One day, Richard “RJ” Wagner hopes to take a woman out for dinner, and if she asks how he makes his money, he will say as a hard-working professional, not as a drug dealer.
Wagner entered the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp seven and a half months ago — he is scheduled to be released Feb. 18. Wagner was convicted of theft and conspiracy, delivery and possession of controlled substances in 2017.
Wagner was off to a “rocky start” on day one of boot camp, when he was sent to segregation for a week for attempting to give himself a tattoo.
Wagner is one of three Sheridan County residents in the program, out of 33 men between ages 18 and 25.
Wagner’s rocky start goes back further, to the days he was selling LSD and in the depths of a severe cocaine addiction in Denver, Colorado. As a homeless runaway at age 15, he fell into dealing as a way to keep a roof over his head and food in his system. He never felt proud or safe. He felt trapped in the danger and risk — always looking over his shoulder.
“I was actually super relieved I was surrounded by cops pointing their guns at me in downtown Denver,” Wagner said. “I really wanted to change, I wanted to put that kind of life behind me.”
Upon his release, Wagner said he looks forward to reforging relationships with family he formerly took for granted — and learning how to “adult.”
He didn’t truly feel confident in his future until about three months ago, when he looked back on who he used to be and acknowledged how far he had come in boot camp. Forgiving himself has been a major hurdle. Wagner said he finds peace in knowing he has the tools to move forward without repeating the mistakes he regrets most.
“There’s really no way to hide from yourself in these types of programs,” case worker Ed Beason said.
Every booter has a different expectation for what boot camp will be like — Wagner expected each day to be filled with drill instructor yelling. Instead, he said the treatment-based approach to impulse control and self-discipline has been beneficial to shifting his mindset.
Sheridan County 4th Judicial District Judge John Fenn is fond of reminding young male offenders that if they graduate from boot camp — while not a guarantee — he has never denied a request for a reduced sentence.
Beason said he works to ensure that when each booter is released back to their communities, they understand their own cycle of crime and addiction and are primed with knowledge to build healthy relationships.
“If they’re going through and they’re still making excuses for why they were doing their drugs, if they’re still going through and blaming everybody else, we have a tendency of hammering on that,” Beason said. “The staff here hold them accountable every single day for multiple aspects of the program.”
Consequences for being late to Beason’s office range from five push-ups for each minute late to postponing what they needed to discuss altogether, which can extend the duration of their time in the program.
Every 45 days, Beason reviews each booter’s file and determines if he can move forward to his next hat or if he has regressed. They learn self-discipline and emotional regulation by standing at attention in boot camp — rather than responding physically or verbally as they might on the outside if a boss, parent or teacher chewed them out.
“By the time they get to the gold hat, usually they’re like, ‘I can do it,’” Beason said. “‘I can stand there and be yelled at and I’m not going to let it affect me. I’m not going to let it control my emotional state and I won’t let it control my performance.’ That’s where that key is.”
They learn sex education, victim impact, anger management and some prepare for vocational trade education.
Beason said in his 20 years with the Youthful Offender Program, he has seen the program grow to include a more cognitive and holistic approach to life, offering balance and boundaries booters can take to the outside. Drill instructors are often a mentor and a voice of reason.
Executive assistant Audra Dudzinski said instead of packing on the push-ups with a hardcore, paramilitary approach, boot camp has evolved to focus on programming and treatment to address addiction and past trauma. Boot camp is also one of the only Wyoming Department of Corrections facilities in the state that is adequately staffed with a full-time mental health professional, substance abuse counselors and officers, she said.
The rapport built between instructors and inmates positively impacts results of treatment, Beason said. Even if young men have heard the information before, presenting it in a different way — backed by a trusting relationship and safe environment — might start to chip away at detrimental ways of thinking.
“Not every minute is a drill instructor minute,” Lt. Mike Starling said.
Giving up control
Just before 4 a.m., Cpl. Beth McVay wakes up her bay. They have five minutes to organize their racks. After a head call, they are marched to physical training until chow time at 6 a.m. Booters have group therapy or education time until lunch at 11 a.m. Afternoons are filled with work detail or other groups until their second physical training session around 3:30 p.m. and chow around 5 p.m.
McVay refers to boot camp as a three-legged stool — emphasizing discipline, education and therapy keeps the stool balanced.
Beason described the three program components as behavior, treatment and physical standards.
Wagner said learning to work as a team with his bay-mates and allowing someone else to control every minute of his day challenged his temper. But over time, he became an example for other booters who struggled with defiance.
“You’re not just going to quit your job every time someone tells you something you don’t like,” Wagner said. “You’re going to work through it, you’re going to adapt, you’re going to overcome. So you just humble yourself, put your pride to the side and just push through.”
Boot camp has zero tolerance for physical contact. If someone becomes physical or violent, they’re terminated.
“It erodes away at the trust,” Beason said. “If they don’t feel physically safe, they’re definitely not going to feel mentally and emotionally safe to make the changes they need to make.”
Wagner said a supportive, safe environment helped him shed the mask he hid behind for years as a juvenile drug dealer. He used to play basketball for Sheridan High School, he made good grades and was surrounded by good friends. Submitting to an authority has helped him reclaim that person he used to be, Wagner said.
“I’m going back to the person I should’ve been,” he said.
Wagner obtained his GED early in the program and plans to attend college to pursue his passion for music with an audio engineering degree and minor in marketing or business management.
During his coin ceremony, some booters said when Wagner is released, they will miss their radio. Wagner was once ordered to perform a rap scribbled out in 10 minutes in front of the chow hall for getting caught swearing.
The coin ceremony is a maritime tradition to signify the successful completion of ship outfitting. As a commemorative token, McVay said the coin is not a “magic talisman,” but rather an affirmation of the deep connection forged through shared sobriety.
Booters passed around Wagner’s coin Feb. 12, imagining the day they will receive their own and standing to offer fond memories and gratitude for Wagner’s support and leadership when they felt like giving up.
“The more pressure we put on them, the harder it is for them, the more they want to quit,” Starling said.
Some give up and go back to jail because they are afraid to face their families and communities, Starling said. Boot camp is often more of a family than they’ve ever experienced before.
As Wagner speaks about creating a work of art — an album — and working in a career that brings him joy, his self-confidence in his next phase of life is evident. Before boot camp, he knew he had potential like any other teenager but didn’t believe he could truly seize the opportunity.
As a 21-year-old facing 10-20 years incarceration for his crimes, Wagner doesn’t plan to let this new opportunity for a good life slip away. He aims to take the proud moments he experienced out into a new, healthy lifestyle.
“I finished running my 2 miles, gassed out, sweating, and when I heard my score — I got a 77 — I heard my score, just that sense of accomplishment, that sense of achievement…that feeling is very invigorating,” Wagner said.
Still, as 19-year-old booter Nicholas Fenton can attest, temptation is everywhere on the outside.
Fenton was charged with child abuse, aggravated assault and battery and robbery in Natrona County in July 2019.
The Casper Star-Tribune reported Sept. 5 that Fenton admitted stealing a 14-year-old’s shoes after beating him to the ground.
The first two charges were dismissed in September, in exchange for pleading guilty to robbery. He was sentenced to seven to 10 years incarceration with a boot camp recommendation.
Fenton is in his first week at the program, part of the first 45 days that Beason describes as the toughest — the time each young man learns to be a booter. Fenton is still becoming accustomed to the structure — he dislikes not having a moment to himself.
Alcohol has been an obstacle in Fenton’s life since he was a child. He moved to Wyoming from California at age 15 and filled his free time with drugs and alcohol. Attending parties every weekend led to throwing parties every day. After getting out of the Wyoming Boys’ School, Fenton reached out to a friend on Facebook who invited him to drink. That decision spiraled into criminal charges.
Juvenile hall, county jail and the Boys’ School offered some education Fenton could have used to turn his life around, he said, but he just chose not to put those tools to use. If he can make it through boot camp, Fenton has aspirations to attend college and reconnect with his family.
“I have a seven to 10,” Fenton said. “So I know no matter what, I gotta get through this.”
During Wagner’s coin ceremony celebrating his upcoming release, McVay said most often, environment will outweigh will power, so each booter has to work to cultivate supportive when they get out. She never wants to see a booter less invested in their own success than she is.
Fenton said his leadership, work ethic and determined personality will help him through the program but he hasn’t yet built the confidence to say for sure if he will fall back into old patterns upon his release.
Starling has been proven wrong too many times to guess who will be successful for the next 10 years after they graduate and who will revoke within a week.
Every 45 days, he watches the same mistakes and poor decisions walk through the gates. But he has returned every work day for the past 12 years because he believes in the value of offering youthful offenders an alternative, he said.
“You can lead, you can mentor, you can have all the conversations in the world but a person is going to make their own decision,” Starling said.