FORSYTH, GA. — SEVEN scared young men stand rigidly at attention. Their faces are pressed closely to a cold, cement wall. None dares move. None dares look around. All at once, tough-looking guards begin shouting at them: ``Let's go! Move! Move! Get out here! Get going, boy! Line up, boy! Move now, fool!''
The young men - disoriented, confused - rush into a hallway. Guards line them up, backs to a wall. The young men's frightened eyes glance around the prison, uncertain what will happen next.
This is Day 1 of ``shock incarceration,'' a military-style boot camp for young criminals. Georgia, first to test the boot-camp concept in the early '80s, points proudly to the results.
Offenders, age 17 to 25, spend 90 days here - instead of five years in state prison. Most are first-time offenders. This is their chance to start over fresh: If they do well here, their records are wiped clean. But bad behavior can lead to long-term imprisonment.
As growing amounts of illegal narcotics flow across America's borders, the nation's crime rate and prison population are soaring. Federal and state officials, including drug policy director William Bennett, say boot camps like this one could be a way to save young offenders, many guilty of drug dealing, from a life of crime.
But today none of that was on the minds of these seven young offenders in Georgia. Lt. Eddie Cash and Capt. Gary White, officers in the shock program, were giving these young men their first taste of life behind bars.
Captain White presses his face close to one prisoner and shouts:
``Do you think this is a joke, boy? I don't want to see any expression on your face, boy. Do you understand me?''
``Let's get one thing straight - now! You better understand where you are. From this day forward, the first word out of that mouth is `sir,' and the last word out of that mouth is `sir.' Do you understand me?''
``Sir, yes, sir!''
The harangue goes on for over an hour. The men are ordered to strip naked. The guards laugh at their physiques, ridiculing one overweight teen as ``Two Ton.'' They mock their hair styles, their slouchy postures, their moustaches. They make the naked men turn slowly around, and the guards spray them with delouser - then order them into a shower.
Soon the officers focus their attention on one prisoner, a 19-year-old with a long pony tail. Under questioning, the prisoner reveals that back home he has a wife and two children.
``Why are you in prison, boy?''
``Sir, taking something, sir.''
``Motor vehicle, sir.''
``What kind of car you steal?''
``Sir, Pontiac Trans Am, sir.''
``What you gonna do with it, fool?''
``Joy ride, sir.''
``You got a good ride, didn't you?''
``Sir, yes, sir.''
``How long you keep it, boy?''
``Sir, four hours, sir.''
The answer draws jeers from the prison officers.
``Four hours? You're real smart. You better find another line of work, boy. This one's not working out too good. You're settin' a real good example for your kids.''
Does this kind of Marine-style, kick-in-the-face training work?
Georgia officials say yes. These young men are here for serious offenses - assault, drug-dealing, robbery, burglary. For example, the fat boy being harassed by the guards this day was selling drugs - and making $2,000 a week. Yet after 90 days here, two out of three inmates go straight. They get jobs and settle down.
Lieutenant Cash and Captain White are intensely serious about their work and interested in saving these men - though they say they can never afford to show any softness toward them.
``This is our next labor market,'' White explains. ``These are the people coming up that will be running this country, and that's scary. But a lot of these people are talented. If we can try to get all that intelligence channeled in a positive direction, we'll have something.''
The routine is grueling. The 150 men are up at 5 a.m. They clean cells and barracks until 7 a.m. The barracks are spotless. Within each one-man cell, personal belongings are neatly arranged. Beds are made military style. ``We do a little home training, too,'' Lieutenant Cash says.
At 7 a.m., breakfast. Then a full day of strenuous physical labor - breaking rocks, clearing ground, cutting weeds with bush axes, planting trees and grass sod, hauling fertilizer. At midday they break just long enough to eat a bag lunch. By day's end, the men's prison uniforms are covered with dirt and soaked with sweat. But still, the day isn't over.
At 4 p.m., one hour of vigorous calisthenics. The men quickly get lean and hard. One inmate, who was caught selling drugs in Stone Mountain, Ga., says his waist size dropped from 38 inches to 32 inches in just 45 days.
At 6 p.m., the inmates get a free hour - and their only TV of the day. They are limited to PBS programming and news. At night there are educational lectures and films. Lights out at 10 p.m.
For many young men, it's a shock. No radios. No tape decks. No fancy sneakers. And no Cokes or candy bars.
``They don't need 'em. It's not the circus,'' Cash growls.
Cost to the state: $37 a day, per inmate. Or $3,330 for the whole program of 90 days. For many young men, it is the most important educational experience of their lives.
``I didn't know it was going to be like this,'' says Kenneth Carson, convicted of cocaine possession.
``It's tough. It's real scary,'' he says. ``You've gotta keep in line. Do what you're told, and when.''
Some of the young men cry themselves to sleep at night, Carson says. For his part:
``I plan to get into church when I get out of here.''
Not everyone thinks this program is such a great idea. Narcotics agent Horace Waters with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says a better system would be tough, 20-year sentences for drug dealers. If their partners in crime got that kind of sentence, ``they would no longer deal.''
But with prison overcrowding, Georgia doesn't have space to make dealers serve for 20 years. Corrections officers argue that shock makes a good alternative.
David Hughes, an official with the Georgia Department of Corrections, says shock imprisonment saves money - each space serves four inmates a year. And the recidivism rate is about the same as regular prisons, where inmates serve longer terms.
``We try to give them a little taste of prison, a taste they won't want to encounter again,'' Mr. Hughes explains.
One in a series of articles about US border problems.