When you hear “boot camp,” you probably think of a military training facility where army recruits are put through rigorous drills at the hands of a screaming sergeant.
Or maybe a fitness program where personal trainers help clients sweat their way towards achieving their hopeful goals of becoming lean and mean fighting machines.
However, there is a different kind of boot camp that operates at an unusual Edmonton site and consists of participants that one wouldn’t expect to be doing such a thing.
It is at the Edmonton Remand Centre and the men who make up the One Bravo and One Alpha Bootcamp units are alleged crooks who are awaiting their day in court.
But, instead of sitting around, moping about their misfortune or planning any criminal enterprise, these inmates are working together to both improve their own personal circumstances and help others in society.
It is a voluntary program with a rigid regimen encompassing strict rules, unwavering expectations, a reward system and expulsion for those who do not comply and, while it does not guarantee a lower sentence or any other legal consideration, there is a waiting list to get in.
On the day I visit the program in a secure unit at the relatively new remand centre, 18415 127 St., I was greeted by 62 inmates standing at attention outside their cells and sounding off their count in precise military fashion.
The men — wearing white t-shirts, blue sweat pants and white runners instead of the standard ERC orange coveralls — then sang out the Marine corps-like Bootcamp motto with the chorus: “Respect each other all we can. Everybody gets a chance regardless of our circumstance.”
The majority of the men then mill about the ground-floor common area of the three-tiered unit as the elite drill team performs in the outer courtyard, doing an intricate military routine.
The correctional officer leading the marching — a former member of the British army who also worked in English prisons — notes that it takes a lot of practice to get to the drill team’s high level and said even regular soldiers find it hard, never mind “inmates with no experience.”
Some of the prisoners on the drill team then talk about what the Boot Camp program is and what it means to them, saying it is all about “structure” and “team work” and gaining insight on how to change their ways.
“It’s our chance to leave gang politics and other crap on the street and help each other to better ourselves and come together as brothers,” said Eric Williams.
“This unit is about change. We are treated like men and we act like men,” said Curtis Schaaf, adding he’s been in and out of jail and feels the structure of the program will help keep him on the straight and narrow in the future.
“It’s more about discipline and respect for others,” said Buddy Underwood, who explained that Boot Camp members try to “keep positive and get rid of the negative” and have an easier time getting into other self-help programs.
“It’s a lot more healthy lifestyle,” he said. “We fill time, not kill time.”
The Boot Camp program is the brainstorm of correctional officer Troy MacInnis, who spent 16 years in the Canadian military, and was the first of its kind in Canada when it was officially launched when the ERC opened up in 2013.
One of the correctional officers on duty has been part of the program since Day 1 said it is still too young to have statistics showing whether or not it is successful in keeping participants out of jail, but he noted that the number of incidents on the two spotless units is “way down” and self pride is quite evident.
He said the daily routine on the units begins with a 7 a.m. count and then the inmates clean up their cells and come out for breakfast, which is served by those who have been in the program longer and reside on the two top tiers.
One Bravo unit is in charge of the laundry for the entire facility and crews of 12 or 13 men head out to work each day at 8 a.m. The others get ready to take part in PT, which consists of circuit training involving jumping jacks, burpees and lunges.
Some inmates then go to school and those who do not have court participate in programs such as drug and alcohol abuse treatment, anger management and parenting.
From 6 p.m. until the 10:30 p.m. lockup, inmates can mingle in the common area and take part in various activities. It is also the time when the drill team typically practices.
“We are not a regular unit,” said the officer, adding new members must work their way up in order to earn privileges.
“At the end of the day, we just want them to walk out the door and lead a productive life,” he said.
It’s not just about exercise workouts and marching drills. Inmates at the two Edmonton Remand Centre Bootcamp units are also doing things to help the community.
In May, they initiated a Push-ups For Pennies fundraising event which resulted in almost half a million push-ups being done during the month and nearly $1,650 being raised for the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation.
A similar push-up campaign was also done for Little Warriors, a charitable organization dedicated to the awareness, prevention and treatment of child sex abuse.
The Bootcamp inmates have also been involved through the P.E.A.K. (Positive Energy Action & Knowledge) program in a local food drive and are planning a charity event in November for the military-oriented Valour Place Society that will see money raised by push-ups, art work, a minute of silence during the five daily inmate counts, and a special cadence and drill at the end of each day.
As well, some inmates are getting involved in a program that will see reformed criminals speaking to youth at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre in an effort to get them off drugs and out of street gangs and more pro-social.