Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s “Rock and a Hard Place” is worth watching

HBO's Rock and a Hard Place

If you have access to HBO, I highly recommend Rock and a Hard Place, a superb documentary about young criminals in a boot camp rehabilitation program.

I don’t usually recommend HBO documentaries, which hew so hard left that, when I mention them at this blog, I do so only to savage them. HBO scored a home run, though, with Rock and a Hard Place, a documentary that Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson brought to the screen. The film follows a class of “cadets” at the Miami-Dade County Corrections & Rehabilitation Boot Camp Program.

The boot camp takes in young criminals, from ages 14 to 24, who have gone beyond criminal mischief into hard-core crime. The kids who were the focus of this documentary were arrested (often multiple times) for offenses such as armed robbery or carjacking. After their trials or plea bargains, these young men were given a choice: go to prison, with sentences ranging from a few years to life, or spend four months in a military-style boot camp learning how to be responsible, decent citizens.

The program is not open to everyone. The judge, the prosecutor and, sometimes, even the victim(s), have to sign off on giving the young criminal this choice. The young criminal has to agree too. To you and me, the decision sounds like a no-brainer: 16 incredibly tough weeks versus . . . life in prison? I’ll take the 16 incredibly tough weeks, please.

However, for boys who are very close to savages, who would lack mature decision-making skills in any event, and who have the added handicap of living in a feral world based upon respect that’s earned through violence and bad attitude, the choice isn’t always so easy. You can be a big man in prison, and hope to get out in a few years, or be a lowly worm in boot camp. In the film, in the very first week, three young men decided that prison is infinitely better than being made to crawl (literally) in front of the drill sergeant.

The boot camp is run like Hollywood’s idea of the meanest, worst Marine boot camp. I have no idea, of course, how it compares to an actual Marine infantry boot camp. I just know that this particular program first pushes the boys to breaking point and then, when they break, builds them up again into young men who carry themselves with pride and, most importantly, are able to work within a system, taking orders from their superiors, dealing with injustice and disappointment, and showing discipline and perseverance.

If the cadets were actually in the military, one could be reasonably confident that, with two or more years of systemic reinforcement, these newly minted young men would become good citizens. As it is, after only four months, they’re released into a supervised work situation (they still sleep in the barracks) and then they’re on their own. It’s not entirely clear that the break and re-make process will carry them through. Since the video was filmed in 2015, one of the few failings in Rock and a Hard Place is that it does not include a “where are they now” coda.

As it is, though, the program’s statistics are good: While most young offenders, if they’re still young when released from juvie or prison, have a 75% chance of returning to prison within only three years, the boot camp graduates have a 10-15% recidivism rate. It’s not zero, but it’s darn good when compared to the alternative. Those young men who really commit to succeeding by the end look as if they can leave their pasts behind. (Here’s a link to one young man’s story since boot camp. Watch it if you’ve already watched the documentary or if you’re certain that you won’t.)

One of the things I particularly liked about the program was that the boot camp is not interested in root causes. It’s interested in the young men who are right there, in the moment. They’re uneducated, utterly lacking morals, have no self-control, have anger management problems, have substance abuse issues, have no self-discipline, and still, somehow, they think they’re deserving of respect. They don’t get that respect at the boot camp until they earn it, and they earn it the hard way. And what’s so interesting is their manifest pride — not false pride, but real, honest pride — once they have accomplishment this great thing.

The staff in charge can be brutal — life is tough and these boys have to learn to know how to handle disappointment, injustice, frustration, aggression, etc. — but they can also be compassionate. Virgilio Lopez, who speaks perfect English and Spanish, rides especially hard the two boys who speak only Spanish. It seems cruel, but Lopez understands that, without English, these two boys are going to fall right back into the gang life from which they came. The LA Times misses this point (and, apparently, missed a few minutes of Rock and a Hard Place), because it both misunderstands and misrepresents Lopez’s interaction with the boys:

In one scene, an officer berates a cadet for not speaking English: “No speak English?” she mocks. The documentary never shows if he is or isn’t taught English in the program, but it does take the time to show him humiliated again by officers.

“If you don’t understand,” says one, “you will end up in prison and never see your mom again!”

He looks utterly confused. The officers then say something that sounds like “Get out of here, failure. Have a nice day.”

The usually stoic cadet heads out of their sight, then breaks down and sobs. What should be a breakthrough moment is instead just sad and cruel.

In fact, that’s not what happened at all, although Lopez is absolutely correct about the dangers that arise from placing yourself in a linguistic ghetto. That speech is not followed by the stoic cadet bursting into tears. In fact, that happens later, when the cadet shows up again before Lopez, this time for a performance test. He’s able to go through the motions, but it’s clear again that he’s still clueless about English. He’s just copying the others physically, without making the effort mentally. That’s when Lopez slams him again and the cadet ends up crying in the bathroom.

But the ending is not sad and cruel. Lopez follows the cadet into the bathroom, comforting him in Spanish and promising him help. We don’t see that help, but it’s very clear by the end of the 16 weeks that, somehow or other, the cadet has mastered English, as has his fellow Spanish-speaker, and both of them are as pleased as punch with themselves for having added this skill to all their other newly acquired skills.

Apropos Lopez following the cadet into the bathroom, that reminds me of another thing I like about the program, which is that it seems set up to help prevent older, larger participants from sexually abusing the smaller, younger ones. The boys sleep all together in a single room and they are so exhausted at day’s end that they fall asleep instantly — just the way healthy young adolescents and men should after a mentally and physically busy day. In addition, there are cameras everywhere and the cadets are constantly monitored. Because it’s a small group (starting at 38 and then getting a little smaller with attrition), and because there’s a fairly large staff, there are always eyes on the boys. They can’t break the rules and they can’t prey on each other

What’s also interesting is the sense that a real camaraderie develops between the cadets as the weeks go by. In an ordinary prison, the prisoners too often self-segregate into violently opposed racial gangs. Here, though, these young men are all in the soup together. They suffer together. They drill together. They fail and they succeed together. Their unit cohesion is much more important than their race or ethnicity. Watching the young men’s by-play as time passes, it’s clear that they are bound together, rather than pulling apart.

The Boot Camp we see in Rock and a Hard Place is clearly a labor intensive program. It takes a lot of staff, all of whom work very, very hard, to corral a group of violent, dysfunctional, uncontrolled, immoral young men, to break them, and then to build them up again into decent human beings. Presumably, it’s significantly more expensive per prisoner than an ordinary prison.

Those costs, though, have to be measured against the low recidivism rate which, if multiplied across a larger juvenile offender population, should save money on prison operations. The costs also have to be measured against the difference between a law-abiding citizen who contributes to society and a feral animal who takes away from it.

And yes, I recognize that there is a real possibility for abuse in a system such as this one. But that ignores the reality that all systems are subject to abuse. Even as this show was being filmed, it turned out that one of the staff members overseeing past the graduates who were in the work program was embezzling the money the young men had earned. That was a huge betrayal of trust, both the county’s trust and the young men’s.

The program’s structure, though, suggests that the really serious abuses of prison — the sexual abuse that is endemic in prisons and the gang violence — probably can’t get traction there. On the theory that no system is perfect, this seems less imperfect than others.

If you can, I highly recommend that you watch Rock and a Hard Place. It’s an eye-opening look at a program that, instead of trying to fix society, takes the young men right there before it and tries (and seems often to succeed) to fix them. The process is brutal, but it’s never easy to turn a piece of coal into a diamond.

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Bookworm came late to conservativism but embraced it with passion. She's been blogging since 2004 at Bookworm Room about anything that captures her fancy -- and that's usually politics. Her blog's motto is "Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts."