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Theo Stroomer

Prison Boot Camp

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At first the inmates were too busy getting their asses kicked to notice me. They were experiencing the first day of the Colorado Corrections Alternative Program boot camp, a program aimed at reducing recidivism using military-style structure and discipline. Some of them quit on the first day. The rest struggled and adapted. I drove to Buena Vista once or twice a week when I had time, photographing their progress through the three-month program in late 2008.

It was one of the only programs of its kind. First-time offenders with nonviolent crimes were eligible.  The rewards were substantial if you finished. You had a chance see your wife or your baby sooner. You could get on with your life. Along the way you could earn a G.E.D.

The thing was, it didn’t work. The program closed in June 2010 as the state cut prison funding. A troubling statistic was the nail in the coffin: nearly the same percentage of inmates from the program were returning to prison as those who had not completed it. Graduates weren’t any more likely to stay out.

I think it still mattered. Alternative corrections programs are attempts to create a better prison system. Beyond housing its prisoners, CCAP invested time and money in their future. The inmates were offered education and purpose and a way to better themselves.

Everyone deserves this. A penitentiary must be just that: an opportunity for penitence and redemption. With many states cutting prison funding and the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States must reexamine the way it treats its prisoners. It is critical that we continue to fund, and experiment with, alternative prison programs.


After teaching English in the Peace Corps, Theo Stroomer (b. 1982) studied photojournalism at the University of Colorado. He was selected to attend the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2009. His latest work explores the relationship between mining and water resources in Bolivia.

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Theo Stroomer

23 thoughts on “theo stroomer – prison boot camp”

  1. Pingback: theo stroomer – prison boot camp | burn magazine | The Click

  2. Eva,

    GED stands for “General Equivalency Diploma”. It allows those in the US who did not graduate high school to take a series of tests to qualify for a certification of equivalent education and skills.

  3. Pingback: Theo Stroomer | Photographer in Washington | 206.905.4555 | theo@theostroomer.com » Archive » Featured on BURN

  4. Pingback: Theo’s Boot Camp work in Burn Magazine | Cutlines

  5. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    A good essay and a great subject to be pursuing. One idea related to the recidivism rates of the inmates in this particular program – and perhaps ones like it – is this: if there is no break in the pattern of life once out of prison, there will inevitably be a repeat offender. No job? No chance to change. The military style discipline is effective to a point but it must lead to something specific; it’s a means and not an end result.

    I offer the example of a film I shot in the mid-90s following a vocational program in a California penitentiary for inmates to become deep water divers doing underwater construction and salvage. The year we shot this film, Salvaged Lives – http://www.ranoah.com/clip/?doc=salvagedlives – 65 inmates started the course, 11 finished. The rate of return to prison for those who graduated was 5%. I think the general statistic is something closer to 80% or more. This was one alternative program that worked. There are others but too few. The current punitive-only system of incarceration has clearly failed and miserably so.

    I remember one day on the yard filming a group of inmates just being released and as they filed onto the bus which would take them off prison grounds and back to their old lives, one inmate said to a guard as he stepped aboard, “See you next month.” And he meant it.

    Nice work Theo and good luck on your project with mining and water.

  6. Been mulling over this.. don’t think by humiliating one will obtain something.. thanks for the link, Jamie, makes sense this way..

  7. That program lowered the recidivism rate from 53 percent to 50, and given that they only had 80 or so people enrolled at a time (and 33 to look after them), that 3 percent is probably not statistically significant. Considering the barbaric nature of the “boot camp”, I’m genuinely surprised it didn’t ultimately increase criminal behavior among its victims, or at least result in worse criminal behavior. You know, go in for a little weed, come out and apply that kind of “discipline” to the girlfriend or step kids. It’s not at all unusual for people who are abused to become abusive.

    The photos alone don’t tell us much of anything, but taken together with the text, the producer’s advocacy for this program is evident. I suspect the better story would turn on the fact that that was the last such (once faddishly popular within the penal system) facility operating and how its close shut the door on a genuinely idiotic idea that wasted ridiculous amounts of money and was, at best, ineffective.

  8. Congrats on seeing this through Theo, even if the system could not.

    They should have tried meditation: Doing Time, Doing Vipassana describes the way in which Vipassana has been successfully used within the Indian prison system to dramatically change the behaviour and attitude of the inmates and jailers who participated in the courses and, thereby, improve the entire atmosphere of the prisons.


  9. Thank you for the responses, everyone.

    Jamie, thanks for the link.

    Eva, I also wondered about how effective such harsh treatment could be. It is important to emphasize that this was a voluntary program. It may still have been too much – I think you can argue both ways.

    Mw, I finished my project with mixed feelings about CCAP. I certainly saw inmates who were just going through the motions. I don’t know if recruits carried any of the treatment they received back to the outside world but it’s not hard to imagine. The stats on its success are a big strike against it too.

    What I would like to emphasize, and what I do believe in, is that trying something is better than doing nothing. The underlying beliefs behind the program were sound. Inmates deserve opportunities to do something other than just sit in prison. They deserve an investment of our time and money to help try and cure them. CCAP may have been flawed, but it was built on the idea that anybody – even criminals – could work to be better. We *should* spend money on this idea and pursue it through alternative corrections.

  10. I am certain how impressed I am with the program, but the photos are good. A few decades back, I covered a prison program then underway here in Alaska that was titled, “University Behind Walls.” That was a good concept, I thought – improve self-esteem by improving the mind – all the way to a degree for those with the desire and drive.

    Perhaps in some cases, this one helped, too. Perhaps in other cases it only fueled the resentment.

    I don’t know.

  11. David, et. al., don’t get me wrong, I’m all for reform as opposed to nothing but punishment, not to mention how much wiser it would be to just not send people to jail for drug nonviolent “drug crimes,” but as Erica suggested, there are far more effective methods for reform. Brutality and humiliation as practiced in those boot camps will more likely beget more brutality and humiliation.

  12. like Erica, i’ve seen Doing Time, Doing Vipassana …but I’ve also watch a ‘follow-up’ documentary, called “The Dhamma Brothers” which employs the same technique as “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana” with not quite the same success…the success shown in Doing Time, Doing Vipassana is complex…and the reason why the same idea/implementation (taking inmates on a meditation retreat (inside the prsion)) and teaching them vipassana meditation, did not have the same success rate has everything to do with cultural relationships to meditation/confinement/solitary searching, etc….Where “Doing Time, Doing vipassana” is inspiring and uplifting, ‘Dhamma Brothers’ is heartbreaking…

    wish to write much on this subject, but shall resist for now…

    simply this:

    PICTURE 10! :)))….that gospel of light is what one hopes for in a story as ‘straight forward’ as this: something transcendent, mysterious, breaking-shoals…

    increasingly, i long for something more than still pictures…something that doesn’t tell a story, but breaks barriers of story telling…and that’s even more essential here (for me)….

    for these lives deserve that….

    i want something akin to The Prophet (french film)…while ‘straight forward’/traditional…breaks the form of a ‘prison drama’….

    the story made me feel lonely…and that is the nipple upon which i want to remain…for that draws me past the picture taking and into some other realm of this story….

    1 and 10 are it for me….10, above all….

    congrats on being published and more importantly i’m happy you were there with these men Theo….

    I just want to be shattered, more…their emotions deserve my breaking….


  13. Some great stuff here.
    #10 “ammenities such as pillows”

    Anyway, congratulations. Like Bob says, good that you were there with these men. Even if most of them fucked up and went back to prison, you can see them trying to get it together, get something together.

    Yes, as you mention, the US has the highest incarceration rate of it’s citizens in the entire world, by a wide margin. Up here in Canada, our Prime Minister, with a new majority government, is planning on building a bunch of new prisons to “get tough on crime”. Stupid stupid stupid.

    Good on you for caring.

    BTW I have the same wish for this essay as with many other essays. It’s OK to show me what’s going on, being a fly on the wall, but I also really want to feel connected, look into their eyes, let them tell me their story with the nuance of their expression. Please include some portraits.

  14. I don’t remember if I related this, but it’s relevant to this conversation.

    Guy I’ve studied, meth cook, up a long time, shot his girlfriend in the head, lucky for him it was just a .22 and she was a hard headed woman, bullet just bounced off her skull, still… he got forty years. Smart guy though, despite appearances, took advantage of reform options in prison, got a bachelors degree, was otherwise good, got out in eight. Degree didn’t do him any good though, ex-con, ultra-violent meth cook, couldn’t get a job in his new found field, ended up driving a truck for a shady trucking company, had to drive 20 hour shifts for weeks at a time, was back smoking meth before the first week was out. His kid was living in his house, hard to say living with him cause he was always on the road, but kid was in the house, cooking meth, big explosion, fire, police, wasn’t his lab but it was his house and he tested positive for meth, back in prison to finish out the forty.

    Point is, recidivism isn’t entirely about the opportunities, or lack of them, for reform and enlightenment in prison. The staggeringly hopeless situation so many face on release has a lot to do with it. More often than not, I think, it takes a special kind of person.

    About the pictures, I thought #11 was the only one that mattered. Sums it up quite well.

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