Some young US offenders go to `boot camp' - others are put in adult jails. Army-like regimen tries to teach juvenile criminals self-discipline

ALREADY, four red caps hang over the gate. They belong to inmates cut from boot camp - for mouthing off and defying orders - and sent to serve their sentences in standard prisons. As the 23 remaining inmates run in double-time lock step shouting back the cadences of their drill instructor, Maj. Evon Colchiski recounts their crimes: aggravated assault on police officers, convenience-store robbery, cocaine use, marijuana sales....

After three weeks of prison as military-style boot camp, says Major Colchiski, his squad of angry young delinquents is ``starting to get some team spirit.''

Florida's new boot camp is the latest version of an idea that Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Oklahoma have been using to try to keep first-time offenders up to age 24 out of conventional prison.

Having studied the other states' programs, Florida correction officials are hoping to apply lessons learned from them.

For three months, the young convicts will lead a highly regulated life that begins at 4 a.m., ends with lights out at 9 p.m., enforces tight, yes-sir-no-sir, stand-at-attention military discipline, and works them to the bone at marching drills, calisthenics, obstacle course-running, and hard labor.

Then, instead of serving their original sentences of up to 10 years in prison, they get out.

``There's no doubt that we have a chance to turn some of these people around,'' says Colchiski, who runs the program at Sumter Correctional Institution.

The immediate point of the program here, however - as in other Southern states - is to save money and prison beds. This month alone, 133 convicts were released under federal court orders to relieve pressure on overcrowded Florida prisons.

The first class of Florida boot-camp graduates will have spent three grueling months behind bars in place of sentences ranging from one to six years. Further, officials are hoping that the boot-camp graduate is less likely to end up back in prison - after learning discipline and teamwork instead of the hard-core criminal culture of conventional prison.

``It's going to be a tremendous tax savings,'' says Colchiski. About 400 inmates a year will be diverted into boot camp.

Whether the boot camp actually works out that way is by no means a sure bet.

The approach has its skeptics. ``They are programs designed to reassure prosecutors and the public'' that criminals are being disciplined and shaped up, says Jerry Miller, director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives in Washington, D.C. ``I don't think there's any evidence at all that shows it works.''

But the boot-camp approach can work, says Oliver Keller, former director of juvenile corrections in Florida, ``if it's done right'' - building team spirit and self-worth and not just degrading and embittering the inmates.

In Georgia, a similar program called ``shock incarceration'' has processed about 1,600 offenders since late 1984. By the end of 1985, 21 percent had committed new crimes. In a comparable group of convicts who served standard prison sentences of a year or longer, 23 percent committed new crimes.

Scant improvement there, admits Larry Anderson, Georgia's diversion-programs coordinator. But he points out that at least the shock incarceration alumni do no worse than comparable convicts after a fraction of the time served - saving Georgia taxpayers the considerable cost of longer prison terms.

One problem that consistently undercuts such programs: Instead of relieving prisons of potential inmates, judges may send to boot camp convicts that otherwise would have been on probation - and not in prison at all.

Georgia is now studying its shock incarceration inmates to see if they most closely match the actual prison population or mere probationers. If many of them would otherwise be on probation, then shock incarceration is not relieving Georgia's overcrowded prisons.

In Florida, says Jim Mitchell, director of youthful offenders, ``we're very concerned about that.'' One safeguard is that Florida's program accepts only recruits already sentenced to hard prison time. ``We wanted a harder-core criminal'' than Georgia's program reaches, Mr. Mitchell says.

Another lesson Florida learned from its Southern neighbors was caution in choosing and supervising its boot-camp staff officers. The officers - in the role of military drill instructors - hold vastly more power over the inmates than conventional prison guards. It requires not just tremendous physical condition to run through the boot-camp routine with the inmates every day, but a steady hand at wielding authority.

Louisiana's year-old program has stabilized its staff after cleaning out some overzealous disciplinarians. ``It takes a different type of person,'' says Mike Erwin of Louisiana's corrections department.

Florida officials will watch closely for job burnout and consider rotating guards through the program. ``If a staff member reaches a mental state where he or she begins harassing the inmates, then we would want them out,'' Mitchell says.

David Gray, a strapping, athletic young inmate, was nearly among the dropouts. Early on, he collapsed on the ground and swore at an officer. He was exhausted, and his boots continually failed to meet inspection.

For a week, Mr. Gray considered serving out his two-year prison sentence for auto burglary. Humbled, he begged his way back into the boot camp. Now, Major Colchiski says, ``he is doing very well.''

``No matter how hard it gets,'' Gray says now, ``I just stick with it.'' Motioning over to the conventional prison, he adds, ``It's nowhere over there.''

Brian Suermondt asked to leave boot camp for conventional prison on his fourth day. He changed his mind within a few hours, but he still has weak moments. ``It's real tough,'' he says. At 9 a.m. the uniform he pressed with creases the night before is already rumpled and dirty from marching, running, climbing obstacles, and push-ups in the grass.

One night, drunk and fighting with his father at home in Vero Beach, Fla., Mr. Suermondt shot at police officers, then shot himself in the foot. Since then he has served county jail time and twice violated probation.

He hopes he is learning some discipline here he can take back home. Mostly, he says, nodding toward the main prison, ``I don't want to be like the slimeballs on the other side of the fence.''

``From the time they walked off the bus to now [three weeks later],'' says Don Anderson, who teaches drug education, basic morality, and a sort of common-sense psychology for one hour each boot-camp day, ``you'll see different people.''

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