Pa. 'boot camp' for federal prisoners is more boot than camp Program for non-violent inmates aims to build discipline, self-respect.

March 19, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- The new inmate is standing in front of the mess hall door, marching stiffly in place, hair shorn, eyes forward, shoulders back, chin up.

Lunch is 10 feet to his right -- spaghetti and salad and tacos and banana ice cream. But it will have to wait: Officer Silas Irvin is to his left.

This is chow time at the Federal Intensive Confinement Center, home to a new federal experiment in handling income tax cheats, forgers and drug dealers. And Silas Irvin is Uncle Sam's notion of tough love.

"Sound off!" says Irvin, 6 feet of uncaged baritone, standing close to the inmate's shoulder.

"Left . . . left . . . left."

"I can't hear you!

"LEFT . . . LEFT . . . LEFT."

"Where are your kids?"

"I DON'T KNOW, SIR."

"Why don't you know?"

"BECAUSE I'M IN JAIL, SIR."

"You going to stay out of jail?"

"YES, SIR."

"Why are you going to stay out of jail?"

"I HAVE A SON TO TAKE CARE OF, SIR."

"Why else you going to stay out of jail?"

"I HAVE A CAREER TO LOOK FORWARD TO, SIR."

"That's right. You can make it. Remember that. You can make it. You can take it."

Released at last, the greenhorn executes a wobbly right-face and marches, right, left, right, left, toward spaghetti. Behind him, the ritual continues.

"Next . . . sound off!"

Here, in the shadow of the brick walls of the maximum-security Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, in low, yellow, corrugated-steel buildings, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has just opened its first boot-camp jail.

Non-violent prisoners who agree to spend six months here doing push-ups, marching in military formation, standing at attention and yes-sirring everything that moves can get out of prison early. While they're here, they get classes in coping with life on the outside.

For living without cigarettes or TV or free time or anything to call their own, inmates get something almost unheard of in prison: personal attention. They get academic lessons, classes in personal finance, counseling on family relations, drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

"In most prisons, it's 'No, you can't; no, we can't,' " says Ronan Breaux, 28, of Largo, Md., who is doing time for forging U.S. Treasury checks. "But here, it's 'What do you need?' They're actually concerned.

"They keep teaching you that if you can get through this, you can get through anything."

Michael Figueroa, 24, of Philadelphia, convicted of cocaine dealing, has been in nine federal institutions in three years.

"I've learned more about discipline and respect and teamwork here in two months than I learned anywhere in 37 months," says Figueroa, who can shave two years off his six-year sentence by successfully completing six months in boot camp.

Breaux and Figueroa are in Alpha Team, the first 48-man squad to enter the federal boot camp, which started Jan. 28. The ones who don't wash out are scheduled to "graduate" July 26, when they will be released first to halfway houses near their homes and then, after several months, be sent home to live and work under federal supervision.

"That early release is a hell of a carrot to hang out in front of an inmate," says David A. Chapman, the prison officer who designed the Lewisburg program and now administers it. "We don't have any intention of making it easy, but the payoff at the end is a very strong incentive for most of these guys."

Boot camps are the newest trend in many state prison systems, including Maryland's, in response to complaints that existing jails are simply keeping felons out of circulation while doing very little to change prisoners' attitudes or to prevent their return to criminal lifestyles.

Congress authorized the federal Bureau of Prisons last year to establish a "shock incarceration" program, and if Lewisburg succeeds at reducing recidivism, it may become the model for more boot camps.

"Obviously, there was a public outcry to do something different," says Patrick W. Keohane, warden of Lewisburg Penitentiary. "This is our attempt to do something different.

"It would be very naive for anyone to say at this point that it's a great success story, but I like what I see," he says. "Whether it's cost-effective and whether it has a long-term impact remains to be seen. But so far, the director and the Bureau of Prisons have been very impressed with what they've seen here. They like the cleanliness, the structure, the inmate attitudes.

When Lewisburg's boot camp reaches capacity this summer, it will house 192 men ages 18 to 35, serving sentences of 30 months or less for non-violent crimes. The "clients" have to be in relatively good physical condition, and they must have short criminal records.

There will be four teams of 48 prisoners: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. Alpha is two months into its six-month regimen, Bravo started classes on March 4, and Charlie and Delta are still in the works.

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