Heads shaved, they march up and down in the hot sun, four by four.
Then it’s their turn for lunch. The men, all dressed in blue denim, march inside for chow, standing at attention while they wait in line.
There are just 10 minutes for lunch, and no talking is allowed. Everyone eats silently.
These inmates at Idaho’s boot camp prison program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution have a powerful incentive to comply with the military-style discipline and rules. It’s something the staff at the prison call “the hammer.”
Each one faces a lengthy prison term if he fails. For those who succeed, it’s 180 days here and then out on probation.
Matthew Willard, a 28-year-old factory worker from Fort Hall, Idaho, made the grade. “I’ve already got my probation recommendation,” he said. “My 180’s up Friday.”
Willard, convicted of child molestation, said the boot camp can be intimidating.
“You’ve got people yelling at you, and you can’t really do anything but just do what they tell you.”
According to judges and prison officials, it also works.
Eighty percent of the inmates who go through the program win probation. Only one in five of those violates their probation and end up returning to prison.
“That’s the program that we all like,” said 1st District Judge James Judd. “For me, it’s oftentimes a chance to give these people a wake-up call, to look at who they really are and where their life’s going. It should have some shock therapy to it, a chance to look at themselves and see if this is really what they want to do.”
Inmates at the Cottonwood program follow an intensive schedule of school classes, substance-abuse counseling, marching and work around the prison grounds. The day starts with a formal flag ceremony at 8 a.m., and programming runs until 9 p.m.
Before the inmates arrive at the boot camp, each is sent to the maximum-security prison in Boise for evaluation. That’s where their heads are shaved, and where the discipline starts.
“It was pretty scary,” Willard said. “You’re out sweeping and mopping the foyer, and you see these guys on Death Row, the guys that are going to be there for years and years and years and years, and it scares you.”
Pam Sonnen, deputy warden at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution, said it’s easy to tell the boot camp inmates from the other prisoners at “the Max,” where all prisoners are sent for evaluation before they’re assigned to institutions.
“They’re scared,” she said.
For most, though they may have been to the county jail or a juvenile center repeatedly, it’s their first experience with prison.
For Dan Van Zandt, a 19-year-old from Caldwell who shot so much methamphetamine that he developed liver problems, the program was an eye-opener. A forgery charge landed him here.
“I got time away from all that stuff to think,” he said. “It’s been probably the healthiest six months I’ve ever spent, not just physically but mentally.”
Van Zandt earned his high school equivalency while serving his time, and said he’s “praying” the judge accepts the recommendation that he be released on probation. If not, he faces two to five years in prison.
At Cottonwood, he said, “If you don’t have discipline, they instill it in you real quick….It gets drilled into you every day.”
He said he’s hoping he can be disciplined enough now to stay away from drugs.
“If I use again, it’s over.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 color photos
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