Inside boot camp: Does the alternative to incarceration work? - KMSP-TV

Inside inmate boot camp: Does the alternative to incarceration work?

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Their day starts before 6:00 a.m. with the barking of a drill instructor and an exercise regimen that brings discipline and fitness to young men who may not have had any in their lives before now.

"They're in here to get a second chance fortunately enough for them, the judge did see something in them that they felt perhaps this sentence would better serve them in rehabilitating them, rather than sending them to a state penitentiary," boot camp Director John Harrington says.

Only non-violent offenders can qualify for the program.

"This program is more geared towards people who are still within the range of folks that can be helped," Sheriff Tom Dart explains.

The sheriff's department says the 3-year recidivism rate for boot camp inmates is about 20 percent compared to the national average for regular inmates which is about 67 percent.

Accused park shooter, Bryon Champ, may not have learned his lesson in boot camp, but Sheriff Tom Dart says there are no givens in any program. 

"In the correctional world, the greatest chance of succeeding is if you're in this program, the fact that someone did not succeed here, those things do occur," Dart continues.

23-year-old Hector Vargas and 23-year-old Hassan Brewer are part of a platoon set to graduate October 24th.

"I got my GED across the street in Cook County Jail, and that's what opened the doors to actually get into boot camp," Vargas says.

The year-long program starts with four months of military style boot camp, where the inmates are in custody in a special wing of the jail officially called the Vocational Rehabilitation Impact Center.

These young men have the chance to learn skills that can translate into real jobs when they get out. For Hassan Brewer, that means barber school.

"So now I feel like me having this barber program and going to school is gonna make me focus and have something positive to do," Brewer tells FOX 32.

Inmates also learn skills such as computer recycling and deconstruction, along with cooking, carpentry and urban farming. The garden is where Hector Vargas spends several hours every day.

"Sounds kinda corny, but I would like to open a big garden and be able to produce food for people who are in need," Vargas says of his future.

Marquell Boyd is in the second phase of the program--eight months of what amounts to probation where the inmates are released from the jail, but have to check in regularly. Boyd works in the garden as a full-time employee of Windy City Harvest, making nine bucks an hour.

"Working this job means working here I know I got a steady paycheck," Boyd says. "I don't have to worry about nobody robbing me, nobody wanting to shoot me, take my money from me or anything."

It's a drastic change from the drug dealing lifestyle that got him in trouble in the first place.

The boot camp also includes classes designed to help the men handle problems differently.

Marquell Boyd says it's changed his life.

Asked about how he feels about himself now, Boyd responds: "Oh, quite happy, quite happy because I got a daughter, I raise my daughter, I'm a single father so, I look in the mirror every night and I see myself as being, hey, from nothing to something. I made it."

The shooting last month that wounded 13 people at a Chicago park put the Cook County jail's boot camp program in the spotlight--and not a good one. One of the alleged gunmen had gone through the program after being charged with a weapon's violation, raising questions about who is allowed in the boot camp and just how effective it is.

The program's high-profile failure, Bryon Champ jumped at the opportunity for boot camp, pleading guilty and accepting the deal at his arraignment on a gun possession charge last year. Now, he's charged with multiple counts of attempted murder, apparently blowing the second chance he was given.

FOX 32's Craig Wall talked to inmates who are determined to take a different path.

After completing the boot camp portion of their sentence, all the inmates spend a month on home monitoring and are subject to random drug testing for the next eight months. They also have to stay out of trouble.

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