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Military-Style Camps Teach Responsibility : Prison Provides Shock for N.Y. Women Inmates

Associated Press

Felicita Rodriguez is ready to start her life over.

“I have a future in front of me,” said the 24-year-old resident of New York City’s lower East Side. “A better future.”

That future includes a high school equivalency degree, a job and the chance to raise her two young children properly. Rodriguez said it will not include using or selling drugs, which is what got her into trouble in the first place.

It also got her into state prison.

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“This inmate thinks she can do it,” she said. “I know I’m special now.”

Rodriguez and 14 other women this month became the first female platoon to complete New York state’s shock incarceration program. About 1,400 of the state’s 40,000 prison inmates are women.

While doing their six months at the shock camp, the women followed an intense regime of military drills, manual labor, exercise, remedial education and drug and alcohol counseling. They lost weight, gained some self-respect--and won their freedom earlier than they would have in a traditional prison.

They opted into the program, trading a tough six months in an environment very much like a Marine boot camp for a shorter prison term.

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First-time, nonviolent offenders sentenced to three years or less in prison who complete the shock program are immediately eligible for parole. That means they can cut up to 2 1/2 years off their minimum prison time.

That is good news for the state, whose prisons are so overcrowded that officials recently decided to start housing inmates in prison gymnasiums. And it is very good news for inmates who want to go home early.

“I’m going home and growing my hair,” said Christine Conti, a former cocaine dealer, as she stuffed her possessions in a paper bag and prepared for a ride home to New Jersey. The women in shock camp do not have to shave their heads as closely as the male inmates, but their hair is cut to about collar length.

Conti, 25, said most of the other shock inmates “thought I was crazy” because she liked the running and the strenuous exercise that begins every day at 5:30 a.m. But other aspects of the military life did not sit as well.

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“The worst part is the mess hall,” she said. “I like to talk when I eat. . . . You can’t talk. You can’t even look.”

Supt. Rosetta Burke said the military basis of the shock program teaches the inmates responsibility, discipline and respect, traits most had “very little grounding” in before.

Conti said drug counseling helped her get over a cocaine addiction. Before shock camp, she said, “I wouldn’t have told you I was a drug addict. They taught me how to open up and deal with my problem.”

Other programs taught her she did not “always have to say something about everything.”

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Inmates who do not like the program can transfer back to a regular prison and their longer sentences. Troublemakers are sent back.

The platoon of 15 started out with 25 women six months ago, most of them convicted of drug charges. One woman owes a month because she was hospitalized during her shock term. Another left for medical reasons. Five were kicked out because of disciplinary problems.

Inmates like the three who chose to go back to prison “can’t take it anymore,” said Burke. “They don’t like getting yelled at. They don’t like getting up in the morning. They don’t like the responsibility.

“We don’t let them off the hook.”

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While all of the graduating platoon spoke sincerely of new, brighter futures, the odds are that a few of them will get in trouble again. Shock inmates have a 17% to 19% recidivism rate, Burke said. However, the average prison inmate return rate is 25%.

That improvement--and the millions the state can save through shorter prison terms--has prompted Gov. Mario M. Cuomo to propose raising the current 26-year age cap for shock camp to 29. The shock programs operated by a growing number of states--Louisiana and Mississippi also have graduated classes of women--have attracted the attention of national drug policy chief William J. Bennett, who is interested in it for federal prisons.


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