Leaving trouble behind

August 22, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

A 26-year-old Westminster man went back to the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Camp in Jessup last week, as guest speaker at a graduation ceremony.

Jason R. Barnes looked across from the podium to the seats occupied by 28 men and one woman who had just completed the rigorous six-month boot camp for convicted criminals. Staying out of trouble isn't all that tough, he told them.

"I have a 40-hour-a-week job, I have my own apartment and I pay my bills. That's all I do," he said.

Actually, he also checks in with his parole officer; goes to counseling sessions, attends services twice a week at the Church of the Open Door; plays in the church softball and basketball leagues and, although divorced, spends time with his 5-year-old daughter.

He works long hours waiting tables at Shoney's restaurant in Westminster and is scheduled to join the management team part-time, training other servers.

Mr. Barnes reminded the graduates of the incentive not to break the law again. The seven months he spent in boot camp -- including an extra month for flunking four evaluations -- "were the hardest seven months of my life," he said.

The 4-year-old boot camp program is a strict regimen of work, physical training and education patterned after Marine Corps boot camp. The idea is to give offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes a chance to change their behavior and attitudes. The reward for those who volunteer, qualify and complete the program is a guaranteed parole date.

Mr. Barnes said the chance to attend boot camp caught him at the right time in his life.

He had gone to work at Shoney's and started to straighten out his life after piling up a total of 18 bad check, forgery and theft charges from the ages of 18 to 23.

Through the years of his crimes he continued to hold jobs, and the state's attorney's office routinely allowed him to plead guilty to reduced charges. He spent six months at the Carroll County Detention Center on work release without deciding he needed any changes in his life.

But in August 1993, Mr. Barnes was sentenced to five years in prison on charges that had been pending since 1991.

With the help of a recommendation from state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll Republican who was one of his customers at the restaurant, Mr. Barnes won acceptance to boot camp and entered the program in November.

Mr. Barnes said he learned only later of the recommendation. "If he hadn't helped me like that, I'd probably still be in jail," he said.

Boot camp "is like a smoker who wants to quit: You're not going to do it until you're ready," said Robert L. McWhorter, camp commander.

At camp, inmates' lives are regulated from 5 a.m. reveille until 9 p.m. lights out. Drill instructors tell them when and where to do everything. At mealtime, for example, the commands are, "Ready, seat, adjust, eat."

Mr. Barnes said he failed early physical training, particularly running to train for a final six-mile run, because he has asthma. He did better after doctors changed his medicine.

But he admits he also thought he could skate through boot camp as he had skated through other parts of his life, on personality. After all, he was a nice young guy from the suburbs, not a drug dealer from the inner city.

The drill instructors were not impressed.

Mr. Barnes entered camp with a better education than most inmates. He had finished high school and entered Western Maryland College on a scholarship -- though he lasted only a year there because he he cut class and wasted his time.

Boot camp doesn't offer much academically to inmates who have completed high school, Mr. McWhorter said. He hopes to add college preparatory courses this fall. Mr. Barnes tutored other students anddid clerical work, because he knew how to type and use a computer.

Maryland Department of Parole and Probation statistics show that 202 boot camp graduates, about one in five, have returned to prison in the four years of the program's existence.

Mr. Barnes wishes for a support group for boot camp graduates in Carroll County similar to groups in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

But even without the help and reassurance of others who have been through the same experience, he says, "The Department of Corrections is never going to see me again."

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