March 18, 2010 is warm in southern Illinois. Guards at the Dixon Springs Impact Incarceration Program, a prison boot camp, wait in short sleeves for the newest intake group of female inmates to arrive from upstate Dwight Correctional Center. Five new boot campers – Courtney McBride, Maia Roberts, Courtney Andrews, Robin Johnson, and Catherine Thomas (some names have been changed) – arrive in the late morning. As the van pulls to a stop, inmate Catherine Thomas is joking with the other inmates. She throws her head back in laughter. “She won’t be laughing for long,” officer Tresa Robinson says. Robinson and four other officers are waiting near the parking lot for the offenders.
The transporting officer throws open the van door and immediately the yelling begins.
“RUN! LET’S MOVE IT! AGAINST THE WALL!,” the officers shout. The women hustle in their baggy yellow overalls to a brick wall where they spend the next 30 minutes learning rules that will control their next 120 days. Speak only when spoken to. Never look officers, prison personnel, or guests directly in the eye. No left turns.
Tears well up behind looks of astonishment and fear in the women's eyes.
From the brick wall, the women are marched inside to Dorm 3, where bunk beds are set up in rows like an old orphanage – home for the next four months. The orders continue rapid-fire as officers move from boot camp rules to interrogation tactics. The women take turns in the “Elvis’ chair” - the barber’s stool where their hair is shaved half an inch above their scalp. Lumps of hair fall to the floor while officers berate the women about poor life decisions and families left behind.
“Who is watching your son now? Is that really fair to your poor mother to raise your child because you can’t? She raised you and now she is still working for you?” Officer Robinson yells at Inmate Courtney McBride, mother to four-month-old Zhyaire.
“The worst part [is] being a woman and having to shave your head,” McBride laments, “They stripped me in boot camp. They stripped my hair, my nails, my make-up – everything I thought was important.”
At Dixon Springs, the day begins before sunrise. As soon as they wake up, inmates dress in red sweats for the morning round of physical training. The boot camp distinguishes itself from a traditional prison by regimens of military-type drills, strict discipline and physical challenges.
Out on the blacktop, the women and men are separated into two groups while a drill sergeant leads the exercises. Inmates sound off in a powerful, unanimous voice that echoes across the lot and between the buildings. Then the inmates run 2 miles before going back inside for breakfast.
After a week, McBride is required to carry a 10-pound log for four days, setting it down only to eat and use the restroom. Her offense: shaving above the knee. During work and school hours, there are no bathroom breaks – the restroom is always used at regular times, and as a group. Occasionally on hot days, water breaks are allowed. A second round of physical training takes place in the late afternoon.
The day-to-day for the female inmates varies only slightly. Some days the women attend substance-abuse or job-preparation classes. Some days they spend the entire day picking rocks out of a creek bed that runs through the grounds, just to place them all back again the following day. The women complain that on some days they are made to stand the entire day at their foot lockers - no talking, no cleaning, no reading – just standing.
A few weeks after earning their blues, the inmate class suffers a small tragedy. Inmate Thomas is terminated – sent back to prison. In general, Thomas had a bad attitude, officers say. The final straw was when she was caught slapping another female inmate.
At home, Courtney McBride goes by “CoCo SoSwagg-nificant”. She and her friends call themselves the “Fresh Squad.” For her, choosing boot camp was easy. She had something to get home to. Two weeks before she was arrested on May 19, 2009, she discovered she was pregnant. In fact, she was on her way to terminate the pregnancy when detectives arrived at her door.
Eight months later, McBride had one arm and one leg handcuffed to a hospital bed at SwedishAmerican Hospital in Rockford, while guards watched her give birth to a son. “I was in the hospital for three days with my son … after that they took me back to the Winnebago County Jail and I had to give him to my family,” she says.
McBride’s original sentence was five years for residential burglary – a crime she says she only witnessed her former boyfriend attempt to commit. Despite the pregnancy, McBride fulfilled the requirements for boot camp. A judge gave her the option to trade her five-year prison sentence for 120 days at the Dixon Springs – the only boot camp open to women in the state. The other adult boot camp in DuQuoin is male only.
“I thank God that he gave me this opportunity (boot camp). He gave me the chance to change my life … for my son and my family,” she says.
After nearly four months of rigorous physical training and constant orders, the women begin to prepare for graduation and life outside prison walls. The inmates begin to act giddy. Some inmates even have time added to their boot camp sentences for demerit marks and poor behavior.
Graduation day is bittersweet for McBride’s intake class with only three of the original five – McBride, Roberts and Johnson - taking part. “Your old friends will be waiting for you. They’re not your friends. They will be there to get you in the same old trouble. Resist the temptation,” officers warn.
The ceremony is not like a typical high school or college graduation. No supportive parents cheer for their graduate. They stand on the far edge of the blacktop and cry.
They are free and running as fast as they can back to Dorm 3 to change out of their prison blues for the last time. There is no time for hair and make-up yet. Their last day in prison has arrived and they are anxious to leave. After a few minutes, the women emerge from the dorm and greet their families with tears and laughter. They linger for a brief moment before driving off with their families
Officer Dan Field thinks boot camp is a rewarding alternative to traditional prison for the right inmates. Boot camp gives inmates an incentive to not re-commit because they “earn” their reduced sentences, he says.
“Training and discipline gets them (inmates) to where they slow down and develop a mechanism for coping. It’s twofold. They learn to be proactive and they accomplish things they never thought they could … it builds self-confidence,” he says.
Coco SoSwagg-nificant is back. After three months of house arrest, Courtney McBride has found work as a receptionist for the American Red Cross in Rockford and now lives in the apartment she shares with her sister and son. Her best friend lives upstairs, so the Fresh Squad occupies the entire house, or “the mansion,” as they call it.
McBride sports freshly-styled hair, long nails, and new outfits. She owns her own car and has 1,200 Facebook friends and counting.
Four days a week she drives her son to an in-home daycare before going to work, which she enjoys. “I like it. They give me lots of responsibility. I take phone calls, file papers, and they even let me take the money. They trust me,” she says.
Roberts is back in Chicago, working for an accounting firm again. She lives by herself in a basement apartment near Midway Airport. Sanders says she misses McBride and the other women of her intake class. Despite the mental strain and physical demands of boot camp, McBride and Roberts are moving on and creating successful lives post-prison.
“It’s done and it’s over with and now I’m moving on to the next chapter in my life,” Roberts says.
McBride adds, “A lot of people think after prison it’s hard to get back on your feet, and it is but if you are determined, you can do it.”
Andrews, the youngest, and Thomas, the first to be terminated, have different endings to their boot camp stories.
While at Dixon Springs, Andrews admitted making out with another female inmate in the shower and both were terminated for sexual misconduct. “I told her to slow down, but she’s only 18…so she’s very impressionable,” Sanders, the oldest, says. Andrews says she gravitated towards the other women for friendships and comfort. “Of course I regret it now. You don’t have friends in prison, especially boot camp.”
Andrews is no less stressed now that she has been sent back to 80-year-old Dwight Correctional Center to serve the remainder of her original sentence – the better part of five years. She is now sharing a cell space built for one - with a woman convicted of murder.
Her cell is only about 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. There is room only for a bunk bed, a toilet and a sink. While sitting on the toilet, inmates’ knees touch the bed. Two cubbies for personal effects – one for each inmate - roll under the bottom bunk. Between February 2009 and May 2010, two women committed suicide by hanging at Dwight, according to Michael Burke, Livingston County coroner.
Thomas, at Lincoln Correctional Center, is not fairing well. Officers there say she has been in several fights and her behavior is not hopeful for early release. Thomas has chosen not to go to school while at Lincoln because classes start too early in the morning. She hopes that this is her final stint in prison and that she can turn her life around at Lincoln. Yet the odds are stacked against her. She is more likely to recommit, simply because she did not successfully complete boot camp.
About 23 percent of boot campers will return to prison within three years of graduation, compared to almost 33 percent of non-boot camp graduates, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. One stated goal of Dixon Springs is to reduce the demand for prison bed space by shortening the time successful participants serve in prison. One hundred and twenty days in the system is a less expensive than five years.
Giving women the boot camp option is one way to return mothers to their children, and children with attentive mothers are less likely to perpetuate the prison cycle, the Chicago group says.
McBride was at home last month when she saw Zhyaire take his first steps. “It is a blessing because if I had not been arrested when I was arrested, I would not have my son on this earth. Can you believe I was going to kill the very person that saved my life? I’d probably still be living that crazy lifestyle.”