Boot camps make room in ranks for prison inmates as old as 35

October 26, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Prisoners over 32, take note: You, too, might be able to reduce your prison time by marching in formation, running long distance and submitting to the taunts of boot camp instructors.

State corrections officials this month quietly raised the eligible age for the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp in Jessup to 35 -- a decade older than participants could be when the camp opened in 1990. That change continues a gradual march away from the philosophy that boot camps are just for young, less serious offenders who could be "shocked" into lawful behavior with a military-style regimen.

Prison officials were looking for ways to increase enrollment at the boot camp, said Jack Kavanagh, the Division of Correction's acting director of case management. Only 212 offenders currently participate in a program that can accommodate as many as 360.

"The idea was, let's see if we can have some impact on the older inmates as well," said Mr. Kavanagh.

Maryland's move to increase the boot camp's age limit parallels efforts by other states. Massachusetts, for example, has raised the maximum age for its Bridgewater boot camp to 40.

When the Jessup camp opened, it took only offenders who were under 26 and were serving their first prison terms for less serious crimes. But in recent years, officials raised the age to 32 and allowed some inmates who had been in prison once before to qualify.

Some find it troubling that older criminals, perhaps less enthusiastic about shouting "Yes, sir!" and more savvy about the prison system, might blunt the program's impact on its younger charges.

"When [the public] thinks of the military-style boot camp, they think of the 17-year-old, first-time offender," said Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Crofton, who in recent years has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to limit boot camp eligibility.

"You're mixing up the 35-year-old who may be in for a major offense with the 17- or 18-year-old who got a gold tooth because he sold drugs on the street."

For first offenders, completing the boot camp program usually means parole in six months or less. Those with a previous conviction must serve at least 25 percent of their sentences before parole, so they can spend only part of their time in the six-month boot camp program. Both men and women are eligible.

Even under the new directives, those convicted of first- or second-degree murder, rape, child abuse, assault with intent to commit murder and several other serious offenses are ineligible for boot camp. Inmates must volunteer for boot camp and meet other requirements, including a physical exam.

Mr. Kavanagh said 168 inmates over 32 now in Maryland prisons would probably be eligible for boot camp if they volunteered. None has joined the program so far. The average age of boot-camp inmates is 24.

Instead of admitting older inmates, Ms. Perry said officials could boost enrollment by admitting more women who have committed nonviolent crimes. "You'll have a lot of space [elsewhere] if you get these women in there. They didn't rape anybody . . . they didn't break into my house."

Mr. Kavanagh said the division had been trying to find more eligible women willing to participate. "Having someone scream and holler in your face is a problem for some of the women," he said, noting that many have been abused by ex-husbands and boyfriends.

Dale Parent, who studied boot camps for the National Institute of Justice in 1989, said several states have raised the maximum age for boot camps to keep enrollments up. But he said that it is rare for participants to be as old as 35 and that offenders that age usually decline the rigorous camp life. "Thirty-five is getting to be kind of old for the physical demands they put on people," he said.

But Del. Elijah Cummings, a longtime supporter of the boot-camp concept, said older inmates could be positive role models for young offenders. "When they get to be 30, 31, it finally hits them that crime is not the way to go," the Baltimore Democrat said.

The Massachusetts Department of Correction raised the maximum age for its Bridgewater boot camp to 40 a year and a half ago after several older inmates expressed interest, said Tony Carnevale, the department's director of public affairs.

Since then, six 40-year-olds -- four men and two women -- have graduated from the four-month program, he said. The average age of Massachusetts boot camp participants still has remained low -- 25 for men, 28 for women.

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