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Get Drill-Sergeanted

What felons learn from boot camp.

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Illustration: Andy Martin  

L ast month, at a gym outside Monterey, New York, 24 men graduated from a six-month program intended, in the words of one of the program’s staffers, to make them “stop being knuckleheads.” The men’s lack of inner peace had led them to do things like dealing drugs, stealing cars, and beating people up, and they chose the program in lieu of longer stints in jail. Monterey is one of New York’s four Shock Incarceration facilities, which incorporate substance-abuse programs, academics, and behavioral frameworks like “The Five Steps of Decision-Making” into a military-style environment. Inmates wake at 5:30 a.m., bathroom and shower breaks are four minutes long, and each day includes marching drills and demanding exercise. We asked three recent graduates what they learned:

THOMAS S., 20, Long Island, arrested for possession of cocaine in his dorm room.
“The biggest thing is self-discipline. Before this, I had some discipline—it takes some to sell coke and still get decent grades. But I was also using and drinking. I’d start at, like, 5 p.m. on Friday and go straight through to Sunday. I was addicted to the feeling of power, to walking around with thousands of dollars in my pocket. Here they teach you the Five Steps: See the situation clearly; know what you want; expand your possibilities; evaluate and decide; act. Before, I just skipped one through four and went right to ‘act.’ I’d been to regular rehab before and it didn’t work. This probably saved my life.”

RYAN R., 18, Brooklyn, arrested for robbery.
“When I got here I was like, ‘I’m going to go through it but not really change my ways.’ I was using drugs and alcohol, and I didn’t even want to change. They taught me I can’t live that way, that I have to take advice and criticism because I won’t be successful all by myself. Mostly they taught me to take responsibility. It’s crazy because you don’t think of getting sent away as being good for you, but for me getting sent here kind of was.”

STANLEY C., 20, Westchester, arrested for selling crack.
“It’s amazing how they break you down and then build you back up here. At first, I was like, ‘Send me back to prison, I’d rather do my time chilling in a cell.’ I hated having these drill instructors in my face screaming, making me duckwalk for an hour or two if I messed up. But then I started really thinking about the Five Steps. For me, probably number three was the biggest. Expanding your possibilities—this idea that you could look at something in more than one way. Like, say you want a new TV for Christmas, but you’re broke. Okay, what can I do? Rob, ask my mom or my girlfriend for it, or go work to make extra money to buy it. Before, I would only think of the first two. Now I’d think about working for it. Or maybe even that I don’t need that TV.”


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