Miami-Dade County

Miami’s young criminals face Boot Camp — plus HBO cameras and “The Rock”

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the opening scene of “Rock and a Hard Place,” an admiring documentary about Miami-Dade’s Boot Camp program for young offenders.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the opening scene of “Rock and a Hard Place,” an admiring documentary about Miami-Dade’s Boot Camp program for young offenders.

When Ricardo Driotes first walked into Miami-Dade’s Boot Camp barracks, cameras greeted the 20-year-old and so did The Rock.

“You’re probably wondering,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson told Driotes and more than a dozen other youthful offenders, “what the f--- have I gotten myself into?”

For Driotes, it was a supporting role in HBO’s new documentary on Boot Camp, “Rock and a Hard Place,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Monday. Now 22, Driotes was facing a hefty prison sentence on drug and gun charges and he made the deal all Boot Camp offenders do: Submit to a grueling military-style regimen to avoid serving prison time.

“I was really trying to fake it to make it,” Driotes said of his early days in the program in 2015. The camera crews added to the sense of make-believe, he said, but his plan didn’t last long. “They break you,” he said of the instructors. “And then they make you.”

Driotes’ television debut represents a remarkable turn in the spotlight for Boot Camp, which used to only command regular public attention when elected officials considered cutting it during budget time. The $4 million-a-year program was last imperiled in 2014, but saved in the final weeks when county leaders opted to spare it from cuts.

Amid surging property-tax revenue, Boot Camp hasn’t been on the chopping block since. But should the budget get lean again, Boot Camp supporters now can point to Johnson’s celebration of their efforts to steer young offenders into a better life.

“It think it is kind of God-sent,” said Officer Virgilio Lopez, one of the boot-camp instructors featured in the documentary. “I hope it brings a good light to Miami-Dade law enforcement and Corrections. ... I think this is a good way to bring people together.”

Driotes’ redemption tale is one of many celebrated in the new movie, produced by Johnson. Driotes said he now runs the Hialeah cafeteria where his mom used to be the manager, earning enough money to keep him honest. “I can deal with a lot of stuff that was hard for me before,” he said.

You’re probably wondering what the f--k have I gotten myself into?

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, in the opening line of a new documentary on Miami-Dade’s Boot Camp program for young offenders

The film came together while Johnson, a former football star at the University of Miami, was filming the movie “Pain and Gain.” One of the scenes took place at Miami-Dade’s Turner Guilford Knight detention center, the county’s main lock-up and home to Boot Camp. A Boot Camp instructor approached Johnson, who said he was arrested multiple times as a teenager, about speaking to the young offenders, director Matt O’Neill said.

“He saw lots of parallels with his life and some of the trouble he got into as a teenager,” O’Neill said. “Everybody agreed this film had to be made.”

In pitching HBO, Johnson brought the heft as a star of one of the premium cable channel’s breakout hits, the Miami-based series “Ballers.” Johnson appears sparingly in the documentary, though he’s the first person viewers see, giving his pep talk to Driotes and the other new enlistees.

“I know this Boot Camp program. I believe in it,” Johnson says near the end of his speech. “I want the world to see how powerful this program is…Stay strong. And don’t f--- this thing up.”

Boot camp enrolls offenders as young as 14 and as old as 24, and attendees accept the program as part of a plea deal for their charges. Should they drop out, the deal is off and they can face trial for the original charges.

The film starts with the core of the program: 16 weeks of military drilling and humiliation, with instructors demanding push-ups, daring cadets to smile, screaming inches from their faces, following precise sequences for showering, meals and bedtime. Heads shaved, the cadets get roused at 4 a.m. for jogs through the jailhouse grounds. They call the guards sir and ma’am; a drill instructor calls them “trash.”

“You could call it unfair, the way the cadets were treated,” said John Alpert, the other director of the documentary. “They’d spend an hour making their beds, and shining their shoes, and doing everything that’s according to protocol. And while they’re out running around the track, the instructors would come in and trash the rooms.”

But the movie casts the harsh treatment as a tool for turnarounds, and an exercise in internalizing injustices rather than acting rashly. “The cop who pulled you over might have profiled you in an unfair way,” Alpert said. “You have to resist responding.”

Lopez said the drill-instructor regime can shift into something softer when a cadet’s defenses evaporate. “When they’re thinking about their moms, they get teary-eyed,” he said. “I can see it from a mile away. They get this look. So you come up to them and say: ‘So, what’s your mom’s name?’ And they start crying.”

The film highlights one cadet, Kevin Chew, who chuckled while being dressed down during his first week and smiling during his times in a closet-sized holding cell with a tiny window on the door. Program administrators opted to dismiss him from boot camp, and the film shows him changing into the traditional orange garb of Miami-Dade’s adult inmates. “Kevin Chew now faces his original sentence,” reads the screen. “15 years in state prison.”

“We’re down to 35,” the top Boot Camp administrator, Lt. Rose Green, said as they watched the original 38-member platoon shrink. “Let’s focus on the 35 and move forward.”

They break you. And then they make you.

Boot Camp graduate Ricardo Driotes

Expulsion might not be the end: Boot Camp uses the term “recycle” for cadets expelled from the program who end up back in the barracks.

After four months in the military-style phase of Boot Camp, cadets move “upstairs” to the work-release phase. That allows the cadets to leave for jobs while sleeping in the barracks. That option brought a dose of scandal to Boot Camp last year when a program administrator was charged with stealing tens of thousands of dollars from cadets from their workplace earnings. The arrest came during the “Rock and a Hard Place” filming, involving some of the cadets featured in the film.

The film takes viewers through the cadet journey from military shock to more gentle efforts. Instructors prod 18-year-old Russel Youngblood, who said he wanted to pursue culinary training in order to work for “IHOP or Denny’s, sir.” “There’s nothing wrong with that,” an instructor told him. “But aspire to a finer restaurant. They have Houston’s. They have P.F. Chang’s. They have Benihana.”

One scene has cadets learning how to buff floors, another on obtaining the equivalent of a high-school degree. A counselor works a group through anger-management training. When James Dukes makes his first call home, he holds a steady voice when telling his mother and brother about his progress. “In a way, I am glad I’m in Boot Camp,” he said. “All the bad stuff is coming out of me.”

Moments later, a camera caught Dukes sobbing in the bathroom.

Dukes provided a moment of high drama for the documentary, when he and another cadet slipped guards while picking up trash on a county sanitation crew. The incident branded them escaped inmates, with Miami-Dade police dispatching helicopters to find them and local news covering the search.

In a way, I am glad I’m in Boot Camp. All the bad stuff is coming out of me.

Boot Camp cadet James Dukes

“If they close this program, you’re screwed,” Lopez told a line-up of cadets after the incident. “You’re going to be in general population. Because you’re all adults.”

“I was getting ready to graduate,” Dukes said on camera, dressed in the orange jail garb. “I want to say I’m sorry to my mom, my dad. My family.” He was sentenced to seven years in state prison.

The next scene features the highlight of the movie: graduation, with families gathered in bleachers outside the jail to watch a final formation by the cadets with their instructors.

“You keep doing what you’re doing,” one mother said to a sobbing graduate. “I’m going to be here.”