Boot camp graduates meet the governor

January 05, 1992|By Ginger Thompson

Yesterday, the first Saturday of this new year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer stood in a downtown Baltimore church basement, surrounded by a few dozen parolees, and listened to them talk about new beginnings.

The men and women were graduates of the state's Herman Toulson Correctional Boot Camp, a program that involves six months of strict discipline, strenuous physical labor, as well as academic studies.

Those 16-hour work days at Jessup were grueling, the graduates remembered. But what is just as tough to endure, some told Mr. Schaefer, is their freedom.

Many of those released from jail have no high school diplomas and little job training or experience. Those who are skilled are released into a state with a battered economy that is producing few adequately paying jobs. And then, many employers and educational institutions deny opportunities to former inmates, leaving them to return to the same environment that pushed them into jail.

"If I was living at home in South Baltimore, I'd probably be on drugs or using drugs because the same people are there. In fact, it's worse now," said Michael Detress, 22, a boot camp graduate who is a resident maintenance worker at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

"When you come out, people look at you a certain way," said one parolee. "You may need help, but you are very sensitive about approaching people."

But the parolees can -- and do -- turn to each other, every Saturday in the basement of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore's Mount Vernon.

As part of their parole agreement, the boot camp graduates who live in the Baltimore area are required to attend the three-hour weekly motivational discussions led by Delegate Elijah E. Cummings, D-39. And yesterday, they were joined by Mr. Schaefer, who stopped in to offer his support.

"I went into the jails and saw a group of predominantly black men -- and some white men -- and I thought to myself, what a waste," he said, caressing the shoulders of those seated in front of him. "I wondered, why are they here? It must be a failure of us in government.

"And then I wondered, what happens after they leave?"

Several of the parolees stood to respond.

Calvin Wortham, 22, who had served time on a drug charge, got a job with Detress as a resident-maintenance man at the Springfield Hospital Center. But initially he was reluctant to take the job.

"I wanted to get back to East Baltimore with my family and girlfriend," he said. "But then I got home, and I saw my friends. They all looked worse. And I had come home nice and fresh and shiny.

"So I told myself, I better go ahead and take that job."

After 26-year-old Brian Umstead finished serving time for cocaine distribution last March, he was denied admission to the University of Maryland at Baltimore County because administrators told him he "hadn't had enough time to adjust to ** society."

"But I wasn't going to let that hold me back, so I went to Catonsville Community College," he said. "And I finished the first semester on the honor roll."

And 27-year-old Leonard Terry, a Middle River resident who was sentenced to three years on a drug charge, graduated from boot camp and got a job as a truck driver hauling loads along the East Coast.

"When you live in the drug world, you wake up evil and mad," said Terry's wife, Lyque. "But now he wakes up happy and pleasant, and he doesn't have to walk around looking over his shoulder."

The parolees applauded each other and gave a lot of the credit for their success to the boot camp and the after-care program, which correction officials hope to start in other parts of Maryland.

In the two years since the boot camp opened, only one of the 300 graduates has returned to jail because of a new offense. More than 70 percent are employed or are seeking jobs through the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The military-style program is open to first-time offenders convicted of non-violent crimes.

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