As family and friends looked on, Montana correctional boot camp graduates thanked their instructors and family for helping them to understand how they hurt their victims and to build skills and awareness to never do it again.
But for 33-year-old LaVohn Ellsworth, there was another important thank you: “Thank you ACLU and ACLU attorneys. Without you I would not have had this opportunity. I can now look in the mirror and like the person I see.”
LaVohn is the first woman to graduate from the Treasure State Correctional Center’s boot camp since the ACLU of Montana won a settlement allowing women to participate in the program.
Until the fall of 2013, inmates at Montana Women’s Prison were forced to participate in a degrading therapeutic living community not required of male prisoners at the Montana State Prison. Women who refused were placed in solitary confinement. Female prisoners were also denied the opportunity to participate in the state’s boot camp program, which offered training and the possibility of sentence reduction to male prisoners. The ACLU’s settlement in the case Fish v. Acton ended the degrading “Right Living Community” at Montana Women’s Prison and finally gave women the opportunity to attend boot camp.
LaVohn, who has a history of drug abuse, had already tried a treatment program unsuccessfully. Boot camp was her last chance at a correctional program that would take her out of prison and give her the skills she needed to be successful in life, so when the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole suggested it, she jumped at the chance.
Women “booters” are now fully integrated into the previously all-male companies, down to the close-cropped haircuts. They do everything with the men except shower and sleep.
The 90-120-day program modeled after military boot camp teaches prisoners how to end the cycle of victimization, become accountable and gain self-respect, humility and confidence. About 150 prisoners graduate from the program each year.
“It not only changed my life, it saved my life,” LaVohn said of boot camp. “I can walk out a confident woman.”