When Antione Brooks was arrested for selling drugs in 1988, he became just another statistic in a society where too many young men run afoul of the law.
But when the 21-year-old West Baltimore native went through the state's Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp for young offenders last year, the experience turned him around.
"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," he declared yesterday. "It saved my life."
The young man now works as a weight trainer at the Harlem Park Recreation Center and says he's neither selling nor using drugs. How did the boot camp make a difference? "Love, strict love," he said. "They were strict, but they showed love."
Mr. Brooks was one of several dozen boot camp graduates who came to 4500 Park Heights Ave. yesterday to see Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other leaders dedicate a new facility designed to help keep the state's nearly 500 boot camp graduates from returning to prison.
Called the St. Ambrose Aftercare Center, it's the permanent home for a year-old volunteer program created to provide the counseling, mentoring and employment assistance that boot camp graduates need upon their return to society.
The after-care program was initiated in July 1991 at the suggestion of state Del. Elijah Cummings, D-39, head of the Governor's Commission on Black Males, working with Bishop Robinson, secretary of the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Mr. Cummings recalled yesterday speaking with several of the boot campers who said they didn't want to go back on the streets for fear they would end up selling drugs again or committing other crimes. He resolved then to work with state officials to provide follow-up services that would help graduates find jobs and start new lives.
"This is a prevention program," he said. "This is a program that instills pride. This is a program that builds hope. This is thinking for the future."
But "we don't want to just build buildings," Mr. Cummings said. "We want to build men and fathers and responsible citizens. That's what we're about. We want to build self-esteem. If we can build buildings, we can build responsible men."
The boot camp is a six-month-long disciplinary program available to state inmates who are younger than 26 and serving their first sentences as adults. The sentence must be for five years or less and not for a crime of violence. State officials say the camp offers a "positive environment for human development in a caring community where individuals can help themselves and each other."
Since the boot camp opened in August 1990, 594 inmates have graduated and been placed on intensive supervision by the state's Division of Parole and Probation. According to state records, 102 boot camp graduates have been sent back to prison but only 29, or 4.9 percent, returned because they committed new offenses. The rest were returned because of technical violations of their paroles.
Mr. Cummings and others say the low return rate is the result of the boot camp program, the intensive supervision and the after-care program. The state delegate also noted yesterday that 95 percent of the graduates have found jobs, and he praised the employers who have worked with the state to provide them.
"We want to enhance their skills, so they can make a decent salary," Mr. Cummings said. "It will never compare to the drug trade salary, but at least it will give them self-esteem, and that self-esteem will build."
The boot camp's own graduates can be instrumental in steering others away from a life of crime, the governor said yesterday.
"If we have no other message today, it's that you've brought yourself out of hell," he told the graduates. "You've restored your pride. You know that you can do things for yourself. If you can prevent just 10 kids from going into the juvenile system, then everything that we've done will be worth it.
"You can be such a help, such an inspiration," the governor continued. "We have to convince the general public, and we can, that those who have been through hell and have come back can be first-class, top-notch citizens -- responsible fathers, responsible brothers, responsible family people, responsible taxpayers. I know it's not going to be easy. But I honestly believe that you can do it. You will do it. And we're going to try to help."
The state's Department of Economic and Employment Development also works closely with the after-care program to help boot camp graduates find jobs, and federal tax credits are available to employers who hire them, according to Paulette Hall, executive director of DEED's Office of Employment Services.
To accommodate the growth of the after-care program, which had been using donated church facilities downtown, state and community leaders decided to create a permanent facility where former boot campers could have support groups and meet regularly with job counselors and mentors.