COLUMBIA — A drill instructor barks out baritone military commands of "Atten-shun!" and "Pah-rade rest!"
"Sir, yes, sir!," respond some 40 teens, all shaved bald, standing rigid and looking slightly dazed.
This is the state's Shock Incarceration Program, where some of the former Wando High School students convicted as "look-outs" in the 2006 armed robbery of a Food Lion grocery are expected to end up.
The program is intense and fast-paced. But if the inmates behave, they can graduate and be released to go home in as few as 90 days.
The Shock program is specific to first-time offenders ages 17-29. It is run inside a prison on the outskirts of the state capital, enrolling about 120 youths at a time.
The "shock" is the intensity of the regimen, which is nothing short of paramilitary. Inmates are up at 4 a.m. to begin a day of constant exercise, school classes, spiritual leadership, anger management and counseling of all types.
"Lights out" comes 18 hours later, at 10 p.m.
In between, there will be labor assignments, such as picking watermelons and peppers in the fields, or moving desks and furniture at the State Law Enforcement Division headquarters.
Program officials say keeping the inmates active and focused on self-improvement is the key.
"Not allowing idle time," said Lisa Engram, the Shock Incarceration coordinator at Stevenson Correctional Institution.
The course is designed to scare first-timers straight. There is no second chance. Hard prison time is a possible next step.
It is too early to say how many of the seven Food Lion robbery conspirators recently sentenced as accessories will get into the program. Each is being evaluated, mentally and medically, elsewhere by the Department of Corrections for possible admission. That usually takes 15-30 days.
Statistically, the chance for most to get enrolled appears good. Last year, 471 youths were accepted, while only 58 were rejected.
Some of the former Wando students had minor brushes with the law, including underage drinking, after their initial arrests. It is not clear whether those brushes will affect their chances of enrollment.
Those who do not qualify for Shock, based on their involvement, likely will serve youthful offender terms of 12 to 18 months if they are well-behaved, defense attorneys have said.
An eighth conspirator in the robbery will be sentenced later. Two leaders in the fall 2006 crime spree earlier were sentenced to 10 years behind bars. They will have to serve at least 85 percent of those sentences.
Inside the Shock barracks, all inmates wear dungarees and faded blue work shirts with the word "SHOCK" stenciled on the back. Exercise is done right on the barracks floor, where rows of bunk-beds are set against the wall, allowing space to do push-ups, jumping jacks and instruction on the proper way to do a military "about-face."
The inmates run or march everywhere, including to the chow line.
"Let's go! You got about 10 seconds to get out there," one corrections officer yells at the sluggish.
Engram said the Shock program is under-utilized even as about 500 youths take part every year.
"The families that know and the attorneys that know are using it," she said.
Many of the officers in charge are ex-military. Starting pay is around $24,000. If one of them catches an inmate acting up, the response is a positive "spot-corrective action," meaning push-ups, loss of privileges or other discipline. Still, positive reinforcement is the goal.
So is pride. During a press tour Thursday, one instructor said he was "embarrassed" by the group's conduct when a lieutenant came by for review. Two inmates who did not conduct a drill to satisfaction were made to do push-ups.
Statistics on the success rate of the program weren't available, but officials say the youthful offender recidivism rate is around 30-45 percent, usually by a parole violation.
Engram said the strengths of Shock are the number of youths being helped and its emphasis on teaching that success can be achieved outside of crime.
"I think we're heading them off before they got bad," she said. "A lot of these guys have never completed anything in their life."