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Essex sheriff axes boot camp program where opponent worked
By Chas Sisk
Staff writer

A week after the election, the county sheriff has ended the boot camp program in which his opponent worked, a move that correctional officers say smacks of payback.

Sheriff Frank Cousins has terminated the department's boot camp in Lawrence, saying that the program is ineffective and that the space is needed for a new reintegration program for inmates. Officers in the boot camp, including William Murley, Cousins' challenger in last week's election, were told of the decision in a letter Monday.

"I think that the timing is odd," Murley said. "A lot of the guys who work at the boot camp helped me on the campaign."

Cousins denied that this is retaliation against officers who opposed him. He said he's been planning to make the move for several months, but decided not to announce it until after the campaign.

"We chose not to allow this to be politicized," he said. "I don't wake up and say I'm going to get rid of this program."

Cousins launched the boot camp, Basic Training Zero Tolerance, six years ago amid a wave of such programs nationwide. Modeled after the state's program in Bridgewater, the 10-week boot camp combined military-style discipline with substance abuse treatment, anger management classes and community service.

The boot camp was ended to make way for a four- to six-month program that will provide training and counseling to inmates who are headed toward release. Such programs have been shown to be more effective than boot camps, Cousins said.

The officers in the boot camp - nine drill instructors and three sergeants - will be reassigned to other programs. Jerry Enos, president of the Essex County Correctional Officers Association, said Cousins' staff has reassigned or started disciplinary hearings against several other officers who campaigned against him.

"I'm sure the sheriff is going to say that this is a restructuring and a reorganization, which to some extent it is," Enos said. "I'm saying that there's retaliation against people who have supported Murley, period."

Enos declined to name officers who have been punished, saying he needed to consult a lawyer first.

No surprise

Officers in the boot camp were not surprised by the decision. For about a year and a half, the sheriff's office has been demanding that boot camp participants put more hours into community service, which kept them from attending the life-skills, drug treatment and GED classes that are key to the program's success, they said.

But throughout the election, they were led to believe that the boot camp would continue, they said. They didn't begin to suspect otherwise until a graduation ceremony last Friday, when the sheriff's office failed to send a list of new recruits.

"This is basically, 'You all supported the guy who ran against me, and forget you,' " said Shelley Ehlers, a sergeant in the program.

The sheriff's department last made a major investment in the boot camp program in February 2003, when it sent a dozen correctional officers to an Army base in Missouri for training.

But since then, independent studies have begun to call the effectiveness of boot camps into question. The training program in Missouri has been canceled, and so has the boot camp in Bridgewater and several others.

The officers in the boot camp were told of the decision individually by the department's assistant superintendent, Scott Scharffenberg. According to a letter they were handed, the move was made now to give them a chance to take part in the department's annual job-shifting process, which will begin later this month.

But officials in the sheriff's department have known for months that the boot camp's days were numbered. In July, the department won the first of $600,000 in grants for the reintegration program, and it determined months ago that the boot camp's building at the Correctional Alternative Center in Lawrence is the only logical place to put it.

And with its greater emphasis on treatment and education, the reintegration program will make the boot camp unnecessary, Cousins said.

"We spent six months talking about re-entry and reintegration," Cousins said, referring to the just-completed campaign. "Everything we talked about, we are now implementing."

Staff writer Chas Sisk can be reached at (978) 338-2582 or by e-mail at [email protected].
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