggest thing is it’s just not necessary to be spending gobs and gobs and gobs of money on housing guys that maybe need another opportunity handed to them.”
“Maybe not — maybe this is going to be what their life consists of,” she continued. “But if we can say one thing that sits with them and makes them feel like they’re worth more to society than just a needle, or whatever else it is . if it’s something that stops one more victim from getting made, then that’s good enough.”
Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com