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Recruit Gill and other recruits shout as they count down from 10 after being ordered to "clear the head", which means to exit the lavatory area. When the count reaches zero, everyone is expected to have put away their toiletries and be standing in line.

A couple of weeks ago, before Theo Stroomer headed off to Bolivia, we sat down for a beer.

After studying photojournalism at the University of Colorado, Stroomer went to work as a photographer for a newspaper in Vail, Colorado. He documented the Colorado Correctional Alternative Program (CCAP) in Summer 2008 as a personal project.

The CCAP, a boot camp style program, was the only program of its kind in Colorado and one of very few across the States. The three-month camp, which opened in 1991, offered physical & mental challenges, a GED program and substance-abuse treatment. About 90% of the offenders had drug or alcohol abuse problems

In March 2010, as part of Colorado State budget cuts, the boot camp was closed down. “There’s no political consequence in making a decision like that,” says Stroomer. The photographer observed change and believed it was a worthy program. Upon hearing news of the closure, Stroomer wrote, “I held a high opinion of the program, its staff, and its role in the lives of inmate participants after observing it over a three-month period in 2008. I am sorry to see it go.”

Staff use a technique called "corralling" to discipline Recruit Cardenas on Zero Day, the first day of the three-month program. Zero Day is the most intense day for new recruits. They are subjected to extreme physical and emotional stress, including supervised physical contact from staff members.

Recruits are rushed off the bus on Zero Day. To break new recruits mentally and physically, staff bark orders constantly, move them on and off the bus repeatedly, and batter them with physical exercises.

Recruits on the obstacle course during the CCAP program's daily physical training.

Admittedly, the boot camp program was more costly than simply warehousing prisoners. And costs were rising; from $78/day to $109/day per inmate in 2009 alone. Also unhelpful were the gradually increasing year-on-year recidivism rates among CCAP graduates. The Denver Post, in a rather damning summary, reports:

51% of the 155 inmates released from prison through boot camp in fiscal year 2007 have already returned to prison. The 51% recidivism rate of these nonviolent offenders was only 2% points better than the record of inmates convicted of crimes such as robbery and murder.

Another huge problem for CCAP – which only took non-violent first-time offenders – was the statewide rising proportion of inmates classified as “high security” compared to when CCAP opened in the early nineties. Indeed, it is telling that as the CCAP boot camp was being shuttered as another new maximum security prison was under construction in Canon City.

It should always be noted that the most inventive and progressive programs are more expensive than those which simply lock people up without rehabilitation efforts.

Ari Zavaras, Colorado Department of Corrections executive director, rolled out the stats to support the decision. I suspect negatively-spun statistics surface about any particular service whenever a state department is about to bin it. The closure of CCAP boot camp is forecast to save $1million in operating costs per year and relocate 33 full-time staff.

Recruit Greene log-rolls in "the pit", a gravel area that is used for group discipline and physical trials that are rites of passage in the program.

Recruits Shock, center, Davis-Gonzales, left, and Gill, right, smile during Prison Fellowship, a nationwide Christian prison ministry program that meets once a week during CCAP.

The squad bay, where recruits keep their toiletries and clothing in addition to sleeping at night. With good behavior from the entire platoon, recruits can earn amenities such as pillows.


The Pain the Pride (Waterside Press, 2000) by Brian P. Block is an exclusive fly-on-the wall account of life inside the Colorado Correctional Alternative Program. It is available on Google Books.


The Denver Post reports on the unexpected, welcome and only half-explained trend of decreasing prison populations in Colorado (2009: 23,186 – 2010: 22,127).

Why the surprise? Shouldn’t one expect a drop in prison population if the state ceases to pursue (due to budgetary constraint) harsh, punitive legislation of boom years? After the postponement of insane policy, we should be looking how to reverse the damage and plummet the figures further. In 1981, Colorado had fewer than 3,000 prisoners. That’s the baseline to focus on.

Graduate Davis-Gonzales hugs his girlfriend, Povi Chidester, during a graduation ceremony at the conclusion of the three-month program. Inmates who complete the program attend the ceremony and are allowed one hour with family and friends. Their sentences are then sent to a judge for reconsideration. "I came here from a huge house with a bunch of coke, a bunch of money, a bunch of guns ... and now I have none of that. And I feel like more of a person now than I did then," said Davis-Gonzales.

Grey Mountain, artwork by Chip Thomas © Erika Schultz

Just got in from the NW Photojournalism meet. Room chock full of talent including Matt Lutton (of Dvafoto fame) Theo Stroomer, Tim Matsui, Ken Lambert, David Ryder and John Malsbary.

Let me track back a week though.


A friend of mine who I’ve seen only twice in two years visited Seattle last weekend. He’s Native American … what white folks would call Navajo, but what he refers to as Dineh or Dine (pronounced d-Nay). We were talking about youth culture on the reservation and I mentioned passing through Window Rock (a junction with two gas stations, some vernacular murals and loose packs of dogs). He tells me I was in the wrong part of Navajo Reservation …

Anyway, the murals had me thinking. I saw graffiti on Navajo land – some of it good, some of it terrible; some of it lazy tags, some of it a bit more invested – and I wondered about the social context of these scrawls, paintings and artwork. I proposed to him that a long term photography project NAVAJO GRAFFITI could capture these temporary art interventions. The project would include interviews about the grafs and the social strata from which they emerge. It seemed like it  could be a meaningful, novel photography project, a stellar book. Maybe?

In my mind (a place I often invent projects I’d like to see and promote) I envisioned image-making that could incorporate the narratives of a marginalised people without relying on cliches of documentary photography. The grafs could be photographed in the medium format stillness that is all too often wasted on garages, topiary and mall parking lots.

Just a thought.

Thinking on, my friend was as stumped as I to think of any photography work that the Navajo had been able to present, let alone self-represent.


The co-organiser of NW Photojournalism is Erika Schultz a PJ at the Seattle Times. When I got home, I checked out her blog. On which, I was blown away to find graffiti on Navajo land. I’d call it street art, except there’s only the open Black Mesa surrounding.

Grey Mountain, artwork by Chip Thomas © Erika Schultz

The work is by Chip Thomas an artist, self taught photographer and Health Services Physician who has lived on Navajo land for 16 years or more. He may not be Navajo by blood but I can be quite certain he has the rights of the Navajo/Dineh people close to his pounding heart.

I want to see more of this. I am not a photographer. Why aren’t photogs out on Native American lands finding more nuanced ways of telling the stories of the people?

The only Native American photographer I’ve identified is Tom Jones of the Ho Chunk Nation, and he is a long, long ways from the Western Deserts; of a different people.

So, two things: 1) Tell me about more Native American photographers (I want to stand corrected) and 2.) Somebody consider a project along the lines of NAVAJO GRAFFITI (I would if I could, but I don’t know cameras).


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