Boot Camp Blunder

October 18, 1993

Residents of the western Anne Arundel County community of Seven Oaks didn't defeat plans to move a correctional boot camp to Fort George G. Meade all by themselves. They had help from those who wanted to put the camp there: Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Army.

The governor and Army officials went about this whole project all wrong. Had they been paying attention a year and a half ago, when County Executive Robert R. Neall quietly tried to secure state funding for a county detention center in Glen Burnie, they would have realized that citizens do not take it well when corrections facilities are sneaked into their communities behind their backs.

Jails are never popular, hence the compulsion to cloak plans for them in secrecy. But as the Glen Burnie experience showed, people resent the idea of government trying to pull one over on them as much as the idea of a jail itself. And if they find out what's going on before it's a done deal, they'll fight doubly hard to stop it.

In this case, Seven Oaks residents did not learn of the governor's boot camp plan until just two weeks before former garrison commander Col. Kent D. Menser -- known to that point, at least, for his openness with the community -- was to decide whether to accept the Maryland proposal.

Not only were Seven Oaks residents incensed, but so were elected county and state officials from that area, who, like their constituents, resented not being consulted on this matter from day one. A persistent theme at community meetings was how offended they were at having to learn about the camp through the media.

The Army and Governor Schaefer didn't do much to extinguish the fury or assuage fears. Some community leaders indicated they might be open to the compromise of a different on-post site, but no one discussed this with them. Eventually, residents got on their side someone influential enough to kill the project, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th.

In many ways, Fort Meade was a logical place for a low-risk correctional facility such as the boot camp. And the boot camp concept has proved remarkably successful on a smaller scale in the Jessup area. But suitability of the site is beside the point when it comes to getting citizens to accept such institutions. Jails of any type provoke fear. Officials will never have an easy time locating them. But they would fare better if they didn't needlessly infuriate citizens by keeping them in the dark.

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