On graduation day, an illusion of hope

Part 2 of a 4 part Series

The Baltimore Sun/December 6, 1999
By Todd Richissin

From: John Morrison

Charlie squad: Violence at boot camp? Reports are in state files, but officials profess to know nothing. Meanwhile, Charlie Squad gets 'slammed,' 'necked' and 'smoked.'

Big Savage Mountain -- Derrick Horrey snaps to attention in the gymnasium of the Savage Leadership Challenge, just as he plans to snap to attention a few days later in the Marines.

In razor-creased fatigues, he and 13 other teen-agers stand shoulder to shoulder in two rows, backs straight, chins up, arms down, thumbs precisely at the seams of their pants. They hardly resemble the young thugs they were a little more than 20 weeks ago.

Horrey had been a crack dealer, like a lot of the other kids at this state boot camp for delinquents. They whipped strangers across the head for a buck, dealt dope on playgrounds, stole guns from houses and cars from streets, huffed glue in alleys, smoked weed wherever.

No more, they say.

Twenty weeks of body slams, fists to chins, a lot of bruises and a bit of blood spilled at the hands of guards hired by Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice apparently can change some kids.

Problem is, in a matter of hours these juvenile delinquents will not be under the drill they've faced at this camp in the woods of Garrett County.

Horrey will return to a home with no father and a mother who keeps getting locked up for drugs, fighting and prostitution. Jimmy Phelps will return to a mother with a taste for heroin, and Michael Taylor to a mother who lost him to crack.

Darrell Shanklin, Kevin McManus -- and the 12 other cadets known as Charlie Squad -- will again face the corners, the needles, the weed, the girls, the money and the despair.

Today, though, there is hope.

It's graduation day, a day of promises by the kids and by the state workers trying to set them straight. Horrey, camp guards promise, is going into the Marines.

One by one, the young men march across the gymnasium in a crisp military gait and puff their chests before a wobbling microphone. They look out at 11 rows of folding chairs, which hold few family members but a lot of dignitaries in suits.

The kids read speeches and vow to change. They thank their mothers and grandmothers, teachers, guards, each other and the Lord.

"I'd like to thank my tactical officers for helping me change my life."

"I get to start my life over, with a clean slate."

"I'll never let anyone crush my dreams."

Phelps, who went from ballplayer to glue sniffer and heroin snorter, swears he's over those dark days.

Shanklin, who never gave up the nine guns he stole on the outside, promises to go straight.

Roland "Reno" Scott, who set up shop daily slinging crack from a playground on Baltimore's Greenmount Avenue, says he's finished.

McManus, baby-faced car thief and crack dealer, plans to go legit, too.

And Taylor will never hurt anybody again.

If they don't keep these promises, these kids -- none 18 when they arrived at camp -- are next in line for Maryland's prisons and graveyards. If they weren't juveniles, most of them already would be doing at least 25 years in adult prison.

This boot camp is like many others that have sprung up around the country, except that it is perhaps the most violent. At Savage, the state meets violence with violence.

Charlie Squad arrived at the camp more than a year ago for a 20-week stay, 121 charges among the 14 kids. The Sun has been with them since, through Savage and back onto the streets of Baltimore, Baltimore County, the Eastern Shore, and Prince George's and Charles counties.

Savage -- where guards regularly tackle and punch kids -- is dedicated to one thing: breaking and remolding them. It is to be followed by something the state Department of Juvenile Justice calls "maximum supervised probation."

For Charlie Squad, it has been a long 138 days, but at least at this graduation ceremony the kids say they've changed. Getting there hasn't been easy.

'What have we done?'

Go back 20 weeks before the March graduation: It is 5 o'clock in the morning on Day 2 of the Savage Leadership Challenge.

"Wake up, darlings!

"It wasn't a nightmare! It wasn't a dream! You're still here!"

Electricity ripples from the five guards or TACs, short for tactical officers. Acting like commandos taking out terrorists, they burst upon the sleeping cadets, two to a bunk bed.

A scratchy version of reveille blasts from a speaker. TACs yank Phelps from a top bunk, rip Taylor from a lower bunk, fling all the kids, slit-eyed and stunned, into the hallway, slamming them against cinder-block walls.

"Don't make me take you down!"

"Yesterday was the easiest day you're ever going to have here!"

The previous day, induction day, the TACs threw the kids out of a van to the ground, punched them, sat on them, pushed them around, reduced them all to tears.

At Savage, this is business as usual. Three weeks into the camp, a TAC pushes Phelps into a storage area and bounces him from wall to wall. Others are regularly punched. In two other squads, kids are kicked. TACs push a kid into a window, breaking it.

Ken Craddock -- a 28-year-old TAC from Cumberland and a hard-core Christian with a hard-core crew cut -- has come to accept the violence. He can snap from aw-shucks friendly to a flashing rage in the seconds it takes a cadet to roll out of bed.

His brother went bad, just like these kids he hopes to save, Craddock says. They need discipline, he says.

"The first time I did an induction, when it was finished, I went straight to my church and started bawling. I was like, 'Oh, my God, what have we done to these kids?' But what's the alternative? You send them loose back to their communities and let them get shot -- or shoot someone else?"

But in Baltimore, 150 miles away in his sixth-floor office, Gilberto de Jesus, secretary of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice, says he knows nothing about kids being slammed at Savage, or slapped, or punched. Meeting violence with violence? No way, he says.

TACs are supposed to touch kids only when necessary, he says, and it's necessary only if the kids won't listen, if they threaten someone's safety.

De Jesus, a 47-year-old former federal prosecutor appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1997, has never been to a boot camp induction. He says he doesn't know of such incidents as McManus and the other kids being thrown shackled and cuffed from a van on induction day.

"There are occasions when they exit the bus and they're screamed at," de Jesus says. "If what is happening is they're getting physically slammed on the ground, to me that's crossing the line."

When there are allegations of abuse at the state's three boot camps, they're immediately investigated, he says. Two guards from Savage have been fired for excessive force since 1997, one of them in September after a Sun reporter interviewed de Jesus for this series and asked him about violence at Savage.

But documents obtained by The Sun show that kids at Savage and another state boot camp have reported dozens of beatings by guards -- and these reports were prepared for de Jesus.

Among the incidents: kids bleeding "profusely" from punches by guards, one kid elbowed in the face with enough force to break a tooth, another pushed around in a circle of guards with a hood pulled over his head, and another whose head was banged into the ground until his eyes swelled.

Nowhere else in the nation -- says Doris MacKenzie, a University of Maryland professor of criminology who studies boot camps around the country -- are guards permitted to be as violent with their charges as observed by a reporter and photographer at Savage.

"The Maryland situation is beyond what I've witnessed anywhere else and even beyond what people have told me goes on elsewhere," MacKenzie says. "I've witnessed a lot of yelling close up in their face, some holding of arms, directing them, but to actually push them down to the ground isn't something I've heard of."

Boot camps like Savage gained popularity after Louisiana opened one for juveniles in 1985. The politics worked like this: Fixing broken families is complicated. Drug rehab for kids doesn't fly. Inner-city schools? Who can fix them? So that left the popular sentiment that delinquents shouldn't be coddled. Politicians seized on it, setting up about 30 such camps across the nation.

In Maryland, after Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was tapped in 1994 as Glendening's running mate for lieutenant governor, Glendening announced that she would be his "point person" on juvenile justice issues. Townsend has repeatedly held up boot camps as one of the keys to reducing juvenile crime.

The state had boot camps before Glendening and Townsend -- at least in name -- but the last closed in 1996. Savage and the other two Western Maryland camps began opening a year later with a much harsher approach: Break the kids down, build them up.

In an interview in mid-October, Townsend said she doesn't know anything about violence by guards at Savage: "We very much believe we should treat kids with respect and discipline should be appropriate. We want to make sure that kids learn the right way to handle anger."

But Paul DeMuro, a Montclair, N.J., consultant who advises states on reducing juvenile crime, says boot camps are nothing more than a political sham, fraught with dangers: "The simple story is boot camps don't work. Worse, they set up situations where violence happens between staff and kids.

"Look, to change a kid's behavior, you have to gain trust. How do you gain trust when you yell and scream and demean a person and maybe do worse? It goes against everything that makes common sense."


Sitting in front of a hazy blue computer screen, his chin touching his chest so that his wandering eye doesn't cause him to see double, Shanklin practices to take the high school equivalency exam.

The Savage Leadership Challenge is not all about violence. Schooling, military training and drug counseling begin the day after induction, and wilderness marches and camping are added as the kids progress.

Such activities would be almost impossible with any degree of order at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School or Cheltenham Youth Center, Maryland's two big traditional detention facilities for juveniles. Hickey and Cheltenham are chronically overcrowded and understaffed. There, the kids may as well be in charge.

Jeff Graham runs Savage and the similar camps at Backbone Mountain and Meadow Mountain. He makes no apologies for putting hands on kids. He says the physical part of the Savage experience is crucial. But, Graham says, abusive TACs are disciplined.

"The name of our game is confrontation, intimidation, rehabilitation. There's no room for someone punching a kid. If we find out about that, there's discipline handed out. That kind of behavior is what kills boot camps.

"But we need to totally break them down. It's the only way to get their attention. You go to the other camps and you'll see the kids mouthing off; there's no respect whatsoever. They don't mouth off here."

At Savage, kids answer their teachers with "Sir!" They attend school in a trailer for 20 hours a week, sitting at attention. If they don't listen, at least they aren't disrupting others trying to learn.

They're not drunk or high, or carrying guns or robbing others. They're not at home where some of their mothers are rinsing dirty needles with Clorox, preparing for the next blast.

McManus, for one, no longer sells crack, steals cars or bashes people over the head for money. But like many others in Charlie Squad, he's still in more trouble than he realizes. At 16, he's a ninth-grade dropout who reads on a second-grade level.

Ed Bever, his teacher, has his work cut out for him.

"We'll try to get him up a grade level or two, but we know there's only so much we can do in 20 weeks," Bever says shortly after induction day. "We give it our best and hope they have some desire to learn. The problem is, then we have to send them back to their old schools."

With no chance of passing his high school equivalency test, McManus studies all 20 weeks at Savage. He struggles. With such poor reading skills, it's tough for him to get through history or geography.

But a few kids -- like Shanklin, bright but with a habit of doing stupid things -- will take the GED test before leaving. At graduation, four cadets, including Shanklin, will receive these diplomas.

On average, the 14 kids in Charlie Squad increase their reading skills more than a full grade in only 20 weeks, Bever says. That never happened to these kids at their neighborhood schools.

Mostly, though, the victories are little: A kid gets a perfect score on a spelling test. Another gets praise for helping a fellow cadet with his math homework. McManus can now read a third-grade book.

'Breaking down'

Charlie Squad is told to write letters home, but the kids also are told that the TACs will read these letters. Moreover, there had better be no mention of their being touched -- or they'll get even more of it.

Shanklin writes in different parts of his letter the words "hello," "emergency," "call" and "provide." He darkens one letter in each word. Together, the letters spell "H-E-L-P."

Most of the kids are stunned the TACs would put their hands on them.

It's not right, they say. Got to be illegal.

What's lost on them is this: They are thugs. They've beaten people, robbed them at gunpoint, sold drugs to children, broken into houses, stolen firearms, thrown teachers across desks.

But this? Got to be illegal.

Rick Scarpelli, the leader of Charlie Squad's TACs during these 20 weeks, keeps the pressure on. Inspecting his delinquents, he finds them lacking:

"Charlie Squad will not lower itself to these kinds of standards! On the blacktop, darlings!"

So the kids are "smoked," made to bear crawl, run in place, hit the ground on their backs, flip to their stomachs, up to a run, on their backs, on their stomachs, 20 push-ups, up to run, over and over. Kids who mess up are made to hold logs or railroad ties over their heads while marching.

More than once, TACs tear the kids' rooms apart. Out of the blue, they flip mattresses, rip clothes from lockers, overturn chests of toiletries.

TAC officer Craddock gives the cadets a half-hour to put their rooms back in order. "You are an embarrassment! We will not put up with standards that are anything but the best!"

Craddock says different when the kids aren't around. "We were amazed at how good the rooms looked. But we'll never tell them that."

This, he says privately, is part of the "breaking down" process.

As the kids are smoked, Shanklin, a big kid with the left eye he can't control, begins to cry. Craddock grabs him by the back of the neck, pushes him to his stomach.

"We do not shed tears here! We shed sweat! You want to be a man, you have to act like a man!"

Shanklin's mother found out four years ago she has multiple sclerosis. She speaks slowly and slightly slurred, walks shakily with a cane, smiles big, laughs a lot, is kind and loves her son.

His grandmother, a schoolteacher in Prince George's County, is battling cancer but worries more about her grandson than her disease. His father split before he was born, and these women have raised him since.

He refers to them as "my parents."

They have spent days crying, hoping boot camp will change him. His grandmother, Lucille Shanklin, is 63 and often works two jobs. Her poor health and frequent exhaustion cause her to sit on a kitchen chair and reach up to the sink when she does the dishes.

A month before induction day at the camp, her grandson broke into a house and stole some guns. She came home from work to find cops at her rented split-level.

"There were four men there, and two of them were just tearing up his room. They were in civilian clothes, but when I saw all four had guns on them, I knew they were police. They said he was trying to sell drugs and he broke into a house and stole some guns. When he came home, they automatically put the cuffs on him."

Tears slide down her cheeks, and Darrell's mother, Pamala, begins to weep as well.

What's a mother to do? What can a grandmother do? We try, Lord knows we try, they say, but the trouble is everywhere, on so many corners, in so many houses where the kids are running the show. Can't keep Darrell locked up all day at home, you know?

When this kid was cuffed, the cops asked his grandmother what she wanted done with him.

"I told them I want to see him go to boot camp. I wanted him to go somewhere where he would really have to open his eyes. I've told him: 'It used to be a good fistfight to settle things, and that was it. Now it's a knife or a gun.' So I told them to take him to boot camp. There's not a day goes by I don't wonder if it was the right thing to do.

"But I think if he wasn't there, we could be looking down at him right now."

Craddock gets off Shanklin, who remains on the ground, cheek to the blacktop. The TAC pulls the kid's arms behind his back.

"You should be saying: 'Nobody is going to beat me. Today is the day I change my life.' You should be jumping for joy inside!"

The tears continue. Craddock puts his lips close to Shanklin's ear.

Quietly: "Don't let me beat you, son. Be strong."

'Building up'

Tonight is "recovery class." It's like an Alcoholics Anonymous class, and it's only for cadets with a drug or alcohol problem.

Everybody in Charlie Squad has a drug or alcohol problem.

The goal here is to get these kids to change their thinking, to control their anger, to give them a reason to stay off the drugs when they're released. To accomplish that, once a week they receive two hours of group drug counseling.

They meet in the camp gym. The substance abuse teacher is Lisa Cather, a recovering alcoholic who used to be fond of weed and wants to help kids. She and the kids put school desks in a circle.

"We're going to get in touch with your feelings here.

"One of our past cadet's working at UPS making $8.50 an hour!

"This one cadet? At McDonald's now. But you know what? He's not just working there -- he's going to be a manager!"

She asks them to level with her. It's the only way she can help. When a Charlie Squad cadet -- Michael Spence, a 15-year-old armed robber from Salisbury -- says he still feels as if he could pull a gun on someone, a TAC in the room smokes him.

McManus tells her that he's frustrated with the program. It's all marching, getting up early, always getting yelled at and slammed. His father went to prison eight years ago on drug charges. He's to be released just a couple of weeks before his son graduates from boot camp, having answered for selling crack.

"My grandmother, she done told me if I didn't watch it, I'd be locked up when he gets out, and look what happened. I get out of here, I ain't ever getting locked up again. I can't take this locked up."

Horrey says his neighborhood, West Baltimore, was killing him. If he doesn't go into the Marines, he says, he's not sure how he'll handle all the temptations back home. He's about to turn 18 and knows more trouble will mean real trouble.

Cather encourages him and the others.

"You've got to take it one day at a time. Life is not a bowl of cherries.

"You're the outcasts of society. We're trying to bring you back into society.

"You say you want to improve -- well, you need to practice what you preach."

The constant threat, the reality, of being slammed or necked -- pulled backward by the neck to the ground by TACs -- remains. But as time goes on, the TACs touch the kids less often. Some of the tension leaves. The kids go on hikes and a camping trip, learn to rappel a tower, navigate an obstacle course.

This is the "building up" phase, says Graham, who runs the camp and who constructed much of the obstacle course with his own hands.

"You try to get their confidence up, show them they can do things they didn't think they could do," he says. "We're rough on them, but now we have them where they're listening, and they're hearing that they can do something."

The kids seem to be getting stronger, but the TACs know they are masterful manipulators. They know some of them are putting up a front and intend to return to hustling at the first opportunity.

Scott, the 16-year-old whose father died from AIDS and whose mother drove into the Susquehanna River, is typical. He's attacked people, dealt crack. At 5-foot-6, 130 pounds, he can do more than 90 push-ups, more than any of the TACs. His head is far harder, too.

Halfway through the program he is on kitchen duty. He steals some bread, breaks it and forms two cubes. When it goes stale, he draws dots on the cubes. He starts a game of dice in his room, the kids betting the $1 a week the state pays them.

As they have most of their lives, the kids have set their own rules, which they keep from the TACs.

One of them is this: All beefs will be taken care of behind a dumpster. Scott and another Baltimore kid are ready to go at it, but they're too smart to fight in front of a TAC. That would mean a slamming, or worse.

Instead, they volunteer to take garbage out from the kitchen, then scrap for a few minutes behind the dumpster and return to work. Other kids do it, too.

Nobody snitches on nobody.

'Stroking them'

The last day at Savage, graduation day, is filled with promises -- by the kids and by the Department of Juvenile Justice. The kids say they'll do their best. The department says it's going to give them lots of help.

Once back on the street, they're to be tested for drugs. They'll meet twice a week with a probation officer and once a week for drug and alcohol rehab or counseling.

How to return to their neighborhoods and their families -- which helped mess them up in the first place -- without slipping backward? On paper, the state's answer is lots of probation programs.

The kids are upbeat about leaving, giving the camp mixed reviews.

Phelps says he didn't need the dumb program. He just needed drug rehab.

Shanklin's glad to be going home but says he'd probably be in some real trouble had he not been marching in the hills.

McManus says over and over that he'll never be locked up again.

Scott says it didn't change him, because he didn't need to change.

Taylor says he's not only reformed, he's downright mannerly, sir.

And Horrey fears returning to Baltimore. He wants to go into the Marines straight from camp. But that can't be done, the TACs say. Just go home for the weekend, and someone will pick you up next week.

In the gymnasium, the 14 kids stand before a total of 28 family members at their graduation ceremony. Nobody's there for Scott or McManus.

But 34 TACs and dignitaries are present, as are 28 new and unwilling recruits who have just begun their time at the Savage Leadership Challenge.

The graduating cadets' speeches were approved by the TACs. Phelps makes up another speech, full of sarcasm, which he will not share with the TACs.

Before the ceremony, he deadpans privately: "I'd like to thank my TACs for beating the s--- out of me. You've rehabilitated me into a fine young man.

"Oh, yeah, I'll be stroking them. I should change the whole speech on them. What are they going to do, neck me in front of everybody?"

Other Parts to this Series:
Part 1 - Why are you crying? Answer: 'My life, sir'
Part 3 - A quick transition from 'Sir!' to 'Yo!'
Part 4 - After more than a year, where are the former cadets now?

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