Polk County Gives the Boot to Juvenile Boot Camp

Entrance to Polk County STAR Camp
BARTOW -

For the 'students' at the Polk County Sheriff's Training and Respect facility, after the get out of regular school, going to their rooms to study comes with a whole new set of rules.

SOUND: Sir! Yes, Sir! followed by sound of doors slamming.

There's no TV, no radio, no hanging out with friends. Polk County Sergeant Alvin Mitchell:

SGT. MITCHELL: They start doing ironing uniforms, polishing boots, study hall periods where they start their homework. Also they'll probably get into making some phone calls at home, working on some of their journal issues, some of their therapy issues, some issues that that they've been having at home, family issues, you name it.

These teens have been busted for a variety of offenses, including dealing cocaine, methamphetamine or packing a pistol during a holdup.

But this isn't boot camp. The state's juvenile offender program fell out of favor after the death of Martin Lee Anderson. He died at the age of 14 after being beaten by guards at the Panama City boot camp. Governor Bush recently signed a bill doing away with the camps, and replacing them with STAR, or the Sheriff's Training and Respect program.

It's a softer, gentler version of the old system. The new law is supposed to have safeguards, including bans on certain types of restraints and the use of ammonia tablets. It also emphasizes counseling and aftercare over shouting.

SOUND: Water in outside fish tank.

The camp includes a garden, nursery, greenhouse and aquaculture farm. Eighteen-year-old Odell works in the camp's fish tanks, filled with carp and perch.

ODELL: Here, we have a hydroponics tank. And the fish waste from here, it fertilizers the plants, and we make cuttings from the greenhouse, the shade house, it's like a cycle, and we just keep it going.

REPORTER: Did you ever do anything like this before you were incarcerated? ODELL: Sir, no sir. Despite me being incarcerated Sir, I'm proud to be a part of this, sir. This is like a one-in-a-million place where we get to do things like this. After I finish this in September, I have a certificate that I know about water quality. I can go anywhere - like Sea World - anywhere that water quality is involved in.

REPORTER: How come you're here? ODELL: Selling cocaine and possession of a firearm at age 16-17. And I was once in the county jail. And I look at this as another chance. Because I could be in prison, you know?

There are only four camps remaining in the state. They're in Manatee, Pinellas, Martin, and the largest, here in Polk County. Polk is in the process of transitioning to STAR, and Sheriff Grady Judd says it's not just the same old boot camp with a new name. He says the boot camp component is only 20 percent of their program.

JUDD: Eighty percent was education, religious component, socialization components, psychological components, one-on-one therapy. And quite frankly, we had to make very few changes to make our boot camp program into a STAR program, because it was a holistic program, looking at the entire offender.

Judd says he would have had to shut down the camp by July 1, if state lawmakers had not increased funding by 20 percent for the remaining boot camps. He credits State Representative Joe Negron of Stuart, who chairs the House appropriations committee. Negron toured the facility last week.

NEGRON: I didn't want to eliminate all the boot camp programs - as some were calling for - because they're turning around kids. You don't wind up at a boot camp because for the first time you took something out of a store. These are kids who have repeatedly failed to follow the rules, have little respect for authority... so I think the new STAR academies are going to be an important part of giving young people an opportunity to turn their lives around.

Negron says it's too early to tell if the STAR transition has worked.

NEGRON: I think we have set out clear procedures in statute that say this is what you can do, this is what you can't do. And everyone's agreed that this is appropriate. And that is what we tried to do. If those are followed , that will prevent future abuses.

When asked if he's noticed any differences in STAR from the old boot camp, one sixteen-year-old named Ivory said 'not really. ' But he said 'no,' when asked if he thought the fate of Martin Lee Anderson could be repeated here.

IVORY: The way the staff are here, it's different. They try to work with you on your issues, on your problems, if you're having depression problems or anger problems, they sit you down and they talk to you. They counsel you. It's not like they're forcing you to do the program. They work with you through the program at every phase, and that's how the cadets become more comfortable talking to the staff about their issues.

Fourteen students graduated from the program last week. Sheriff Judd says it's likely that at least 60 percent of them never see the inside of a jail again.

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