Polk Boot Camp Says Hold On
Published: Apr 21, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - At the Capitol today, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are expected to draw attention to Florida's youth boot camps in protesting the death of a young man in custody.
In Polk County, corrections officers are saying that not all the five boot camps run by the state should be judged by the center near Pensacola where Martin Lee Anderson, 14, died after he was hit and kicked by guards.
"Most people consider a boot camp to be a place of compliance," said Sgt. Alvin Mitchell, who has worked at the Polk County Juvenile Boot Camp since 1994. "We don't want compliance here. We want change."
Polk's boot camp rates among the county's best schools - alternative or not, in the view of the county's alternative education director Dennis Higgins.
The 110-bed facility, managed by the Polk County Sheriff's Office, is designed to change criminal tendencies through mentoring, education, therapy and vocational training. Children might have to do push-ups, but nobody is beaten, Mitchell said.
The students, all boys, generally are between 14 and 18 and have been charged with crimes.
The program lasts at least 180 days. A 90-day transitional program takes place after that for students from Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, who generally account for about half the youths in custody there.
The transitional program offers students vocational training with fish and plants. The boot camp has about 25,000 plants, from ornamentals to perennials, and it provides many to Polk County parks. It also has thousands of fish, some of which students use to feed the needy.
Throughout the center, hallways are so shiny you could comb your hair in the reflection. The students' bedrooms, which resemble prison cells, appear clean. Inside classrooms, most students earn an A or B.
Because students are constantly monitored by drill instructors, teachers don't have to handle discipline, said Bernard Wells, the camp's lead educator.
"Teachers can teach here," Wells said.
The concept of boot camps isn't bad, said Florida State University senior Vanessa Baden, secretary for a 100-member student group called the Coalition of Justice for Martin Lee Anderson.
"But on paper, neither is communism," Baden said.
The coalition organized today's rally and expects 5,000 people to attend, including Jackson, Sharpton, Judge Greg Mathis and singer Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins. The coalition also has staged a student sit-in at the Capitol since Wednesday morning.
In January, Florida boot camps grabbed national attention after a video showed guards striking Anderson before his death. An initial autopsy showed he died of complications of sickle cell trait, but a new investigation was ordered.
All the state's youth boot camps may be forced to tweak their services next year if a bill passes the state Legislature, Mitchell said.
The Martin Lee Anderson Act of 2006, sponsored by Rep. Gustavo Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, would repeal the Florida statute authorizing boot camps for children.
Instead, it would morph the five remaining camps into what would be known as "Sheriff's Training and Respect" programs, based on Martin County's boot camp, which the state Department of Juvenile Justice ranks as Florida's best.