Montana Women’s Prison inmates undergo rigors of…BOOT CAMP

2002-01-19T23:00:00Z Montana Women’s Prison inmates undergo rigors of…BOOT CAMPMARY PICKETT Of The Gazette staff The Billings Gazette
January 19, 2002 11:00 pm  • 

An inmate serving time on forgery and illegal-drug charges has been in a new boot camp at the Montana Women’s Prison for only one month, but already she has seen changes in herself.

During the rigorous physical and psychological program, she has had to look deeply into who she is and why she is in prison, and she is learning how to navigate a new life.

“This trainee,” she explains using the third person to refer to herself, “has hope for the future for the first time.”

Called the Intensive Challenge Program, the voluntary boot camp started in July at the women’s prison in Billings.

A boot camp for male inmates has been operating for several years in the state. Women inmates participated in that program at Deer Lodge until the Billings boot camp opened.

Seven women, called trainees, are enrolled in the program at the Billings prison on South 27th Street. They may take 90 to 120 days to complete the program, depending on how quickly they complete requirements.

Days stretching from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. are minutely regimented by male and female drill instructors dressed in military-style uniforms. Trainees have to ask permission to speak, brush their teeth or use the bathroom.

The women, who range in age from their 20s to 40s, have been inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison, a private prison at Shelby or in county jails. They have been serving time for felony offenses, but not felonies punishable by death.

Women accepted for the program must be eligible for a reduced sentence or to be released into a community program such as parole or a prerelease program. Boot-camp graduates are not put back into prison.

The program uses intense physical workouts, discipline and study to break bad habits learned over a lifetime.

Fitness is a key element to the program. Women who are in prison generally are not fit, and fitness is an important part of feeling good about themselves.

Twice-a-day workouts include running 1 mile and doing aerobics and calisthenics.

One requirement to graduate from the program is to run 1 mile in 10 minutes or less.

When they reach that goal, “it’s a real high for them,” said Fern Osler, a probation and parole officer.

Calisthenics also are used to ratchet down emotions of a trainee who becomes angry or frustrated.

For even slight infractions of the rules, such as being defiant, not obeying orders or having a poor attitude, a trainee may be given a certain number of pushups or sit-ups to do.

The highly structured schedule is a way to learn discipline, a quality that was missing from many trainees’ lives when they wound up in trouble with the law.

Trainees live and study separately from the rest of the inmates at the prison.

To reinforce the paramilitary structure of the program, terms such as “barracks,” instead of dorm, “racks” instead of beds and “heads” instead of bathrooms are used.

The single-room barracks has two rows of unadorned wooden beds with trainees’ names printed on a strip of masking tape.

The women are required to make their beds military-style with sheets tucked in with a 45-degree fold at the corners. Bed linens are turned back exactly the length of three soap containers from the top of the bed.

The few personal items they are allowed to have are neatly folded in two plastic boxes under the bed.

Privacy goes out the window, too. One large yellow sign posted in the barracks reads: “There is no confidentiality at ICP.”

Trainees get up at 5 a.m. and are in the prison kitchen by 5:30 to prepare breakfast for all inmates. To maintain discipline, trainees are not to talk with or look at other inmates. When serving breakfast, a metal curtain is lowered to a few inches above the kitchen counter, leaving just enough space so trainees can slide plates of food through.

Through the day, trainees have to ask permission to speak or do something as trivial as picking a dropped napkin off the floor of the dining room.

When moving through the main part of the prison, they march at a jog with eyes straight ahead.

If a trainee has an bad attitude, or lacks empathy, she may have to carry a 15-pound sack of sand, called a slug, around for three hours or longer.

If they are looking where they are not supposed to, they may have to wear light plastic goggles without lenses for three hours or more.

The color of what trainees wear also becomes a discipline tool. New arrivals dress in white coveralls called ghost suits. They

By the rules Participants in the Intensive Challenge Program boot camp at Montana Women's Prison are expected to abide by these eight general rules, among others:

1. Always acknowledge orders by saying, "yes Sir/no Sir or yes Ma'am/no Ma'am."

2. Always say, "Excuse me Sir/Ma'am" when passing staff from the front and "By your leave Sir/Ma'am" when passing staff from the rear.

3. When addressing staff, always ask permission to speak.

4. After receiving orders, take one step back, do an about face and wait for permission to leave.

5. When encountering anyone, do not speak unless authorized by staff.

6. Never gape at anyone, continue with assignment.

7. When a staff member enters the housing unit, call the unit to attention.

8. Read and understand all rules and regulations of ICP.

have to earn their way out of the coveralls into a two-piece gold-color pants and top, by doing certain things including memorizing a set of eight rules. “The eight general rules are their bible,” said Cindy Snodgrass, program manager.

Once trainees earn the gold uniform, they work toward wearing different colored caps, called covers, progressing from red to blue to gold and finally gray by the time they graduate.

If they are disciplined, they can be busted back a lower color of clothing or hat.

When she joins the program, a trainee have all of her hair shaved off, signifying that she is getting rid of her old life and building a new one.

Having their hair cut off and not being able to wear makeup is a way to learn about themselves.

“This trainee can look in the mirror and feel really good about herself without makeup or fixing her nails,” one boot-camp participant said.

Although the women are never sworn at or touched, they are yelled at by drill instructors, and that’s not easy to take.

Only 12 days into the program, the newest trainee refused to comply with orders to do calisthenics.

After she still refused to follow the order, a DI held an orange vest with the word “quitter” written on it at her and asked her if she was a quitter.

The next day, the trainee she said that she didn’t want to quit the program, but was just frustrated.

“This trainee couldn’t handle the pressure,” she said. “I find it’s still a struggle for me. I have a long way to go, and this trainee is willing to work for what I deserve.”

Being yelled at and the confusion of being told to do things in rapid succession during the first hours of the program is unnerving, one trainee said.

“It was a shock to the system,” she said.

As difficult as the physical and discipline challenges are, the hardest part of the program is the emotional self-examination trainees are required to undergo.

In addition to classes toward GED and learning computers, they take classes in managing anger, parenting and changing criminal thinking and behavior.

One trainee said that both of her parents had been in and out of prison on drug charges while she was growing up, and they didn’t teach her discipline or personal responsibility.

Boot camp was “like being a little kid again and learning to walk,” she said.

After 104 days in the program, she was seeing results of her hard work. She recently earned her GED and hopes to go to a prerelease center after graduating from the program. Some day, she would like to be a counselor to help children who may have grown up in a home like hers.

One of the toughest classes, four hours a week, has trainees consider how their crimes have affected others. Called victimology, the class requires them to role play and imagine how their crimes have hurt their children, family, friends and society.

“We go through a box of Kleenex” tissues during a single class, one trainee said.

Most of the women are mothers, and their children are a major motivation for them to succeed in the program, Snodgrass said.

“This trainee believes that, if she stays open to what any staff has to say, she will become a better mother,” one boot-camp participant said.

Drill instructors have gone through two weeks of similar training before joining the program.

The boot camp at the women’s prison is still too new for administrators to know if it will keep women from committing crimes in the future. But some short-term results have been noticed in graduates’ behavior and attitudes.

So far, 16 trainees have been taken into the program. Out of that number, seven are still in the program, five have graduated, two were discharged because of medical problems, one was discharged for discipline and one quit.

Two boot-camp graduates now are in a special aftercare program at Alternatives Inc., a prerelease center in Billings.

Dave Armstrong, administrator of Alternatives Inc., said that there is a noticeable difference in the boot-camp graduates compared with other former inmates coming through the center.

Boot-camp graduates are in better physical shape, they pay more attention to their personal appearance and they are more courteous, continuing the boot-camp practice of saying “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir” when spoken to.

“It’s startling to the staff,” Armstrong said. “They really stand out.”

Mary Pickett may be reached at 657-1262 or at mpickett@billingsgazette.com.

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