Why are you crying? Answer: 'My life, sir'

Part 1 of a 4 part Series

The Baltimore Sun/December 5, 1999
By Todd Richissin

From: John Morrison

Can beatings turn young thugs into good citizens? To find out, march with Charlie Squad through two Maryland hells. First, there's 'boot camp.' Then, alas, there's 'home.'

Big Savage Mountain -- In boots, military pants, black T-shirts and hats, 14 large men -- all muscles and no hair -- pace a patch of yellowing mountain grass, pounding their fists into open palms and leather gloves. It's induction day for 14 juvenile delinquents at a state-run boot camp in the woods of Garrett County.

Time to beat some kids.

"Here they come!"

Adrenalin is flowing, as if before a prize fight. A blue van turns the corner, lurches and stops. Kids fill every seat. Shackles bind their wrists and ankles.

"Get ready, gentlemen!"

"Kick ass!"

This is not just another boot camp.

In their fight against juvenile crime, Maryland officials have taken to this: meeting violence with violence.

At this boot camp, the Savage Leadership Challenge, perhaps the nation's most violent, it's routine for guards to bust a 15-year-old boy's lip. To bloody noses. To slam kids to the ground and crash down on them with full force for little or no reason.

Starting in October of last year, a Sun reporter and photographer spent five months with a squad of kids at the boot camp and then followed them for nine months after their release, back to their broken homes, drugged-out mothers, absent fathers, dangerous neighborhoods -- to wherever they are now.

It's a year that's supposed to change these kids' lives. One of four things will happen: They will turn their lives around, continue to commit crimes, be locked up again or be killed.

All of them could make it. None of them might. Nothing has worked. Maybe this will.

On this day the guards -- they call themselves tactical officers or TACs -- are breathing fire. One yanks open the van's door. Five rush inside, yelling, snatching kids by their necks and waists, pitching them out to the ground.

"Get off my freakin' van!"

"Get off my freakin' van, punk!"

A TAC grabs Jimmy Phelps, a blue-eyed 17-year-old from Wilkens Avenue in Baltimore, and flings him, still shackled, to the ground.

He's a tough kid who used to smile a lot.

His parents once sold his stereo to buy dope and needles and shoot up in their home. He likes to huff glue and snort heroin, and he has stolen a couple of cars. He expected the camp to be rough, but not like this. Tears cut across his reddened face.

Other TACs grab more kids in shackles and throw them to the ground. Some fly out of the van too quickly and land in a tangled pile. TACs pull them upright into a line, shoulder to shoulder. Almost all are crying.

These are kids you don't want to know.

The 14 wear identical blue sweat pants and sweat shirts, and gray and white Etonic tennis shoes. Ten are black, three are white, one is of mixed race. The youngest is 14 years old, the oldest 17.

They're from all over Maryland -- from Baltimore and Baltimore County, the Eastern Shore, Prince George's and Charles counties -- but they have a lot in common.

Not one comes from an intact family. Almost all have been left to survive on their own. Death, drugs, jail and indifference have claimed so many of their parents.

Only four have fathers active in their lives, and two of these men have been charged with drug offenses. Nine of their 14 mothers abuse alcohol or drugs or both; one's mother is dead.

They are the offspring of the crack and heroin culture that has overtaken large patches of the state.

And until now, they've called the shots. They've been in trouble for almost everything except murder. They're thugs, thieves, robbers, crack pushers, heroin slingers, gun dealers, trouble. Each has been locked up at least three times before.

Among them, they've collected 121 charges, 517 known victims, 13 years of incarceration. They've been in juvenile-detention centers, released, sent back, released again -- in program after program aimed at preventing them from becoming the next wave of adult inmates.

Because of their crimes, it's hard to remember they're so young -- until a kid like Phelps can't stop crying when he talks about his screwed-up life, until he shares a dream he knows will never come true: a job hanging drywall and marriage to a real pretty girl.

A TAC stands behind Phelps, two others on each side. They put their mouths right next to his ears and scream at him.



Boom! He's tackled.

"Respect! I am Sir!" The TAC lies on top of Phelps.

Other TACs pull Phelps out from under him. They set him on his feet and slap their hands on his shoulders, driving him straight down until his knees smack the ground. He holds his cuffed hands in front of him. He looks as if he's praying.


"Phelps, sir!"

Three, four TACs surround other kids. They grab them by the front of their shirts and jerk swiftly up, so the sides of their fists ride into chins. They jab beefy fingers into foreheads, temples, chests.

A TAC singles out Kevin McManus, a baby-faced crack dealer, car thief, robber, would-be tough guy. He stands in line brushing a tear off his cheek with both hands because it is embarrassing to be such a thug and be seen crying like this.

"Did I say you could wipe your eye?"

Boom! A TAC tackles McManus -- all 5 feet 7 inches, 120 pounds and 16 years of him. The TAC, about 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, drives a forearm into the back of McManus' head, pushing his face into the dirt. He jabs a finger into his skull with each word:

"You [jab] will [jab] wipe [jab] your [jab] ass [jab] only [jab] when [jab] I [jab] tell [jab] you [jab] to!

"You are a filthy, f--- criminal, boy."

'Eyes ahead'

Roland "Reno" Scott is 16 and wiry, but strong like steel. He's an orphan. His father died after he got AIDS from a dirty heroin needle, and his mother was a druggie who killed herself driving drunk into the Susquehanna River.

Scott sold crack at a playground on Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore, and he fought a lot and has been locked up in the juvenile justice system more than 300 days. To him, that's just a cost of doing business.

Before he was shipped to the Savage Leadership Challenge, he was at another Western Maryland detention facility, Greenridge Youth Center. He was busted there for stealing a knife from the kitchen and hiding it in his clothing. The TACs know this.

A TAC grabs Scott's shirt. His fist goes up into the boy's chin. He hardly flinches.

"You Scott?"

"Yes, sir!"

"You stole a knife?"

"No, sir!"

Boom! The TAC drives a shoulder into Scott as if he's a tackling dummy. The TAC falls on top of the kid and forces a forearm against his neck.

"You want to pull a knife on someone, pull it on me! I want you to! I'd love for you to! You know why? I don't like you!"

The rules are different now. No more street. No more "yo." For the first time, "sir" and "ma'am" will enter their vocabularies. Discipline. Respect. Order.

If it doesn't work, these kids are liable to end up with the 28,000 inmates in Maryland's adult prisons -- part of a corrections system that costs $779 million a year, plus millions of dollars more to continually add cells.

Juvenile justice programs cost Maryland another $137 million a year. Fifty-five thousand kids came into contact with the juvenile justice system last year. As a group, they racked up almost 13,000 violent acts.

Maryland has a higher rate of juvenile violence than all but two states. FBI projections suggest the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes here and elsewhere will more than double in the next decade.

The Savage boot camp, opened in March 1997 and one of three the state operates in Western Maryland, costs about $130 a day per kid, almost the price of an Inner Harbor hotel room.

Only about 200 kids a year go through the state boot camps, but increasingly in Maryland and across the country they've been seen as a tough-love solution to a wave of juvenile crime that no one seems able to stop.

Among the 14 kids arriving at Savage this day, Darrell Shanklin, from Waldorf in Prince George's County, is one of the bigger ones, 16 years old, 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds, most of him arms and legs. He knows about violence.

His left eye doesn't work right because it got hit with a baseball bat. Most of it is white. The brown part swings around occasionally, like a toy boat on a rough lake, and Shanklin has to point his chin toward his chest to calm the waters or he sees double.

On induction day, this is particularly bad because two of the main rules are "Chin up!" and "Eyes straight ahead!"

A TAC jabs his finger several times into Shanklin's left temple, thumping the damaged nerve. The TAC yells at him.

"Get that eye off of me!"

By this time, only two kids aren't crying. One of them is Michael Taylor.

He is 14, one of the youngest, but he is beefy and almost 6 feet tall. He is from Baltimore. He also knows violence.

Taylor almost died a couple years back when a girl stabbed him deeply enough in the stomach with a steak knife to slice his liver.

When he was 4, Taylor's mother used the rent money to buy crack cocaine, leaving this kid, not yet in kindergarten, to watch his little brother.

"She was doing it real bad because sometimes I remember waking up in the morning and my little brother would be laying next to me, and I would get all mad and start crying because I couldn't go outside."

When he was 5, Taylor's mother was locked up on drug charges. She wrote heartfelt letters from jail about doing better when she got out. He listened to these words at the knee of his grandmother.

His mother got out of jail, did drugs again, got locked back up, got out and went back to crack. Eventually, the family was put out -- everybody's stuff was dumped on the sidewalk -- and Taylor came home from school to find neighbors picking through his belongings.

Taylor took to breaking into cars, smoking weed and selling drugs, and once he flung a teacher across a desk. By 11, he was a lookout for drug dealers. An easy $25 a night, then $75. By his next birthday, he was making $400 for a couple of nights' work selling drugs.

He was locked up, sold drugs again, went back to jail. Just like his mother.

"My whole day was spent selling drugs because the money had me stuck at first. I couldn't stop if I would have tried. I didn't think I would've been able to because that was the most money I ever seen at one time, and it seemed like the girls were coming like water."

At Savage now, he stares ahead. A TAC approaches, goes eyeball-to-eyeball.

Their noses almost touch, the white guard's and the black kid's.

"You're a little drug dealer, ain't you? You're killing your community! You hate black people, don't you?"

Taylor doesn't flinch. "No, sir!"

"You do! You hate black people, don't you?!"

"No, sir!"

Boom! The TAC officer clutches Taylor by his neck, pulls him backward to the ground, flips him onto his stomach. His forearm pushes the boy's face into the grass and dirt, and now there are tears.

"If I say you hate black people, you hate black people!"

He wrestles the kid, still shackled, to his feet.

"Now who do you hate?"

Pieces of dead grass stick to Taylor's cheeks, and his face is a dusty gray from the dirt except where the tears slide down and make dark lines.

"Say it! Who do you hate?"


Deep breath.

Quiet voice.

"I hate black people, sir."

Boom! From 10 yards away, the only black TAC rushes to the kid, tackling him.

"You hate black people? That means you hate me!"

'It's payday'

Finally, after two hours, it's quiet. The kids stand shoulder to shoulder, chins up, all but one eye staring straight ahead at a brilliant blue horizon.

Jeff Graham, in his early 30s and in charge of the camp, approaches the line of kids. He looks like a general inspecting some sorry troops. He is hoarse but still tries to yell.

"Fourteen of you have perpetrated 121 crimes! That's something to be proud of. You friggin' disgust me. You make me sick! But guess what, girls -- it's payday! You want to rob old ladies? You want to steal cars? You want to sell drugs and kill your communities?

"This is what you get!"

These 14 kids are now Charlie Squad. Individually, they're called cadets. Cadet Phelps. Cadet Shanklin. Cadets McManus, Taylor and Scott. No first names.

Alpha Squad was inducted two weeks earlier. Bravo Squad was inducted a week after that. The three squads together are a platoon.

Graham paces from one end of Charlie Squad to the other, sizing up the newest group he and his TACs will try to inject with some discipline.

He explains the rules. The three most important: Cadets will control themselves at all times. They will give 100 percent. Everything out of their mouths will have "ma'am" or "sir" attached to it.

"Do you understand that?"

The kids mumble acknowledgment. But the question was really a cue for the TACS. They rush the kids again. Slam them. Poke them. Scream in their faces. The kids are made to bend down and shake their shackles.

A 17-year-old collapses.


Several TACs grab cups of ice water and whip them at the boy. One sits on his stomach and slaps him in the face.

"Wake up! Wake up!"

They stand him up. He sways as if his feet are planted in concrete and he's in a very strong wind. He is a lousy actor.

When he begins to "faint" again, the TACs grab him, drag him into a building, shower him with his sweats and shoes on.

It's quiet once more. The kids are again side by side. The tears continue. For many of them, this is as controlled as they have ever been, the most respectful they have been.

One kid has a bloody nose. Another has a split lip. One has banged his knee. One is bleeding from the webbing between his fingers. Bruises are forming on all.


Five TACs are assigned to Charlie Squad; four are white, one black, the only black TAC among the 19 at Savage. They're led by Rick Scarpelli, a 29-year-old from Frostburg who listens to military cadence tapes when he drives his pickup truck. He makes $9.58 an hour. He likes to call the kids "darling."

"It's my rules now, darling."

"You got 20 seconds, darling."

"Don't make me take you down, darling."

It's lunchtime. The kids are taken to a chin-up bar. They must complete five each before they can eat. They have chicken, two milks, four pieces of white bread, tater tots, greens, a piece of fruit.

When they've eaten, they're marched to a small gymnasium for haircuts. They're put in chairs, and black garbage bags with holes ripped in them are placed over their shoulders. A TAC with white rub-ber gloves shaves them bald. Then they are issued fatigues and black boots, canteens and rain ponchos.

Scarpelli tells them they will answer to military commands. They will go to bed at 9 o'clock and get up at 5 in the morning.

"There is no escaping the Savage Leadership Challenge, darlings. You will succeed here, and you'll succeed under my rules, not your rules. We are going to make men out of you."

In the gym where the haircuts are given, a woman sits behind a table. She's a drug counselor, but on this day her job is to review files and ask the bald kids a few questions.

Their stories are redundant in their sadness and brutality: Mother shoots up, smokes crack, drinks too much. Father? What's that? Uncle overdosed, dead. Friends shot, some killed.

Haven't been to school in a year. Robbed a pizza man with a sawed-off shotgun. Shot a stickup boy in the legs. Stole cars. I want to go into the military. I want to be an architect. I want to be an oceanographer, but I don't think that will happen. Fourth-grade reading level, third-grade reading level, second-grade reading level, 17 years old.

The TACs continue to yell at the kids while they speak to the woman.

"We'll make a man out of you!"

"Stop those tears! We don't care about your inner child!"


The TACs tell the kids what's in store the rest of the evening. They will learn to fold socks and store their gear. They will take showers -- in and out of the water in 60 seconds. They will hit their bunks and not say a word.

"Do you understand me, darlings?"

Cadet Phelps sits in front of the woman reviewing his file. He tries not to cry, but his face contorts and squeezes out tears. A TAC yells to the woman.

"He's a huffer!"

The TAC grabs him by the shirt, under the chin, stands him up with a clenched fist to the lip. It is already split.

"You know how much I like you? Not at all!"

The TAC pushes Phelps back on the chair.

Phelps answers the questions, tells his story. His eyes are as red as a sunset, his tears like two streams.

Things were OK. Then his parents got hooked on the dope. They'd shoot up in the house and then nod in front of him and his little brother. Divorced now. They got arrested, freed and arrested again. Grandmother couldn't take care of the boys, and they were split up. He lived in a bunch of foster homes.

Then he got arrested, freed and arrested again, just like his parents.

The woman shakes her head.

"Just like your parents."

Who became heroin addicts.

He'd like to be a chef. He doesn't know if he'll make it through this camp. If he does, he's not sure he can make it on the streets without getting locked up again. Money selling dope's too good. And it's tough to kick the weed, ma'am.

He's not bragging, still crying, and says he knows he's done wrong but needs drug rehab -- not this camp.

A TAC officer becomes furious with him, yells at him.

"We are through with the tears! Enough!"

Phelps' bottom lip quivers. Tough kid's a puddle.

"What are you crying about?"


Deep breath.

Quiet exhale.

Cracking voice.

"My life, sir."

Other Parts to this Series:
Part 2 - On graduation day, an illusion of hope
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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