Inmates learn new boot camp is all work, no play

October 12, 1990|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

If this is a boot camp prison, why are the prisoners sitting in a big circle on the floor sharing their feelings about Diana Ross' breathy hit, "Do You Know Where You're Going To?"

Well, it's not exactly your average group-encounter session: The men must maintain their military bearing and sure as heck better address the group leader as "Ma'am."

It's all part of the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp in Jessup -- now entering its third month. Inmates attend daily sessions on communicating, problem-solving and self-control.

For the inmates, most of whom have been hardened by a lifetime of deprivation and bad judgment, sharing feelings may be as important as military marching and push-ups, according to officials there.

"There are only two ways for us to go through life," instructor Debbie Richardson told her class of inmates yesterday. "You can decide or you can react. By the time you finish this boot camp program, you'll realize that deciding is the best choice."

It's not all sweetness and light, however. An ornery guard with the conflicted name of Sgt. Valentino Savage hovers around the group, barking out commands.

One stammering inmate tells a sad tale of losing his temper with a judge and having his time in prison doubled.

"I guess it was too late, Hicks!" Savage shouts. "That's why you're in prison, you thing!"

After opening two months ago, Maryland's first boot camp prison is starting to operate at full throttle. Its goal is to catch first-time inmates in the state prison system and turn them around with a heavy dose of discipline leavened with a shot of compassion. The program features long hours of physical training, work assignments on road crews outside the prison, military-style marching as well as remedial classes, drug counseling and incessant carping from guards.

The boot camp prison offers a quick out for inmates. Most are serving sentences of at least a couple years. If they complete the grueling six-month boot camp program, they are released.

Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson has said the boot camp prison is needed to move more inmates through the overcrowded penal system. Two dozen states have begun or are considering boot camp prisons. And while the boot camp prisons have indeed helped ease overcrowding across the country, they have been less effective at curbing future crime.

Several studies have shown that inmates leaving boot camp are just as likely to return to prison as are inmates with similar records leaving regular institutions.

Since August, 19 of 145 inmates entering boot camp have left the program, most voluntarily.

Jerome Wise is just the kind of inmate officials hope they can turn around in six months. Wise, 19, says he made a small fortune selling heroin in West Baltimore. He could gross $18,000 in four hours and take home $3,000 on a good day. He was sentenced to three years.

In the beginning, Wise says, he entered the boot camp simply so he could get out of prison early. "At first, this inmate thought it would be easy," Wise says, referring to himself in the third person, a camp requirement.

"This inmate feels they're putting us on the right path, sir," Wise says. "This inmate doesn't want to go back to prison. This inmate has a girlfriend at home who wants him back, sir."

Dewayne Schrock, a 23-year-old from Garrett County, calls himself one of the few country boys in the prison. He, too, is serving three years. His crime, he says, was selling a quarter ounce of marijuana to an undercover officer. His major problem, Schrock says, was his alcoholism, spurred in part by the suicide of his brother. Most days, Schrock says, he was drinking at least a case of beer.

"This inmate is treated right, learning to make decisions," says Schrock, who is married and has a 13-month-old son. "This inmate is learning it's easier to say you're a man. When it comes to doing it is a lot harder."

Schrock, who is white, sounds one of the few negative notes about boot camp, saying he has run into hard feelings from some of the black inmates. "There's a few of them I would say are prejudiced but, the majority of them, we get along as we're all human beings."

Inmates who get in trouble may receive slightly exotic punishments. Inmate John Godwin, who entered the boot camp Monday, was observed yesterday dismantling and reassembling a four-foot-tall pile of stones, a task that takes about four hours.

"He wants to cuss, be disrespectful, run his mouth," explains camp commander Robert E. Clay, a 21-year veteran of the state prison system and an ex-Marine. "Now he has time to think."

If the rock pile doesn't work, a guard can order an inmate to take a couple laps around the camp carrying the Decision Bag, a duffel bag filled with rocks and weighing about 40 pounds.

A strict set of rules governs an inmate's every move. Inmates politely greet each staff member and visitor as they go about the camp, but they eat in silence. There are no radios, television sets or pinups, and inmates can have only personal photographs inside their small lockers.

Clay downplays the humiliation the inmates routinely endure.

"I think it's a lot more humiliating to spend your whole life in prison. It's more humiliating to have your family on welfare," Clay says. "They've already been humiliated."

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