It's no walk in the woods at prison boot camp

If boxer Spadafora is sentenced to Quehanna, it will be 'yes, sir' and discipline

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John Beale, Post-Gazette
Inmates stand heel-to-tow as they wait to leave the cafeteria at Quehanna boot camp.

KARTHAUS, Pa. -- It's lunchtime at Quehanna Boot Camp, a state prison populated mostly by young drug dealers who used to rule their street corners. Now they control nothing except their tempers.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Drill Instructor Robert MacTavish walks through the barracks-style sleeping quarters as inmates make their beds at the Quehanna boot camp in Karthaus, Clearfield County.
Click photo for larger image.

One inmate in the food line grabs two napkins and places them on his tray. At boot camp, this seemingly innocuous act amounts to insolence. Sgt. John Stewart jumps all over the prisoner.

"How many napkins are you supposed to steal?" Stewart demands.

"One," the startled inmate replies.

"You're not supposed to steal any. You're entitled to retrieve one."

Stewart tells the prisoner he is lucky the media have picked this day for a visit. Otherwise, his tongue lashing would have been worse.

Afterward, Stewart said he initiated the confrontation to make a point: Rules here, like society's laws, are made to be followed.

The 13-year-old boot camp operates in a desolate section of Clearfield County, on property that used to be a dumping ground for nuclear waste. It appears an unlikely place for rebirth, but the state Department of Corrections gambles that most boot camp inmates have the capacity to change their behavior for the better.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Drill Sgt. John Stewart exercises with inmates during physical training.
Click photo for larger image.

Some 3,300 prisoners, ranging in age from 16 to 35, have "graduated" from the boot camp since its inception. As a group, they have committed fewer crimes and been reincarcerated less often than other parolees.

About 44 percent of the boot camp's parolees between 1997 and 2003 got into trouble with the law again, compared with 53 percent of those who were released from traditional Pennsylvania prisons.

Even with its above-average record, the boot camp recently has been ensnared in controversy, all because of a prisoner who has yet to spend a day there.

It happened after an Allegheny County judge recommended that former world lightweight boxing champion Paul Spadafora serve his sentence at boot camp instead of prison. Spadafora pleaded guilty to second-degree assault for shooting his girlfriend in the chest during a drunken rage.

Editorial writers, columnists and ordinary citizens complained that sending Spadafora to boot camp for a violent crime was leniency at its worst.

If the state Department of Corrections accepts the judge's recommendation, Spadafora would serve six months in boot camp instead of 21 to 60 months in prison. He is being evaluated at Camp Hill prison, where a staff of physicians, psychologists and corrections administrators will decide where to incarcerate him.

Should Spadafora be admitted to boot camp, he will find the program anything but a cakewalk, Quehanna program director Tom Aaron said.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Drill Sgt. John Stewart, left, disciplines inmates as Drill Instructor Robert MacTavish, right, looks on at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' Quehanna Boot Camp.
Click photo for larger image.

"Do you think Sergeant Stewart cares that Spadafora has never lost a fight?" Aaron said. "That won't make it easy for him here."

The public perception of boot camp is that it relies on a punishing physical regimen to try to turn felons into law-abiding citizens. In truth, the physical component is the least important part of the program, staff members say.

A criminal does not even have to be in decent shape to land in boot camp. Aaron has seen young men draped in baby fat drop more than 100 pounds in their six-month stay. But even in those cases, the boot camp focused more on improving their minds than eliminating their flab.

One requirement of boot camp is that high school dropouts must study a full load of academic courses to try to obtain a General Equivalency Diploma.

One-third of the 235 inmates now in the boot camp did not graduate from high school. They spend six hours a day in a classroom, studying algebra and geometry, grammar and composition. White shirts and black neckties are their prison uniform when they are in class. Each time they speak, they must address their teachers and everybody else as "sir" or "ma'am."

About 75 percent who go through the academic program at boot camp pass the equivalency test and are paroled with a diploma.

Spadafora, 29, quit high school 13 years ago. Like it or not, he would be forced back into the classroom if he is admitted to boot camp.

In addition to his academic load, he would join every other inmate in counseling on addictive behavior. Most prisoners in boot camp are alcoholics or drug addicts. Those who say they are not dependent on chemicals often committed their crimes while drunk or high, so camp administrators make the counseling mandatory for everybody.

Spadafora publicly admitted in December that he is an alcoholic. He also tested positive for cocaine while free on bail last year.

Though Spadafora's addictions make him typical of boot camp inmates, his crime, assault with a handgun, does not.

Seventeen prisoners now at boot camp were convicted of assault. A total of 176 committed drug crimes, mostly dealing.

The camp's administrators allowed five inmates to be interviewed for this story, provided that their last names were not published. Four readily admitted they are addicted to alcohol, drugs or both.

Peter, 20, ended up in boot camp after stealing a large quantity of alcohol to feed his addiction.

"I was drunk when I did it," he said. "I was going to have a party."

DuBre, 31, a drug dealer, was equally candid about his crimes.

"I was selling cocaine. I made a lot of bad choices," he said.

DuBre is the father of seven children. Now married to the mother of his youngest, he hopes to join his wife in Georgia after completing boot camp.

He claims his drill instructors, teachers and "teammates," the term for fellow prisoners, have humbled him.

He must rise at 5:15 a.m. each day. Marching, exercise, work details and counseling sessions fill his day. At 9:30 p.m., the lights go out. DuBre sleeps in a barracks with about 40 other male prisoners. (Three female inmates are housed in separate quarters).

Boot camp is a long way from the nights of parties that used to consume DuBre. In those days, women and cocaine were always within easy reach. For all the harshness of boot camp, he knows it is better than prison.

"No one in a regular jail is going to care if you learn something," he said.

The boot camp has no armed guards patrolling its perimeter, no razor wire and no fences. In 13 years, one inmate has escaped, a self-destructive move considering that he would have been freed in six months.

Eighty-six percent of those who start boot camp complete it. The rest cannot handle the school work, the orders or the in-your-face style of correctional officers such as Stewart. Those inmates opt for prison, where their sentences are longer, but they can sleep in and classes may run an hour a day instead of six.

Stewart, a former Marine, worked for three years as an officer at the state prison in Huntingdon. His job there, he said, was "warehousing" inmates. Stewart said the cynical motto of staff members at Huntingdon was "eight and the gate," put in your time and leave.

He transferred to a job at the boot camp 12 years ago and felt rejuvenated. Stewart said the chances of reforming inmates in boot camp are much better than in a prison.

A former commander nicknamed the boot camp "house of hope." To a person, staff members say they still see it that way.

The boot camp's 184 employees are overwhelmingly white. About half of the inmates are black and 20 percent are Hispanic. Race, though, is almost never mentioned. Being able to work with everybody, regardless of skin color or background, is a staple of boot camp.

Steve, 25, a heroin dealer from North Philadelphia, said the staff intentionally pairs up inmates who do not get along. For him, he said, the hardest part of being incarcerated was adjusting to his "teammates," some of whom were skilled at taunting.

Steve is less than two months away from completing boot camp. Married and the father of four, he said he intended to make an honest living in the Philadelphia suburbs when he is freed.

Every boot camp inmate talks about going straight. Staff members say they no longer bother trying to figure out which ones mean it.

They were disappointed by Brandyn Seabreeze, who seemed like one of the boot camp's most promising inmates. He worked hard and followed orders without complaint. Aaron thought Seabreeze would stay out of trouble after he was paroled in May.

That's not the way it turned out.

Seabreeze, 22, was arrested last month and charged with committing 20 robberies in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. If convicted, he will go to prison, where state judges seem to be sending more young criminals.

Quehanna boot camp is built for 400 inmates and has housed as many as 340. Today, it has about 100 fewer than it did at its peak.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who recommended Spadafora for boot camp, said he believed in the program. Manning said Spadafora could help himself and the boot camp, or give it a black eye by failing.

For good or bad, he told the boxer at his sentencing, "You can be the poster boy of boot camp."


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.


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