Russell Gerald listens attentively to his professor during a North Campus manufacturing construction class. His shorn head, black jacket, slacks, white dress shirt and thin tie set him apart from his classmates who are dressed in jeans and T-Shirts.
The attire marks Gerald as a cadet participating in the Miami-Dade County Corrections Department’s Boot Camp Program.
“I want to successfully get through [the program] and become a better person,” Gerald said. “My attitude [has changed]. I have more discipline, respect, honesty. I like to work with people, like diverse people.”
The 20-year-old has 10 charges on his record and has violated his probation period three times. His offenses are aggravated assault to a law enforcement officer, intent to commit a felony, grand theft attempt, cannabis possession, resisting an officer, criminal mischief, burglary and carrying an invalid license.
He was convicted last March in Miami for aggravated assault to a law enforcement official and cannabis possession, and was sentenced to serve more than 15 years.
But shortly after, he got a new lease on life.
In July, the judge who ruled on his case sent him to the Miami-Dade County Corrections Department’s Boot Camp Program, leading him down a potentially different path. It is a life of discipline, lasting 16 months, that is meant to impart a more deliberate outlook as well as an education at Miami Dade College.
“I think before I make that next move. I don’t want to mess up,” Gerald said. “I’m just more careful now. I think a lot. I read a lot too.”
A CHANCE TO RESTART
Gerald is one of the 101 young offenders currently participating in the program aimed at providing convicted criminals a chance to revindicate their lives. To be a candidate for the program, the offenders must be between 14 to 24 years old and the assignment must be court mandated. Cadets must attend MDC or obtain a job or complete work toward a GED. Gerald is in the second stage of the program.
Miami-Dade County is one of the nine sites nationwide awarded the $300,000 three-year grant, called Project Restart: Improved Reentry Education (IRE) from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015. The grant pays for, among other things, the cadet’s regular classes at MDC. Also partnering with the boot camp is Lindsey Hopkins Technical College where cadets take GED classes, and Transition Inc., an organization that assists the program when employing the cadets.
More than 2,000 young offenders have passed through the boot camp since its establishment in 1995.
Specific to Miami-Dade County, the purpose of the Project Restart grant is to reduce recidivism and provide an alternative to traditional incarceration for some youth and adult offenders.
“This is a second, sometimes third opportunity for them to become productive citizens because they’ve obviously made a wrong turn somewhere,” said Lieutenant Rose Green, the boot camp’s supervisor.
Green has been leading the program for more than five years. She is also a part-time instructor for the School of Justice at North Campus.
To be eligible for the program, the cadets cannot be convicted of rape or murder, according to Green. The young felons have been convicted of charges such as resisting officers, possession of a controlled substance or grand theft, among others. They are released early from their sentences upon graduation.
A SEVERE SETTING
A “sterile environment” is how Green describes the facility where the cadets reside, adjacent to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami.
At the facility, cadets wear loose blue jumpsuits with boots and spend their days between the classroom and completing chores. They also engage in anger management and financial literacy courses, religious services and help the community through different organizations and departments like Habitat for Humanity and Miami-Dade Transit.
But what they learn at boot camp is meant to go beyond a classroom.
“Even sometimes, young men, they don’t even know how to shave properly because no one’s been there as a father figure,” Green said. “So sometimes the male drill instructors, they show them how to shave as well.”
According to Green, the four month-long first phase consists of strenuous physical work. The cadets are only allowed to communicate with family through letters.
“Initially, I see them crying and I see them throwing up, they may have a nosebleed just from frustration, because they can’t do what they want and they’re used to walking away from something,” Green said. “But when you’re facing 10 to 20 years you don’t have that option, so what do you do? You conform.”
Born and raised in Miami Gardens, Gerald graduated from Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High in 2014. His family encouraged him to excel at sports.
“They expected a lot from me, like since high school I was in a football team and a basketball team, and had a half scholarship to go to Jacksonville University but I got into some trouble and had to change that path,” Gerald said.
In high school, Gerald described himself as a class clown. After graduating from HML, he enrolled at MDC as a business administration major.
Gerald remembers the only time his emotions were on edge was when his family watched him graduate from the first stage of the program.
“I missed them so much,” he said. “I waited for them for so long. It was a good moment.”
As he progressed into the work release phase, Gerald began taking classes at MDC last December to complete the training for Manufactured Construction Program (TRAMCON) under the College’s School of Continuing Education and Professional Development.
In this stage, the cadets leave the building strictly to work and attend classes. They are provided bus passes and meals, and boot camp staffers pay them unannounced visits to ensure their compliance.
Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Gerald attends a modular construction foundation class, along with cadets Jesus Peña and Melvin Bernard.
At the College, each cadet is required to wear business attire.
“I feel like a professional. I give off a good appearance to people,” Gerald said. “They ask me like ‘Are you in choir or church or something?’ and I tell them: ‘No, I’m just at school.’”
In the non-credit class, Gerald and his peers sit in a woodshop in building 3000 with hard hats, goggles and practice, among other tasks, how to cut wood. The class includes some students who are not in the Boot Camp Program.
The professors are notified of rules the cadets must follow in class.
“They’re not allowed phones. They’re restricted to go to certain areas,” said Juan Carlos Granada, who teaches the modular construction foundation class. “They told me they were cadets, students trying to come in and change their lives, get an education and better themselves.”
There have been no incidents reported at MDC involving the cadets, according to Green.
After class, the students take the bus back to the facility where they have dinner and go to sleep at 9 p.m. At night, Gerald enjoys reading cook books he checks out from the Miami-Dade County Public Library System.
FREEDOM IN SIGHT
Bernard, Peña and Gerald’s class will move to the third phase of the program on Jan. 23. They will be allowed to go back home on probation. Gerald’s mother and sister will receive him with open arms.
To ensure a successful probation period, the boot camp staff holds an orientation where family members are informed of the terms and conditions the cadets must follow to graduate.
For the first 10 months after his release, Gerald must call the facility three times a day and stay in school or find a job.
“When they enter phase three, sometimes they tend to go to the same areas, the same friends,” said Sergeant Natasha M. Reese, who is one of the supervisors of this phase. “We try to help them as much as we can.”
Gerald is aware of the temptations that might ruin his effort these past six months.
“I’ll be doubting myself, but I honestly feel like I’ve changed,” he said. “I have to wait until I get out of phase three.”
If everything goes according to plan, he will continue at MDC and receive a TRAMCON certification in mid-April.
“I’m hoping to find a job within the TRAMCON,” Gerald said. “I want to go back to school, study and get my own commercial driver license and become a truck driver.”
Not all the cadets make it through phase three. One such case is that of Anthony Jimenez, who took classes at the Carrie P. Meek Entrepreneurial Education Center. He was arrested Aug. 22 on rape charges in two separate incidents—four days before his scheduled graduation from the Boot Camp Program.
Once the 16-month program has been completed, the cadets have a graduation ceremony with inspirational speakers such as Jason Bravo, who is a judge now and graduated from boot camp in 1999.
According to Green, 88 percent of the cadets are productive citizens after completing the program.
“Maybe you stumble; maybe you fall. When you get out, you’ll be a different person,” Green said. “We’ve had our successes as well as we’ve had our failures but I definitely think the good outweighs the bad.”
Staff writer Jaynell Perera contributed to this report.