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Deadly Nostalgia: The Politics of Boot Camps

The short, stout eighth grader Gina Score, was never much of an athlete. But that didn't matter to the staff at South Dakota's Plankinton boot camp for girls, where militarystyle discipline and calisthenics were the modus operandi and, as staff put it, "quitting is not an option." On her first day in boot camp Gina _ sentenced for stealing a beanie baby _ was excoriated and ordered about in an official induction process that, according to one former staff member, "isn't successful unless someone pukes or pisses their pants."

The second day, July 21 1999, began with a sweltering 2.7mile morning run. Immediately Gina, at 5' 4" and 226 pounds, fell behind the rest of the pack and was showing signs of heat stroke. By the end, she was lying in a pool of her own urine, frothing at the mouth, gasping for breath, twitching, and begging for "mommy."

Staff denied the girl water, but did administer a full course of ridicule: calling her a faker, laughing at her, dragging her, dropping Gina's limp hand onto her own face and finally threatening to video tape the girl to prove "what a pathetic and uncooperative child she was." When other girls attempted to shade Gina from the pounding sun, they were ordered to step away. After more than three hours of this, the staff finally called an ambulance, but Gina Score died in route to the hospital.

This LordoftheFlies scenario _ outlined in a lawsuit filed by Gina Score's parent's _ is unfortunately an all too common feature of life in the social laboratory of "tough love." Since 1985 when Louisiana set up the country's first juvenile boot camp, these military "shock incarceration" or "shock probation" programs have been increasingly fashionable among politicians searching for policy mojos with which to charm fearful voters.

Nationwide, there are now more than seventynine such camps in thirty states; most are countyrun facilities catering to nonviolent and first time offenders. And many were started with federal grants from an $8 billion prison and boot camp building fund that was created by the massive, $30.2 billion Crime Bill of 1994. The model's idea, as first conceived in Thatcherite Britain, was to give wayward youth a "short, sharp shock" so as to nip deviance in the bud.

The media usually loves boot camps: photoops of freshly shorn and uniformed thugs shouting "Yes Sir!" looks effective. But do the pushups and yelling really work? Most researchers think not.

"They're made for TV and they're racist. These places are full of Black kids!" says Jerome Miller, director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. "They do nothing for the kids involved. And the dynamic between captor and captive can very quickly deteriorate into serious abuse," says Miller, who along with having served eleven years in the military and directed the juvenile justice systems in Massachusetts and Illinois, is the author of several influential books, most recently Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System.

"One gets the impression that boot camps were set up by the sort of potbellied vets that hang around the local post," says Miller, adding that he knows of no credible research proving boot camps to be effective. In fact, the overwhelming number of studies show the model to be a failure: The latest one _ done by the conservative Koch Crime Institute in Topeka, Kansas _ found that boot camps have a 64 to 75 percent recidivism rate, making them less effective than any other sort of program.

But never mind the numbers: politicians like Governor Bill Janklow of South Dakota who recently called youth inmates "scum," just can't let go. In defending his petproject boot camps the Governor evades the evidence, instead preferring to tell the story of how he was a "wild youth" until joining the US Marine Corp in the late 50's. And therein lies the power of boot camps: they pander to America's square nostalgia, by invoking imaginary 1950's, when "dad was in charge." But nostalgia, because it is inaccurate is also dangerous...

Death in the Desert

Nicholas Contreraz was another alleged "faker." At age 16, Nick was busted joyriding in a stolen car around Sacramento, California and was sent out of state to the privately run Arizona Boys Ranch, which involved a major bootcamp component and permitted staff to strike and tackle the youths. According to extensive investigations by Arizona Child Protective Services and the Pinal County Sheriffs Department, Nick's trouble started out typically enough: he was complaining of nausea and diarrhea. But Boys Ranch staff thought it was all a ploy to avoid physical exercise and they called him "a baby" and told him the trouble was "in his head."

As Nick's condition spiraled downward, the staff escalated their yelling and abuse: at times waking Nick earlier than the rest, making him eat alone and punishing him with push ups and manhandling. Over the next two months Nick lost 14 pounds as he was racked by a 103-degree fever, muscle spasms, severe chest pains, and troubled breathing. All the while the staff forced him to continue with the discipline, calisthenics, running and constant "Yes Sir! No Sir!" When he faltered during exercise the staff punched and shoved him onward.

Soon Nick was defecating in his bed and clothing and vomiting with clockwork frequency, complaining that his body was "hurting all over." When staff could tell an eruption was imminent they would mockingly count off "three, two, one..." On top of that, they forced Nick to tote a bucket filled with his own vomit, feces and soiled sheets. For extra measure they made Nick do pushups with his face just above this acrid slop.

Nick's struggle finally ended on March 2, 1998. Staff spent much of that evening throwing Nick to the ground, bouncing him off a wall and making him do pushups. Before he lost consciousness, Nick lay in the dirt unable to move while above him bellowing staff commanded him to get up. According to witnesses interviewed by CBS, the boy's last words were a simple, "No."

The autopsy found that Nick's distended abdomen was flooded with more than two and half quarts of puss from a virulent hybrid infection of staph and strep. The boy's lungs held fluid that was, according to one official inquiry, probably inhaled when vomiting. And his body was covered with 71 cuts and bruises. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest and in the ensuing furor "neglect" became the operative word. "If you ask me, it was torture," says Joe Contreraz, Nick's uncle. "That was beyond abuse. I wonder if he was calling out Mom, Dad, Uncle Joe? It makes your heart hurt."

In the wake of Contreraz' death California withdrew all its wards from the Arizona Boys Ranch, and it was revealed that the Boys Ranch had more than 100 complaints of child abuse lodged against it in the five years preceding Nick's murder. Shortly thereafter four of the five ABR "campuses" were shuttered, five staff were indicted for murder and both the state of Arizona and California settled out of court with Contreraz's mother for more than a million dollars.

Since then all charges have been dismissed or dropped by the DA, except for one manslaughter and one child abuse charge against former Boys Ranch nurse Linda Babb, who cleared Nick for exercise and repeatedly penned reports to staff urging them to "hold Contreraz highly accountable" for his "negative behavior." Today, the ABR runs only one camp and the state of Arizona no longer allows them to use corporal punishment. A Boys Ranch spokeswoman would only say that the program is "now very different" before hanging up the phone and ignoring further inquiries.

The same month as the Contreraz death a 24-year-old asthmatic named Eddie Bagby, was pepper sprayed and killed by drill instructors during his first day at Arkansas' "young offenders" boot camp. Already in the midst of an asthma attack when he was sprayed, Bagby, died a few hours later at a Little Rock hospital. He had been sentenced to 18 months for fleeing police and driving while intoxicated. Official investigations blamed Bagby's death on several preexisting medical conditions.

Below the Radar

The gruesome deaths of Score, Contreraz and Bagby are but the aberrant tip of a huge, largely unseen, iceberg of abuse. In South Dakota, for example, the publicity surrounding the Score case led to a class action lawsuit filed by the well-regarded Youth Law Center on behalf of fourteen other Plankinton boot camp veterans, many of whom had ended up in the juvenile prison as a result of resisting camp discipline. The boot camp has since been moved to the more remote town of Custer. The suit alleges that: the boot camp, which disproportionately targeted Native American youth, had inadequate medical and mental health care; poor educational programs; and that staff illegally censored the girls' mail and eavesdropped on their telephone calls and parental visits. It also details numerous examples of excessive force.

There is for example "four pointing": this punishment involved up to six male staff physically restraining a girl, then shackling her into a spread eagle position on a raised concrete slab. From there the staff cut off the young woman's clothes with scissors and cover her naked body with a blood and urine stained sheets, known as a "suicide gown." Girls at Plankinton have endured whole days and nights like this.

One of them was Patricia Demetrias, who was also forced to run with her ankles and hands shackled. The resulting cuts left permanent scaring. Running in shackles also offered staff an opportunity to force some girls to participate in the abuse of others; by making those not in chains drag those who were shackled.

"If they'd fall we'd have to pull them along by their chains," explains 17 year old Vanessa Martin who spent three months in the boot camp and is now in foster care. "Doing that made me feel like crap _ guilty," says Martin in a flat Midwestern accent.

Martin says that when there wasn't physical abuse staff subjected girls to a steady stream of psychological cruelty, especially in the hourlong "group session" that capped every evening. "There were a lot of sexual abuse issues in there," she explains. "During group [the staff] would kind of use that. They'd always bring it up and keep asking questions even if a girl was, you know, really crying and didn't want to say any more."

Neither the Governor's office nor the South Dakota Department of Corrections would comment on the suit or current conditions in the revamped boot camp in Custer.

Boot camps housing young adults, age 18 to 25, also have their share of abuses. Nineteenyear casino worker David Zamot learned this when he was busted for possession of marijuana and received a 30-day sentence in Atlantic County, New Jersey's boot camp at May's Landing. Three days into his stay, "drill instructors" caught Zamot in the bathroom sharing a cigarette with two other inmates. Instead of writing Zamot up, as is official policy, the "DIs" marched him out to "Bader's Coffin," a shallow, sixfoot long, earthen pit laced with a cocktail of toxic wastes from the camp's laundry. There the DIs forced Zamot into the pit to do several sets of sit-ups and pushups.

"I was screaming, `something's burning me!' But they were like, `Shut up we tell you when you can get out,"' explains Zamot from his mother's home in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. When the DI's finally let Zamot out he was crying, begging for mercy and his buttocks, back, scrotum and penis were lacerated with third degree burns.

Eventually Zamot required three major surgeries to repair damage to his skin and internal reproductive organs; he still suffers from numbness in his groin and right leg. But at the time he was given only cursory care and then locked in an isolation cell for the rest of his thirtyday sentence. "I was in a wheelchair, in this tiny cell and my scrotum was swollen and full of the chemicals," says Zamot. "They gave me Tylenol, that's all."

Camp and county official's eventually settled out of court for $900,000 but the county attorney's office stills says the whole incident was just "an unfortunate mistake." Zamot's lawyer Paul D'Amato disagrees: "The muthafuckers knew the chemicals were in there! And we caught them lying about it." Zamot said he could have won higher damages if he had waited longer, but he just wanted to get the whole thing over with. "I still think about it alot."

The Maryland Slugfest, an Official Rethink?

The mounting abuse and lawsuits may finally be derailing the boot camps fad. A number of states _ such as California, Florida and Maryland are slowly backing out of the boot camp culdesac.

In Maryland, corrections official were so proud of their program they gave two Baltimore Sun journalists free access to the state boot camp, to follow a group of 14 inductees from start to finish. What the journalists saw shocked the entire state. Induction started with the socalled "TAC officers" punching and kicking the stunned and terrified boys. The rest of the program was full of the same: blatant physical abuse, coupled with little education. When the Sun caught up with the inductees a year latter, back on the street, it was tragically apparent the that boot camp had done nothing for any of them: they were all back in jail, doing drugs, wanted on warrants, or MIA.

In response to newspaper photos of huge TAC officers reducing kids to tears and splitting open their lips, Maryland state officials swung into damage control mode: the head of corrections was fired, the national guard was brought to take charge and then the camps where demilitarized all together.

Georgia officials likewise have overhauled their boot camp program after a U.S. Justice Department investigation found that it was overcrowded and dangerous to the point of being unconstitutional. The California Department of Corrections closed its boot camp in 1997 after it was shown to be ineffective. Many California counties have also dropped the model after brief flirtations _ many but not all.

Playing Army

"Lockup!" shouts the chubby drill instructor at the Kings County boot camp, in sunbaked Hanford, California. Before her is a squad of eight surly and very bored looking Latino teenagers in gray camouflage, heads shaved. "Drop!" Boom! Down go the kids for another round of twenty pushups. Their thirty-minute lunch of grilled chess sandwiches and sodas has just ended.

And because some of their numbers were slow, the whole squad is kissing the concrete. Their compound is a shabby patch of ground surrounded by a chain link fence topped by bright coils of concertina razor wire. The grounds hold six cinderblock buildings and a flagpole. Nearby, on the other side of the fence, sits a small obstacle course.

The boot camp is wedged, as an architectural afterthought, into the back corner of the Kings County Government Center; a sprawling complex of flat, pizzabox style seventies-era buildings connected by open walkways.

"I never give them more pushups than I can do," says the very fit looking Senior Officer Rick Yzaguirre. As we watch the chubby instructor yelling at her "cadets." I get Yzaguirre's point: some staff aren't so principled. In fact, camp Commander Robert Smiley, says finding qualified staff is a problem, "because so many people have criminal convictions."

Most of the day here is taken up by exercise, remedial classes and "life skills" groups. All of which are punctuated by salutes, double timing it and following the camp's many rules about how to speak, walk, fold towels and everything else. But the few inmates I was allowed to speak with liked the regimen.

"It's difficult. They brain wash you. But it's good. You learn respect," says a skinny sixteen yearold Latino kid named Nelson. He was busted for graffiti. His fellow cadet Falando, agrees and both say the staff treat them well and never hit them.

Up the road at the Fresno County Probation Department's Elkhorn Juvenile Boot Camp the story is pretty similar. This camp is bigger and sits amidst 300 acres of flat orchards. Behind a chain link fence I meet the camp commandant, or rather the director, Dick Simonian; he wears black fatigues and the military insignia of a general. His staff also dress in black or camouflage fatigues and wear military ranks from lieutenant up through major and colonel. But Simonian isn't what you'd expect: he never did time in the armed forces, his desk is a mess and he hates proposition 21, California's latest gettoughon youth crime ballot initiative.

"I was a bartender going to grad school until a friend of mine talked me into becoming a probation officer," explains Simonian. He lamentingly adds: "In the thirty years since then, we've gone from being social workers to cops."

Out on the compound his 130 fatigueclad "cadets" _ all nonviolent or first time offenders, most of them Latino and Laotian _ line up in formation: "Right Face, Forward! March!" One of the cadet sergeants leads the cadence as "bravo platoon" marches off to class beneath their own homemade standard, a white flag bearing the image of an air brushed tank and in graffitistyle letters the slogan: "Bravo, No Limit Soldiers"

"The guys make their own flags," explains Simonian who almost seems a little embarrassed that the cadets aren't snapping to attention in his presence as would real soldiers before a real general. He goes on to show me the classrooms and barracks and outlines an elaborate curriculum of anger management and life skills classes that cover everything from filling out job applications to doing mock interviews and public speaking. After the youth complete their five months in boot camp they go on to an aftercare program that involves intensive probation, drug testing and a special community based school.

Several cadets are picked out at random and away from the "TAC officers" comment freely on the program. "It's better than juvenile hall, we have more freedom here. If we don't mess up we can get weekend furloughs home. The structure is good," says a sixteen yearold who was repeatedly busted for residential burglary. Others echo his sentiment: juvenile hall is boring, more confining and dangerous; boot camp is less restrictive and at least offers some "programming" i.e. classes.

As the day unfolds the reality of Elkhorn emerges: Simonian, one of the top dogs in the Fresno County Probation Department, still believes in rehabilitation and the only way he can get his old fashion forms of intervention funded is to dress them up in camouflage and apply for federal grants. In this regard the corny world of the Fresno boot camp embodies both the best and the worst of what correction can be. The extent to which the program is successful has more to do with its life skills classes and aftercare school than its marching and pseudomilitary discipline.

All of which fits with Jerome Miller's analysis: "Even the military know that boot camp does very little for emotionally damaged youth, that's why the military doesn't accept people with serious criminal records. Remember, many of these kids have been yelled at all their lives, they need more than that."

So what does works? According to Miller almost anything is better than boot camps and the larger punitive policy trajectory they are part of. He recommends the old fashioned stuff, programs "based in relationships" run by good staff.

"In Massachusetts we used to send kids mountain climbing in Norway," says Miller. "It was cheaper than incarceration, they got to rub shoulders with nondelinquent youth and it kept them out of town for awhile." But, adds Miller, the Massachusetts legislature soon found out about the Norway trips and, for the sake of looking tough, shut them down.

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