Female inmates get chance at boot camp and early release Women undergo same rigors as men

December 09, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

JESSUP -- The hollering, the screaming, the insults of the drill instructors -- those are Alissia Miller's memories of her first days at Herman L. Toulson Boot Camp.

By the end of her first 15-hour stint in the military-style program for first-time inmates serving time for non-violent offenses, she quit. Spending four years at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women for heroin possession, she reasoned, would be easier than enduring the drill instructors, the calisthenics, the marching and shouting and sweating for six months.

But in a phone call home to East Baltimore, Miller's 5-year-old son cried for her. The next day, Miller, 22, was back at boot camp. If she completes the training, she can go home to her two children in March.

The Herman L. Toulson Boot Camp has been putting first-time prisoners through its rigorous program for more than a year now, but the first women joined only in October. Ten arrived that month. Three dropped out and returned to prison. One was expelled.

Six women remain, struggling alongside 202 men who volunteered for boot camp, a program that offers inmates freedom aftersix months of work meant to change young prisoners' attitudestoward themselves and toward crime.

Miller's fiance went through boot camp. Last spring, from her cell in the women's prison, she wrote Gov. William Donald Schaefer and asked why women couldn't have the same chance. By September, boot camp was accepting female volunteers for coed platoons.

A few of the calisthenics have been modified for the women, said Maj. Robert E. Clay, the boot camp commander. But there are no other breaks. The military drills, the work details, the classes and counseling all are the same as the men's. Each night, the women return to the women's prison.

"Some of the males whine more than the females," said Michele Gilmer, 29, of East Baltimore, serving a five-year drug sentence. "They told us, 'You're not going to slime through this program,' " Gilmer said. " 'You're going to earn it.' "

So the women recently were out in a cold, punishing rain hoisting logs over their shoulders, then squatting with the weight, then raising the logs again.

One of the inmates -- all are dressed in identical blue work suits and blue stocking caps pulled low over their ears -- wavered, stumbling while trying to steady the log.

"What's wrong with you, son?" Major Clay snapped. The "son"turned out to be Cynthia Hall of East Baltimore. "Oh, sorry," Major Clay said.

The women's work is the same as the men's, and so is the punishment when an inmate displays an incorrect attitude or fails to perform up to standards.

"If you want equal opportunity," Major Clay said, "I believe you get equal punishment."

"They're no different" from the men, he added. "If I close my eyes and listen to them talk, I'd think I was talking to the guys. They've got the same excuses for why they committed crimes. They understand the same things: Punishment. Punishment and reward."

Waynette Beavers, 26, of Annapolis, said she had "somewhat a bad attitude" at the beginning of her boot-camp stay.

"This inmate was not used to any kind of long-distance running," she said, standing ramrod straight as she talked to a reporter. When a drill instructor jogged up to tell her to keep pace, Beavers took a swing at the instructor. "This inmate got a bad report," Beavers said. She also got sent out to hoist logs until her attitude improved.

That was eight weeks ago, when the women first arrived at boot camp. Now, Beavers, who was serving 4 1/2 years for conspiracy to commit a burglary, said she wants to complete the program.

"You have to think about getting out and going back to your family," she said. "All we have to do is think about what MCIW [Maryland Correctional Institution for Women] is like. That should be incentive enough."

The grueling routine is not the only trouble the women face.

"My problem was romance," Gilmer said.

A male inmate wrote her a letter filled with romantic entreaties and "a lot of negative things about boot camp," she said. Such communications between inmates are forbidden. Gilmer compounded the error by writing back. But in her letter, she explained how she thought boot camp could help her and why she wanted to finish the program.

Because her attitude was so positive, Gilmer was not expelled, Major Clay said. But because she broke a rule in writing back, she was sentenced to extra stints hoisting the dreaded logs.

Other inmates caught exchanging letters were dismissed from the program, Major Clay said. "The letters were just common."

In March, the first women will be sent home on parole. A violation will land them back in prison to complete their sentences.

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