Taylor Blanchard wasn’t told where she was going or why she was leaving the women’s prison in Lusk, Wyoming. She was just told to pack. Then she was put in a van. The van drove for six days, making stops along the way to pick up and drop off other inmates. Her hands and feet were shackled for 12 hours at a time. Each of her five nights on the road was spent in a strange new jail, somewhere on a jagged path from Wyoming to Florida.
The trip was disorienting, confusing — “just mean,” Blanchard’s lawyer said. But it had a somewhat happy ending. Her destination was Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, a city between Gainesville and Orlando. And that correctional center had a boot camp program for young women.
For the past three months, 23-year-old Blanchard had been trying to get into one of these programs. The one in her home state, Wyoming, lasts six months to a year. People who finish it successfully can then ask a judge to transfer them into probation, a halfway house, or placement with a family member, effectively shaving years of prison time off their sentences.
Blanchard ticked all the boxes for acceptance, except for one. The Wyoming Department of Corrections has never housed a woman in boot camp, and it wasn’t going to start with her. Which is how Blanchard ended up in Florida, shipped out of state instead of accommodated in her own. And it’s how she became the central figure in a federal lawsuit accusing the WDOC of discriminating against female inmates.
Across the country, women in prisons and jails are often housed in different conditions than their male peers. The criminal justice system was built for men, and prison activists say that little thought has been given to providing equal services — much less special considerations — for women, even as their population has ballooned in recent decades.
In July, Democratic stars of the US Senate, including Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, introduced legislation to help address the gender disparity in conditions of confinement. The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act calls for expanded visitation for mothers who are primary caretakers, better treatment of pregnant women (no shackling or solitary confinement), and more access to free menstrual products, among other things.
And then there’s Wyoming, where a man can do six months in boot camp for the same crime that sentences a woman to six or more years in prison.
But even if the legislation is passed, huge gaps will remain between the way women and men serve their time. Women have access to fewer vocational training programs, research shows. When they do get the same work opportunities as men, they can often earn less in wages. (Just like women outside of prison.) And then there’s Wyoming, where a man can do six months in boot camp for the same crime that sentences a woman to six or more years in prison.
Blanchard’s transfer to Florida may have been a personal victory, but it’s not a perfect one. She’s unmoored in an unfamiliar state, where she recently had to endure a historic hurricane, and she’s unsure when or how she’ll get back to Wyoming. The boot camp program in Florida is also “markedly inferior” to the one in Wyoming, lasting four months instead of six to 12, her lawyers said in a court filing. While Blanchard got what she wanted, she went through hell to get it — she still is. Now she wants to help make sure no other woman has to.
Blanchard became addicted to meth at a young age, her lawyer said. In 2015, two people in her circle who’d been arrested told police about others in their distribution scheme. Specifically, they named Blanchard, then 21, whom they'd allegedly seen smoke the drug, weigh it into separate bags at their home, and deliver it. The conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance charge is what stuck. Blanchard pleaded guilty. She faced a sentence of six to 10 years, but, as a first-time offender, she was granted probation in the fall of 2016.
As part of her probation, Blanchard was sent to a residential drug treatment program in Rock Springs, Wyoming. She was there for five months, completing three phases of a four-phase program, before she was kicked out for trying to make contact with men she wasn’t supposed to be contacting, a counselor named Sarah Hixson told the judge at Blanchard’s probation revocation hearing in May. Getting kicked out of rehab is largely what landed Blanchard back in court.
At the May hearing, Hixson stood up to support Blanchard, and to tell the young woman’s story. When Blanchard was 4, Hixson told the court, her mother moved her from California to Canada, leaving Blanchard’s father behind. At 12, Blanchard allegedly started to help her mother, a “severe drug addict,” get drugs, telling Hixson, “I loved my mother so I had to do it for her.” Around this time, the counselor said, Blanchard was also allegedly sexually abused, but “didn’t really tell anyone.” In her teens, Blanchard moved to Wyoming to live with her father, but the two clashed. She had behavioral issues, and as she “struck out on her own,” Hixson said, she began hanging out with older people, especially older men who Blanchard felt were taking her under their wing.
Blanchard told the judge she wasn’t “pleading for another chance. I’m just asking you to understand my past.”
“What I assess her at is a very lost child with probably a bigger man addiction than she has a drug addiction,” Hixson said. This is what led to her probation violation, and this is why an intense boot camp program would benefit Blanchard, Hixson argued. The idea was that after completing boot camp, Blanchard could try a treatment program again, this time with more serious discipline instilled in her.
When it was Blanchard’s turn to speak, she told the judge she wasn’t “pleading for another chance." "I’m just asking you to understand my past,” she said.
Prison, Blanchard said, was the “easy way out” for her. “I wake up and I can go back to sleep, I can pretty much lie down and do whatever I want all day. But the probation is where I had to work and work hard for my life. I made genuine changes within myself and my attitude and criminal activities.” Still, she admitted, “I didn’t push myself far enough like I should have.”
The judge did consider Blanchard’s past and the woman in front of him, who’d appeared in his court a number of times before. The defendant was 22 but looked young for her age. In her mugshot from seven weeks earlier, she frowned slightly. Her head of brown hair was shaved on one side. Her eyes, so brown they’re black, were sheltered under thin eyebrows, steady but uncertain. She was a woman with two heart tattoos, one on her knee and one on her left hand. And to the judge, she was a woman running out of options.
The state wanted Blanchard to go straight to prison. She had “a pretty hefty sentence hanging over her head” and still failed to follow the rules, the prosecutor told the judge. That’s when Blanchard’s court-appointed attorney, John LaBuda, offered his unconventional suggestion: boot camp.
Wyoming’s boot camp, formally called the Youthful Offenders Program at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp, is known widely among public defenders. Open to first-time offenders under 25, the program is made up of “physical training, drill and ceremony, and a paramilitary base program focusing on appearance, life skills, and behavior,” according to the state; about half of those who enter boot camp complete the program successfully.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, LaBuda called it a “really good program,” one that teaches discipline but also allows inmates to get their GED or drug and alcohol counseling, or sometimes learn a trade. But when the state first offered the program in 1987, it only housed men; that has continued for 30 years. No attorney or judge, to the state or anyone else’s knowledge, has ever tried to place a female client into the boot camp.
The judge took LaBuda’s suggestion, recommending Blanchard for boot camp even though there was no guarantee the state would agree.
“I wish there were viable options that I had for you,” Tyler told Blanchard. “But unfortunately that’s where we are in the state of Wyoming today.”
The judge warned Blanchard that he couldn’t tell the WDOC what to do, and indeed he couldn’t. On June 6, Blanchard was sent to the Wyoming Women's Center, a traditional prison in Lusk, Wyoming (population 1,599). Three weeks later, Blanchard filed a formal grievance with WDOC from her prison cell, on the advice of her new civil lawyer John Robinson and Stephen Pevar, a senior staff attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union. Pevar is a go-to lawyer for filing prisoner’s rights lawsuits against the state of Wyoming — he’s filed more than 15 in 40 years.
Blanchard's grievance was rejected the next day. So in July, the lawyers filed suit in federal court, alleging the WDOC was violating her constitutional rights by denying her an opportunity offered to men.
“Wyoming was not only violating Ms Blanchard’s rights but has been violating the rights of women for many years now who are in her situation."
Pevar and Robinson also had the idea to turn Blanchard’s case into a class-action lawsuit. As Pevar wrote in a July email to WDOC lawyers, “Wyoming was not only violating Ms Blanchard’s rights but has been violating the rights of women for many years now who are in her situation. We needed to do something about it.” (In 2013, the ACLU settled a similar lawsuit that opened up a Montana prison boot camp to women, though the program is now ending for both men and women.)
The lawsuit’s proposed class includes current inmates at Lusk’s women’s prison who were first-time offenders under 25 at the time of their sentencing — women who were eligible to be recommended to the Youthful Offenders Program but weren’t given the chance because of the boot camp’s men-only tradition. The proposed class also includes young Wyoming women who will face the same situation in the future.
But Pevar doesn’t yet know how many women actually fall under this umbrella, if a judge does approve the lawsuit as a class action. He and Robinson have requested the WDOC reveal the names of eligible women currently at Lusk, a prison with a capacity of 293 women. WDOC has not yet provided these names. Blanchard’s attorneys are also trying to get referrals from public defenders like LaBuda currently representing eligible young women.
The class could end up being 20 people or it could be 200, Pevar said, but the goal is for each woman to get put into boot camp, either immediately or by going back in front of their sentencing judges. (The WDOC would provide each woman with an independent attorney for the latter proposed process.)
“We feel that's the only fair way to vindicate the Constitutional rights of the women whose lawyers didn't ask for the recommendation,” Pevar said. No monetary award for the women is involved.
In late August, the WDOC filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that women have never been denied the opportunity to go to bootcamp. It’s just that they’ve never tried to go to bootcamp, it said, until Blanchard. The corrections department also argued Blanchard hadn’t exhausted all of remedies before filing suit, and that her complaint is moot because she’s already been placed in boot camp elsewhere.
WDOC spokesman Mark Horan told BuzzFeed News that Wyoming will continue accommodating “qualified offenders” who receive a boot camp recommendation, like Blanchard — but he didn’t specify whether women offenders would ever be placed within the state, rather than shipped outside.
“We have the distinct impression that if it were not for this lawsuit, they were just going to keep her in prison.”
To Pevar, Blanchard’s move to Florida only further proves Wyoming discriminated against her; men with boot camp recommendations never get sent out of state. “We have the distinct impression that if it were not for this lawsuit, they were just going to keep her in prison,” he said. “That takes care of one of our clients and now we’re going ahead with all the others.”
But there’s one group of women who are notably not part of the class action: women who may have once been boot camp eligible but who have already served their time. Blanchard’s case can’t do anything for formerly incarcerated women. And because of statute of limitations and various legal protections for government officials, Pevar said it’d be unlikely they would win damages in lawsuits of their own.
Pevar has called this “the saddest and cruelest thing” about the case — since 1987, “men have been going in and out while women have spent years in prison," he said. “I just wish I could turn the clock back.” ●