Predictably, the camp is no picnic.
Before they sit down for their meal of bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, macaroni, applesauce, milk, and Kool-Aid, the juveniles must join formation, run in place, and march military-style into the cafeteria. They keep their trays at chest-level and sidestep in teams of three as they receive their allotment of a pint of milk and four slices of bread. The boys have 10 minutes to eat.
While eating, they must keep their eyes straight ahead, never looking down at their food. Their hand movements are stiff and measured. A drill sergeant counts down before they are allowed to pick up a fork.
No one sneaks and grabs a utensil early. They know a violation could mean 50 pushups for the guilty party's whole unit. Once the 10 minutes is up, no one can take another bite, or they will receive similar punishment.
Grueling as it is, the mealtime rigor shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the philosophical shift that took place in the juvenile justice system six years ago. In 1995, Texas legislators passed reforms that introduced the concept of punishment as a goal of the juvenile system for the first time--holding the parents and the child accountable for their actions.
The possibility that many of the juveniles leave the table hungry, however, has surprised the county juvenile department bureaucrats, the program's administrators, and the Dallas County Sheriff's Department dietitian responsible for planning the meals. It's likely that the combination of the camp's abbreviated eating schedule, the caloric value of the meals, and the program's rigorous regimen of two hours and more of physical training mean that the young men are getting too little food.
"If you're here, you're gonna be hungry," explained one juvenile offender recently during his stint at the boot camp on Harry Hines Boulevard.
"I feel dizzy 'cause I don't have that much to eat here," said another, a 13-year-old who had taken a car for a joy ride before a judge sent him to the boot camp.
Joe Miranda, assistant administrator at the facility, concedes that the quantity of food creates problems for his staff. Miranda, called "Major" by his charges, works for Correctional Services Corp., the Florida-based company that has contracted with the county to oversee the boot camp. "The volume and the nutrients are less calories than they really need," he says. "These are juveniles. Everybody knows kids need a lot of food."
On multiple occasions, Miranda says, hunger has led to discipline problems. The youths have been caught sneaking and pilfering food when they have cleanup duties. The kids will stash under the rim of a table a cookie or doughnut they have not had enough time to finish. When they go back to wipe the tables, they will try to eat the treat on the sly--an infraction for which they will be punished, often with more exercise. Other times, Miranda says, the juveniles have tried to break into the soda machines in the cafeteria.
Miranda blames the county, which supplies the company with the meals from the same central facility that serves the adult system, for the inadequate portions. "That is what we get," he says. "We can't do anything about it."
But the root of the problem does not seem quite that simple. Instead, the biggest issue appears to be a disconnect between the boot camp administrators and Diane Bronar-Skipworth, assistant director of nutrition and manufacturing at the Dallas County Sheriff's Department. The county dietitian plans the meals for the boot camp residents figuring an average of 3,500 calories a day for each child, an amount that exceeds the U.S. Department of Agriculture's accepted standards for boys at age 15 engaged in some physical activity.
But, Bronar-Skipworth says, she had no idea how much exercise the boys actually get.
At the boot camp, physical training dominates the daily routine. Awakened at 5 each morning, the boys have already been through an hour of running, jumping jacks, and pushups before breakfast. They will have another hour of exercise in the evening. Throughout the day, they will have marching drills and between 10 to 15 minutes of rigorous exercise if someone breaks a camp rule.
Bronar-Skipworth's supervisor, Capt. Ray Daberko, says he knows of no complaints from the county juvenile department or the contractors at the boot camp about the food situation. "We have never heard anything like that," he says. His experience with adult prisoners makes him reluctant to move too quickly when someone in the county's care cries hunger. "If you go over there and watch, they'll grab the desserts and meats first and leave the rest on their plate. I'm not so sure they are hungry."
At lunch time at the boot camp last week, few of the trays had much food remaining when the 10 minutes expired. A boot camp administrator says the youths rarely fail to consume their entire meals.
Randy Watley, the assistant director of the Dallas County Juvenile Department, concedes there may be a problem. "If they are all complaining that they are hungry, we might have to look into it," he says. "But if they have those concerns over there I would want them to be addressed to us."
At the county juvenile facilities where youths are required to stay for longer than two months, the juvenile department accepts the sheriff's department meals for breakfast and lunch but then supplements that each day with a home-style dinner. The juveniles at the Texas Youth Village, for instance, can grab as much of the spaghetti being served at dinner as they want, Watley says. "We wanted to make it nicer because they are there for a little longer," he says.
Jo Ann Carson, an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, suggests that maybe similar arrangements need to be made at the boot camp. Given the manner in which the meals are being served and the amount of exercise, she says, it may be necessary to increase the caloric content of the boot camp meals beyond the usual standards.
At the present, no one is closely evaluating whether the juveniles leave the camper thinner or less healthy than when they went in. (They do weigh the children as they arrive, and some are put on special diets because of prior malnutrition.)
For the slight 13-year-old whose eyes watered frequently when he talked to a reporter during his stint at the boot camp, no scale was needed.
"When you do the exercises and stuff, it's kind of hard to stand up," he said.