By Amanda Costikyan Jones
JESSUP – Officially, the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp is co- ed. But for nearly all of the five months she has served so far, Nicola Bowie of Frederick has been the only female inmate alongside 200 to 300 men.
“I wanted to shorten my time” by signing up for the boot camp, said Bowie, 24, who got permission to slip out of a recent counseling session to spend a few minutes talking about her experience. “I’m trying to go home to my children.”
Boot-camp inmates submit to a grueling regimen of physical training and military drill and work on state highway road crews. In return, they have their sentences, which can be as high as five years, shortened to just six months. The inmates must be non-violent offenders with no prior adult convictions to qualify for the program.
Very few women choose to do their time in boot camp, where they must follow exactly the same rigorous routine as the male inmates.
“Their entire day is structured, from 5 in the morning to 9 at night,” said Mark Mechlinski, the principal of the camp’s school. “(Sometimes) 50 percent of a platoon will quit.”
Several of the men in Bowie’s platoon did give up early on, and she said she considered it herself. “Yes, every day!” she said emphatically.
But she has been driven to stay in the program by the thought of her children, ages 4, 2 and 1, who are staying with family in Frederick while she is away. Bowie said she would likely have had to serve 3.5 years away from her children if she had chosen prison instead of boot camp.
Evelyn Martin has been a case manager at the boot camp since it opened in 1990. She does not manage Bowie’s case, but she has known other women who have passed through over the years, and she said the camp is generally harder on women than it is on men.
“Not as many men drop out as the women,” by percentages, she said, because the women are “not as rugged and as tough.” But Martin said women who are truly motivated tend to stick it out.
“Those who have a purpose and a goal and are determined and strong — they complete it,” Martin said. She said those women are often the ones who, like Bowie, “really want to get back to their children.”
Martin said she believes more women would choose boot camp if they had their own separate program. “That’s the way it should be, because a lot of women are intimidated by the men,” she said.
Bowie said that early in her stay, some men got angry when she caused their group to fall behind. “They used to get mad at me,” she said. “If one person messes up, then the whole platoon has to pay for it.”
But now, she said, she has no trouble keeping up, and her fellow inmates treat her like one of the guys.
Bowie said she will not run afoul of the law again.
“A place like this makes you not want to,” she said. Instead, she said, “I’m going back to school …. I want some kind of secretarial job.”
And, she said, the camp has helped prepare her to achieve those goals.
“Right now I’m in parenting class and job-readiness class,” she said. “Here, you have to learn.
“They teach you how to accept constructive criticism and how to deal with it …. I’ll never forget boot camp.”