Ever since a 14-year-old boy died after spending one day at a North Florida boot camp, a debate has raged about whether these tough programs for juvenile offenders should shut down.
But for nine juveniles who entered the Pinellas County Boot Camp last week, there was no time to debate public policy. Last Thursday was a day to bow their heads and submit to a set of hair clippers and the thunderous commands of a dozen drill instructors.
It didn't take long before piles of hair - and streams of tears - hit the floor.
To supporters, boot camps like this one are a great way to break the bad habits of teenage offenders, of instilling discipline and self-esteem, and of saving lives that otherwise seem destined for prison. Boot camps gained popularity in Florida during the 1990s to toughen a system many lawmakers believed had grown lax.
But today, several legislators say the programs are ineffective, harsh and downright dangerous. Their complaints gathered steam Friday when state officials released a grainy video showing several guards at the Bay County Boot Camp knocking Martin Lee Anderson to the ground, kneeing him and striking him.
An autopsy concluded the boy died not from the blows, but from internal bleeding caused by a blood disorder.
Still, the controversy continues. So the St. Petersburg Times got permission to witness the intake of this new platoon, the 61st group to enter the Pinellas camp on 49th Street near the jail.
Drill instructors wearing black pants and shirts, black boots and wide black hats drove to the nearby Juvenile Detention Center shortly after 7 a.m. and returned with their nine. The teenagers got out of a van, wearing sneakers, baggy pants and T-shirts. One had a black eye from trying to escape the night before.
They were told to take off their shoes to prove they had no weapons or drugs. Drill instructors questioned them harshly.
"What's your claim to fame?" Cpl. Beverly Rosenberry asked one. "I'm telling you what," she said to another, the largest boy in the platoon, "you're going to change your nasty ways."
She barked a command to another youth, who told her, "Sir, yes sir!"
That brought her a centimeter away from his face.
"Oh, don't you call me sir, don't . . . call me sir!"
"Ma'am, yes ma'am!" the boy said.
The boys moved inside a concrete block room, facing a wall. They eventually went to staff members for medical and psychological screening.
Rosenberry and others kept questioning the boys, and their stories began to emerge. One short, athletic teen in black pants and a red shirt said he had been arrested for selling cocaine, but insisted he had stopped all that now.
""Of course you're not a . . . drug dealer now, you're locked up!" Rosenberry screamed.
Another boy staring at the concrete said he was arrested for burglary after setting off fireworks in an abandoned house.
""What are you shaking for?" a drill instructor asked.
He was nervous, he admitted.
""Now you're nervous, but on the outs, you're all off the chain."
The boy kept shaking.
The hard part hadn't started yet.
One by one, the youths left the room and ran - nobody was allowed to walk - down a long hall of cells with camouflage paint, past a small library and into a room to be strip-searched. They came out wearing black sneakers, khaki shorts and white T-shirts. They were weighed, measured and photographed.
One tall, skinny boy came out with tears streaming down his face, saying a friend got him in trouble.
"You know what the tears are for?" a drill instructor asked.
"Sir, no, sir," the boy said.
"To bring back dead grass. Your tears don't matter nothing to me."
The drill instructor asked if the boy had ever cried over his crimes. The boy said yes.
"No you weren't, don't lie to me!"
The questions and the yelling came so fast and so loud that the boys got confused about what to say.
"Underwear or boxers?" said one drill instructor as he handed out clothes to recruits.
""Sir, yes, sir!" the boy said.
Next stop: the barber's chair. Drill instructor Richard Stotts put his clippers on the No. 1 setting, to shear mounds of hair off the boys' heads, and tufts of peach fuzz from their chins.
The cocaine seller sat down. He had been crying, and his chest was still heaving.
"Why are you shaking?" Stotts said.
A boy with six months' worth of dreadlocks sat down and Stotts began working his clippers around the boy's head. Soon his hair looked like a floppy wig someone had tossed on top of him. Then the pieces fell, curling into his lap and dropping to the floor.
The hard part still hadn't started.
After every hair had been cut, the boys were lined against a camouflage wall in the hallway, with more than a dozen drill instructors lined on the opposite wall a few feet away. Boot camp Commander Kimberly Klein stood between them.
"For the next 12 months," she told them, "you are the property of the Pinellas County Boot Camp."
She told the boys not to fight, not to threaten or disrespect staff. If they do, "there may come a time when you'll stay here until you're 19 years old. That choice is yours."
And then it hit.
The drill instructors rushed across the hall like a Buccaneers blitz.
With lightning speed, they crowded into the boys' faces, grabbing their shoulders, jostling them down to the ground, demanding push-ups.
One boy, the most athletic of the bunch, froze on his belly, looking terrified. The biggest of the group slowly pushed up and two drill instructors yelled in his face the whole way.
The hallway turned into a scene of chaos, with boys littered across the floor like they had been thrown there, and the black-suited drill instructors bent over and barking commands that echoed like shouts in a tunnel. At any moment, some of the boys were feebly cranking out push-ups while others laid on their backs and raised their legs. The instructors yanked some up and told them to do jumping jacks, and then told the others to get back, bellowing at every move.
They lined the boys against the wall and let them catch their breath. One drill instructor loudly complained the boys weren't showing any motivation.
"Is that the . . . problem here, girls?"
And the blitz came back. More screaming, more push-ups, more chaos.
Later the boys were lined in front of individual cells, and each given a number corresponding to their cell. The tall skinny boy started crying again. A drill instructor asked his number, and he had already forgotten that he was now called No. 3.
"This is not stinkin' Burger King," drill instructor Matthew Kingsley said afterward, "and you will not have it your way here."
The boys were sent to a classroom to be lectured on boot camp rules, and later to the chow hall.
The boot camp is open only to kids who are at least 14, have committed at least one felony, who pass medical and psychological screenings and are not taking psychotropic medications.
They also must be classified "moderate risk." So the boy who tried to escape the night before would be incarcerated elsewhere.
But for the other eight, this was a preview of the next year of their life. They are scheduled to stay in the boot camp for four months, move into a transitional phase with some home visits for four months and to be on "conditional release" for four months after that.
The point of all this yelling and intimidation, said Klein, was "putting the boys in a state of confusion to try to get them to understand that they're no longer in control. It's that breaking-down piece, and then we start to build them back up."
Later, she said, the boys will work on drill and ceremony, cadences and especially school, to improve their self-confidence and steer them toward law-abiding habits. The goal, she said, is to let the boys realize they can turn away from the kinds of crimes they have been committing.
She stressed that physical punishment is forbidden.
Florida grew enthusiastic about boot camps in the mid-1990s after a series of tourist murders created international publicity and prompted lawmakers to overhaul and toughen the state juvenile justice system.
Thomas Blomberg, dean of Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, noted that boot camps originally were sold as a way to improve the success rate for rehabilitating young offenders.
But statistics generally indicate that bootcamps have proven no more successful than other residential programs for "moderate risk" juvenile offenders.
"If I'm a legislator, I'm going to have a hard time justifying the expenditure of funds on a program that is not only not producing what we hoped it would produce, but it's having these unintended consequences as well," Blomberg said.
The Pinellas County Boot Camp staff sees it differently. Composed of sheriff's deputies, most of whom previously worked in the adult jail, the staff says they like the chance to help youths turn their lives around.
"Hopefully," Lt. Klein told the boys on Thursday morning, "you will learn to make better choices."
FLORIDA BOOT CAMPS AT A GLANCE
There are five boot camps for teenage offenders in Florida: Bay County Boot Camp, Panama City; Manatee Boot Camp, Palmetto; Pinellas County Boot Camp, Largo area; Polk Boot Camp, Bartow; Martin County Boot Camp (scheduled to close for budget reasons).
BY THE NUMBERS: In any given year, hundreds of teens move through the boot camps. Of those, typically about 4 in 10 are African-American. The vast majority of the teens in boot camps are from age 15 to 17. The first juvenile boot camps in Florida opened 13 years ago.
PINELLAS COUNTY BOOT CAMP: Opened in 1993. It houses the 60th and 61st platoons, for a total of 19 "recruits."