Go inside Pennsylvania’s first and only military-style, motivational, co-ed prison boot camp

CLEARFIELD COUNTY, Pa. -- From celebrities helping to free prisoners to lawmakers pushing for alternatives to incarceration, prison reform is a getting a lot of focus.

Here in Pennsylvania, a state correctional facility is rehabilitating inmates with special training, and its having more success than than other prisons.

It's also the only place in the Commonwealth where men and women serve time together.

FOX43's Grace Griffaton introduces us to some graduating inmates at Quehanna Boot Camp (QBC) in Clearfield County.

We drove three hours through the night on barely any sleep to rural Clearfield County.

There, we were immediately surprised; there's no barbed wires surrounding the facility and inmates respond to everyone with 'yes ma'am' and 'no sir'.

Three shared their emotional journeys with us.

For six straight months, there are two guarantees; the sun will rise and these inmates will sweat.

"Oh, this is intense," said Michael, a graduating inmate. "This is a very intense program. This is by far, the most challenging thing. I've ever faced in my life doing this program for six months."

Today, Michael and his platoon will graduate from QBC.

It's the last time they will hear their boots hitting the ground all as one.

By completing the program, these men and women are getting time off their sentences and finally going home to their friends and family.

"It's like ecstatic and overwhelmed and overjoyed. It's unspeakable words," added Michael.

The Pennsylvania Department Of Corrections asked us not to identify inmates by their last names or go into detail about their crimes.

All the men and women we talked to in Clearfield County agree: bad decisions led them to break the law.

"I had issues that were unresolved, and I didn't address, and I used drugs and alcohol to cover those things up," Michael explained. "In turn, I needed to do things that would allow me to support my habit."

For many of the inmates, the physical training is easy compared to everything else.

"You really have to go through long periods of time without speaking to your family. Visits are few and far in between," stated Michael.

"My eye opener - I had somebody tell me about my kids," explained Andrea, who graduated with Michael. "It was Thanksgiving, and 'where are your kids at? You don't know where your kids are?' It was like, 'Wow, she's right. I don't know where my kids are.' I just want to do better."

All those painful realizations were the hardest part for Andrea of Chester County.

"It hurt. I was like, 'oh my gosh, I'm a horrible person. I'm selfish.' You know, I have three kids, and I did a lot of bad things. That is all thrown at you," Andrea told FOX43.

Inner demons once suppressed, the men and women are sober and now required to participate in daily therapy groups.

"It is, 'wow, I discovered I had this anger issue I didn't know I had, and I was using my drug of choice to really suppress that," explained Jamie Rauch, the camp's Drug and Alcohol Treatment Services supervisor.

Rauch says on average 80 percent of a platoon enters the program suffering from a substance abuse issue.

With help from counselors, inmates address any addictions, the anger and grief they feel from their past, and the violence they have witnessed or inflicted on others.

"I enjoy watching that change - the harder the struggle when they walk through the door, the greater the triumph when they walk out," Rauch said with a smile. "It is a wonderful thing. It's why I got into this field. I get the opportunity to see people make changes. We got a phone call from an inmate who graduated, she got a job. She was proud of what she had done, and she called back in here to say 'thank you.'"

Some inmates graduate with their GED in hand; many others walk away with at least one vocational certificate.

"I feel like we really as a staff provide this idea of opportunity and hope," added Rauch. "We're not just warehousing people here. We are working with them."

Andrea leaves with three certificates.

"It's an amazing feeling. It's the first thing I've accomplished in my life so I'm pretty proud of myself," she said tearfully.

"She has accomplished a lot, and she did it herself. That's what I am happy about. She did it herself," said Dawn Holcomb, Andrea's mother.

Graduating inmates are released on intensive parole supervision; some continue rehabilitation at halfway houses, but others still have time to serve at boot camp.

"How do I put it. I am used to... I've been doing drugs since I was 14-years-old," said Pamela of Lancaster County. "I am used to living carefree, doing however I please."

Pamela of Lancaster County asked to keep her face hidden.

"I never thought about the consequences of what it cost other people, my family, my friends," she explained.

Drill instructors preach discipline, responsibility, and accountability to the inmates.

"What has changed since day 1 and that person you were describing?" asked FOX43.

"There is a big chance," answered Pamela. "From the first time I got here, I had a bad attitude. If somebody yells at me, I yell back. I changed - the discipline. The structure. My attitude has completely changed."

In order to be eligible, there are a few requirements: Inmates must be under 40-years-old, and they cannot be serving a sentence for murder, rape, kidnapping, or other violent offenses.

Michael almost didn't make it because his sentence was too long, but thankfully, he says a QBC staff member went out on a limb for him. Michael says he contacted the Lancaster County District Attorney and a judge who ultimately gave the okay.

"I really honestly came here with the intention of going home early," said Michael. "However, somewhere along the lines, I started to listen to what the treatment staff were saying, drill instructors were saying, and I really started to take an honest look at myself and the things I was doing my behaviors, my thinking errors, because I have children, a wonderful woman, and I just really began to look at those things and address them."

Michael leaves the camp as one of two honor graduates; he earned the highest physical fitness award.

He has a message for others wearing the uniform

"There is hope out there. Don't give up. It doesn't matter how long it takes," he said.

Time lost, time spent, and time gained at QBC.

"It is one more step getting closer to getting home to my daughter," explained Pamela.

"I took this experience, and now, I am going to hit the road. This place has been life changing. A great experience," said Andrea.

Berks, Dauphin, and Lancaster counties are among five counties in Pa. which accounted for roughly half of all boot camp admissions in a five year period.

That's according to the Quehanna 2016 Performance Report.

We caught up with Craig Stedman, the Lancaster County District Attorney, about why he gives lawbreakers the chance to participate.

"Some of them come from not having any structure, and so it can be quite eye opening for them to have discipline, a purpose, goals, achievements. They are rewarded for it," explained Stedman. "They are actually accomplishing something that you can see and a light at the end of the tunnel. It gives them value as a person, and there is a value to the community."

For more information about QBC, click here. 

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