The first 33 graduates of Maryland's military-style prison boot camp marched back into society last night -- in lock step, of course.
It was an unusual graduation: The class received not diplomas but parole papers.
And it was an odd prison release: The inmates snapped to attention, sang a heartfelt rendition of "Amazing Grace" and shouted three hurrahs for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
After six months of Marine Corps-inspired training -- endless physical exercise, military drill and self-examination -- the inmates reached their reward last night in a ceremony at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility: early release from prison. Although they faced sentences of up to five years, all graduates were released after six months.
"When you walked in, I could tell you were proud," Mr. Schaefer told the graduates of the state's 6-month-old experiment in reducing recidivism and prison crowding.
"You'll go into society and say, 'I can be somebody. I can make it in this tough world,' " he said.
Today, the graduates of the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp in Jessup will meet with parole officers and start the task of finding a job within 60 days -- a condition of parole.
First Platoon Alpha I had clearly come a long way. Sgt. Eddie Hargrove, the muscular drill instructor who had "burned them up" with leg lifts and push-ups six months earlier, moved yesterday to the piano and taught the inmate chorus how to enunciate crisply.
"Though it started out as an effort to keep [drill instructors] out of your face, you find that working hard or doing a good job isn't so bad after all," said John Garner, 25, of Northwest Baltimore, who was chosen by platoon members to speak for them last night.
The crowd of more than 250 -- the inmates' families, their boot camp instructors and state officials -- was clearly pleased by the prisoners' apparent transformation.
"I think it's beautiful," said Josephine Garner, John Garner's mother.
"I can't believe the change in him, the way he carries himself," added Garner's sister, Belinda.
The boot camp has 259 inmates, and plans call for eventually expanding it to 448, said Frank Mazzone, assistant commissioner of correction, who called the program "the model" for the nation.
Maj. Robert E. Clay, the energetic 43-year-old commander who leads inmates on 13-mile runs, said he was convinced that boot camp hadchanged his charges' lives and would keep most of them from returning to prison. But he conceded it would be months before he could know whether inmates learned lasting lessons or merely played along to win early release.
"Maybe this is an optimistic guess, but I'd say only 10 percent will come back," Major Clay said. "They don't lie around smoking, watching soap operas and tearing the prison apart with one hand while writing the judge with the other to say how bad conditions are."
Instead, the inmates face a highly regimented schedule of physical exertion, military drill, remedial schooling and highway labor.
Not everyone makes it. Of 46 members of First Platoon Alpha I, only 33 graduated.
"They've been low-lifes so long, some choose not to let it go," said Major Clay. "For the first time in their lives, we held up a mirror, and they took a look at their real persons. Sometimes they try to run away from it."
Alphonso Dunaway, 23, of Cambridge was serving four years for cocaine distribution when he came to the boot camp. "There was a lot of screaming and hollering. You never do things right; you're always goofing up and messing up," he said. "It's easy to say you're a man, but it's a lot of work to show you're a man."
Dewayne Schrock, 23, of Oakland, serving three years for marijuana distribution, said boot camp forced him to face his alcoholism and made him tough enough to stay off the bottle. "When the [drill instructors] come down hard yelling and you have to stand there and suck it up, that gets real hard at times. This inmate was not used to that brand of self-discipline," he said.
Intimidated at first by their drill sergeants, many inmates said they came to view the harassment as a sign the instructors cared.
So they weren't surprised when Cpl. Andre Brown, an instructor called into active military service three months ago, called from Saudi Arabia yesterday morning to wish them well and tell them to stay free.
"That gives inmates the inspiration to do the right thing," Dunaway said. "If he is going to war and cares enough to call, that gives me hope to make it in the real world."