Tough taskmaster rules boot camp Arduous regimen also confronts guards.

November 27, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

His superiors say Major Robert E. Clay is doing a good job. His critics say he can be brutal, even a tyrant.

But nobody has ever accused the commander of Maryland's boot camp prison of being a slouch.

If Clay wants his inmates or officers to do 200 pushups, he does them, too. If the exercise is log-lifting, Clay will pick a 60-pounder -- the camp's heaviest -- for himself.

"I don't ask the officers to do anything I can't do myself," Clay said.

But Clay, an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam and helped run the Marines' brig at Parris Island, is setting a standard that some inmates and prison employees say they can't meet.

His no-nonsense style and demanding regimen have infuriated some employees, who are leaving the Jessup prison in significant numbers.

In fact, a higher percentage of guards are dropping out of the tough program than inmates.

"The guy is a real tyrant," says one boot camp employee who asked that his name not be used.

Many officers and prison officials believed the boot camp, with its military regimen for younger, non-violent offenders, would be a plum assignment, a place where officers -- not inmates -- would be in charge.

But 13 boot camp officers out of 85 have asked to leave the prison, according to Clay.

Several officers said they were fed up with the rigorous military atmosphere, the strenuous exercise or heavy-handed punishments from Clay.

In addition to officers who left the prison, more than a third of the candidates have dropped out of the the drill instructor training program. Several others failed the final examination after training for as long as six weeks. In the most recent class, only 14 of 39 candidates graduated.

By comparison, roughly 85 percent of the inmates who enter boot camp make it through the six-month program.

Clay makes no apologies for his standards.

"This is not for everyone," Clay said.

"I tell [officers] this is a highly physical training. You have to be in better condition than the inmates," Clay said. "But, young people believe, 'If I show up, I can do it automatically.' This is a new standard for the Division of Correction."

Boot camp follows a military-style program of physical exercise, drilling, education and work. Inmates under the age of 32 serving less than seven years for non-violent offenses are generally eligible. An inmate who completes the six-month program is freed, and the state waives the remainder of his or her jail term.

Clay likes to brag that at the age of 43 he is older than all but one person on his staff and his entire flock of 200 inmates.

The other day, Clay found himself face-to-face with a new group of inmates who had been hardened by their time in other Maryland prisons and just weren't buying the boot camp program.

"They were standing there looking like hoodlums," Clay says. "I said you're so tough, you can keep up with a 43-year-old man."

Clay, a fireplug who stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall, said he proceeded to humiliate the inmates with a grueling series of pushups, situps and log lifts. The inmates' attitude swiftly softened.

"Strength. That's what gets their attention," Clay said.

Clay's favorite enforcement tool is "incentive physical training."

Recently, Clay may have gone a little overboard when he punished a group of unkempt inmates by making them do four sets of 50 pushups on their knuckles on asphalt. Clay estimates the inmates did no more than 75. He did 200.

"What's the learning experience in that?" asked one officer who witnessed the incident.

"After this exercise, they polished their boots. In fact, they made them shine like glass and started to work hard on outside details," Clay wrote in a memo describing the incident.

After a reporter asked about the incident, Division of Correction officials halted the knuckle pushups.

Last week, with a newspaper photographer watching, Clay picked up a slightly built inmate, perched him on his shoulder, and did about a dozen squats. "He was up there moving around, acting like a hoodlum," Clay explained later.

Clay is equally hard on his officers. One day, a group of guards training to become drill instructors went on a long cross-country run.

Three of the guards bailed out, returned to a nearby state van and had a drink of water while the others finished the run. Clay found out and made the whole group run again.

Three of the guards who had kept on running said it was unfair and quit the program right there, according to a guard who witnessed the incident.

For Clay, the punishment was a lesson in group unity.

"What he did to us is exactly what we'll do to the inmates," said Brenda Canceran, a 26-year-old drill instructor who recently finished the training.

Canceran said she used to go home crying after training and collapse into sleep on her living room floor.

"I think [Clay] has a heart of gold," Canceran said. "He is just not going to tolerate someone doing a half-ass job."

Said Clay: "If you can do the physical part, just do it. It's that simple. What we're trying to do is put out a better officer and strengthen an inmate so he'll survive on the street and won't get arrested."

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