CHEYENNE —Sometimes, a legislative change means a world of difference for people who have little control over their current circumstances.
Last winter, state legislators approved changes to Wyoming’s Youthful Offender Transition Program (YOTP), effectively changing a program operated in Newcastle at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp centered around physical fitness, and run by authority figures, to an in-house therapeutic program at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins.
Beginning this past June, youthful offenders – meaning those inmates between the ages of 18 and 30, an extension in age that was also included in recent legislation – are able to take part in a program with a therapeutic approach, and one that focuses on the specific needs of the offenders while also increasing the availability of treatment-focused programming.
“Bootcamp was a struggle for a lot of us, but when we came here to this program, YOTP and the staff have really helped me conquer my fears, and my criminal and addictive thinking,” said Colton Walkin, who had been enrolled in the bootcamp-style program at the Honor Farm prior to his time in the YOTP. Through the program, he has tried to face head-on his own anger issues and his struggles with PTSD, and is looking for his place in the world.
“We’re attempting to figure out who we are and where we belong in society,” Walkin said. “It’s a struggle, but we all have the will and determination to figure it out.”
The men are considered Wyoming State Penitentiary inmates, but they live in an area separate from the rest of the prison, according to Lt. Mary Mayer. They do not interact with the general population inmates, except for those deemed a peer specialist, defined by state legislation as someone who is a long-term inmate that has completed certified training to provide positive guided peer support to offenders under the direction of program staff.
Upon sentencing, a judge will send people to the YOTP program, but from the beginning, they have the option to quit, Mayer said.
“They can quit and decide they do not want to do this program, and then, of course, they have to do their sentence,” Mayer said. “Their thought processes are what got them in here, making bad decisions. We really focus on them making good decisions.”
The program is open to people who have not previously served a term at any state or federal adult penal institution and those who are serving a sentence for offenses other than a felony punishable by death or life imprisonment, according to state statute.
Jesus Alvarado-O’Brien said he’s learned to lean on the other participants in the program, and that being allowed to do so gives him a sense of autonomy.
Three men graduated from the program Wednesday, including Alvarado-O’Brien. Three others are anticipating graduation next month. They are the second and third groups to complete the new program. The men work together, similar to a family unit.
“It really helped me to come together as a family,” Alvarado-O’Brien said. “I definitely think we are a bunch of kids who did some dumb things, and this program does a lot for people like myself.”
Dominique Nelson, who also had experience in the previous program, said it was very top-down. The family structure at YOTP, he said, taught him how to experience life in a community.
“We look at each other as brothers,” he said. “We can learn the problem-solving skills we will need outside, and in here, we can brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other.”
Jacob Bahner, who is anticipating his graduation in a month, said he’s learned to interact with people in his own age group, while also learning to do the right thing on his own.
“It gives me the chance to do the right thing without having someone above me telling me how to do it and when to do it,” Bahner said. “I think this program is an amazing program. It really helps kids grow up. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ve made a lot of bad choices, but it is never too late to change. It is never too late to make the right decisions in life.”
Aaron Carstens, who said he’s been to other treatment facilities prior to the YOTP program, said this one has the most recovery-based modules. It offers 12-step programming, Love and Logic courses and parenting classes, among others.
It’s necessary that participants want to change, he said, and the prison setting makes the need for change obvious.
“Having this in a prison setting really makes you step back and say, ‘Wow, I am one step away from being on the other side. This is my last chance,’” Carstens said. “For me, it gave me an eye-opener. I never thought I would come to prison, and here I sit. They want to change your life – that is greatly beneficial – and they give you all the tools to do that.”
Carstens said he has always wanted to be a carpenter, but that through his time in YOTP, he has refined his dreams.
“I found my meaning and purpose here,” he said. “I want to be a carpenter, I want to build homes for people, give them a place to feel comfortable and safe. They have been helping me with my education – I have my high school diploma and some college, but just to have that education to better achieve my goals, I believe my meaning and purpose in life will be to help fellow convicts like myself get out and get a good job.”
Tyger Rodriguez, who has a 5-year-old son, said he most enjoyed the courses on parenting. When he listened to his program director talking about internal controls versus external controls, he thought of his son.
“I want to take it all in, because I want to be able to pass those things down to him before he ends up in shoes like mine,” Rodriguez said. “I want him to have the skills to not get in situations like I am in.”