Boot camp helps wrong-doers find the path away from trouble


Roberto Nunez dug himself a hole and fell into it.

Now, with the help of an unusual educational program at Dundalk Community College, he's climbing back into the world.

He is one of a dozen students at Dundalk who are graduates of the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp, a rigorous six-month course aimed at changing the attitudes of first- and second-time offenders. All have been imprisoned at one time, most on assault or drug charges.

More than 600 men have graduated from the camp, located in Jessup and run by the Maryland prison system. The majority of them have not returned to prison.

Mr. Nunez, 24, earned his high school equivalency at the boot camp and is taking math and English at Dundalk. He's planning a career in physical fitness. What he doesn't plan to do is go back to jail or -- worse -- the boot camp. He's already spent six months in jail for assault.

"It's not nice at all," he said. "People take freedom for granted, but it's a different world there."

Now, he works full time for a lumber company. Most of the students in the college program work, some at two jobs, in addition to their schooling.

The program is financed by a grant from the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which pays for staff support, bus transportation, counseling and testing. Tuition and books for the students are paid for mostly by federal Pell grants.

Herbert Garrett, 23, already had a high school degree from Edmondson High School when he entered the school of hard knocks at Jessup. Now that he's out, he doesn't want to go back. He sees the program as "a second chance."

"I know I have made the transition," said Mr. Garrett, who is taking English and college algebra. "I know what grades I'm going to get -- a B and an A."

This summer he will take an introduction to business course. He wants to become a businessman.

"Not one of us is doing badly here," he said.

Lillian Archer, the program's director, said "other colleges would like to have this program, but so far only this one has been funded."

Mario Abramson, 24, a native of the Virgin Islands who came to the United States in 1989, is taking business management courses. He works as a crew trainer at a McDonald's.

"I want to go on from here and get a bachelor's degree at Morgan State," he said. "Then I want to own a business, probably in fast foods."

David Curry, 26, a Douglass High School graduate, is taking general studies at Dundalk and wants to become a funeral director. That is no idle dream. The March Funeral Home in West Baltimore will finance his apprenticeship, if he does well at Dundalk.

"I used to like to 'hang out,' and it got me in trouble," he said. "Now I choose to hang out on this campus, in the swimming pool and the gym. Boot camp was the inspiration and I never want that again."

"I know what I did was wrong," said Jerod Buster, 26, a graduate of Northwestern High School. He was convicted of battery. "Boot camp helped me to maintain a controlled attitude toward people," he said. "I have my temper under control."

Mr. Buster will go from Dundalk to Essex Community College, which has a strong nursing curriculum. He plans to become a registered nurse.

Calvin Fleming, 19, a Walbrook High School graduate, also is taking general studies and says he is "going straight up."

"The old ways are over and now I have to make the sacrifices," said Mr. Fleming, who is working at two jobs and is interested in computer programming. "I had too much leisure and I was going in the wrong direction."

John Harris, 32, and a graduate of Southern High School, said: "What makes this program at Dundalk work is the support we get from the staff and each other. . . . I told Calvin if he or any of the others failed, I'd be very disappointed. We have to find strength wherever we can."

Mr. Harris currently works at Rudo Sports and sees his future in owning a business. "What I did before is definitely not something I want to do again," he said.

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