Forgers, tax evaders drill, study, snap 'Yes, sir,' to win U.S. sentence reductions

April 07, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

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

Lunch is just 10 feet to his right -- spaghetti, salad, tacos and banana ice cream. But it will have to wait. For 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 Mr. 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?"


"Why don't you know?"


"You going to stay out of jail?"


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


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


"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. They receive reduced sentences and, while they're here, they get a series of classes in coping with life on the outside.

For getting up each day at 5 a.m. and going to bed at 10 p.m., for living without cigarettes or television or free time or anything they can 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, and 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 Mr. Figueroa.

"The other prisons basically just cared about keeping us there -- they were just warehouses.

"Here, the team leaders like Mr. Irvin seem like they're always here; they're even here on their own time. We do push-ups; they do push-ups. We run; they run. Anywhere else, they don't get involved like that. A hack [guard] is just a hack.

"Did you ever see 'An Officer and a Gentleman'? Mr. Irvin -- he's just like Lou Gossett Jr. Tough but fair. He ought to get some kind of special commendation or something."

Breaux and Figueroa are members of Alpha Team, the first 48-man squad of prisoners to enter the camp, which started drilling and taking classes 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, in response to complaints that existing jails are simply keeping felons out of circulation while doing very little to change prisoners' attitudes or 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 be the model for similar camps around the country.

"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. I've never seen such enthusiasm among inmates or staff.

"And it plays very well with the public."

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