Boot camp prison proves no place for new romance

November 20, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

Within days of admitting the first women inmates to the state's boot camp prison, Maryland officials had a not-so-typical correctional problem -- love letters.

Six inmates -- three women and three men -- were caught exchanging letters, a serious offense at boot camp. Maj. Robert E. Clay, the ex-Marine who runs the camp, punished four of the writers with extra physical exercise.

Two others -- one man and one woman -- were ejected from boot camp, sent back to regular prisons. Their letters, Clay said, were just "too common."

It has fallen on Clay to become something of a prose policeman as well as a warden, as he supervises what state officials think is the first coed boot camp prison in the country.

Six women are now taking part in the program, among more than 200 men. Another three women gave it a try but bailed out quickly. The women spend 16 hours a day at boot camp. At night, they return to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, just up the road in Jessup.

Frank Mazzone, the assistant commissioner of corrections, said he would prefer to have a whole platoon of women, but not enough have volunteered. For now, the prison will continue to place handfuls of women into all-male units.

Cynthia Thompson, a baby-faced 23-year-old inmate from Frederick, was one of the women caught passing a note to a man. Thompson's letter, however, carried a "positive," not vulgar tone, and was sent in response to rather ardent letters, according to a correctional officer.

"I told them when they came that we won't have any love affairs here," Clay said. "Rest assured you're going to get caught. But they're young people. They tried to develop a liaison with the guys."

Thompson's punishment was moving the camp's massive rock pile, one stone at a time, across the courtyard -- a four-hour job.

Were the letters a mistake?

"Sir, yes sir," she answered, smiling for the first time during an interview.

Thompson, serving five years for distribution of cocaine, said she hopes boot camp will help her "change some of my bad ways I had -- like wanting to sell drugs and knowing it was illegal."

Boot camp women do everything the men do, including the long, sometimes agonizing stretches of physical training, officials said. Some exercises, though, have been modified to make them a little easier for the women.

During a session last week, Thompson lined up with four other women between two men, lifting as a unit a massive 10-foot log. As Clay barked out a rhythm, the group did overhead lifts and deep-knee squats with the log.

Among the women was Alissia Miller, 22 years old and the mother of two little boys. Miller, who is serving four years for possession of heroin and cocaine, helped open the program to women by writing a letter to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"I felt the men had a chance to get themselves together physically and mentally," Miller said. "I didn't think it was fair. Women should also have a chance."

Prisoners serving less than seven years in prison for non-violent crimes are generally eligible for boot camp. Inmates who complete the six-month program are released from prison. The rest of their sentences are waived.

That bargain is a powerful inducement to stick with the program. Even so, Miller lasted exactly one day when she first arrived in boot camp. She left in tears. But boot camp officers helped Miller make a phone call to her children, a conversation that inspired her to return to the program.

Miller said she is managing to survive the humiliation and physical challenges. "It's better. You don't have enough time to worry too much about your family," she said. "Before you know it, it's over."

Miller, who lived in East Baltimore, said she was persuaded to try boot camp by her fiance, a boot camp graduate who is now working at a paint factory and taking care of her children.

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