First Time Felon (1997, USA)

First Time Felon - Delroy Lindo as Sgt Calhoun and Omar Epps as Greg Yance

It’s bit surprising that there aren’t more prison boot camp movies, given the potential (brutally exploited in movies like Full Metal Jacket) to show tough men being bullied, abused and humiliated. That potential really is within easy grasp of the prison movie genre.

It is the territory of First Time Felon. The film is based on the real life story of Greg Yance (played here by an impassive Omar Epps), successful drug dealer and high-ranking member of the Vice Lords gang in Chicago. He gets pinched in possession of a largish quantity of heroin, and is sent down for 5 years – but as he is a ‘non-violent first-time felon’ he is given the option of doing a 120-day boot camp program (and then probation) instead. Not surprisingly, he opts for the boot camp.

The camp, euphemistically known as the ‘Impact Incarceration Program’, is all that you would expect; correctional officers getting into the faces of the inmates, indiscriminate abuse, tough discipline, arbitrary punishments and no tolerance for individuality or questioning of the approach. Leading the assault by the officers is Sergeant Calhoun (Delroy Lindo), who is on a personal mission to remind all the African American inmates that it is they who oppress their brothers by selling them drugs and condemning the black community to lives of disadvantage, crime and under-achievement, and that they cannot claim disadvantage and oppression as an excuse. Sometimes it gets too personal for Calhoun and he over-exuberantly over-steps the mark.

Much of Yance’s story is pretty standard prison movie fare: he is exposed to violence first-hand in the jail, then at the camp is paired with rival gang member Tyrone and is forced to work with him. A team from the camp is sent to help the small Illinois town of Niota during the Mississippi floods of 1993, and they win the respect and gratitude of the local townsfolk. On release, though, he finds the going tough; he steadfastly refuses to get back into his former criminal ways but receives knock-back after knock-back when he seeks legitimate work. He hits rock bottom; his friend Pookie is gunned down and dies in his arms, he starts drinking to excess and becomes suicidal. One hopes, perversely, that the film will surprise and not end happily, but those hopes are never going to be realised in a film such as this.

What does it tell us? It suggests that boot camps are cheaper than imprisoning men for long periods and have greater success rates; some data would suggest otherwise. It tries to tell African American gang members that they are hurting their own. It tells the wider community that it’s tough going once you’ve been in jail, and that its attitude toward ex-offenders might lead to people with less resolve than Yance falling back into criminality through desperation. And it says that if only the Mississippi could breach its banks more often, the impact on criminality could be profound.

First Time Felon - Omar Epps as Greg Yance First Time Felon #3 - Boot camp at Fort Meyers

Posted on July 4th, 2010 at 3:05 pm. Updated on December 2nd, 2011 at 8:29 pm.

4 Responses to “First Time Felon (1997, USA)”

  1. December 2nd, 2011 at 6:05 pm
    Chad Barta says:

    I went to this same boot camp in 2006. The same one in the movie. and it was just like that,I was sure glad to have gotten out of doing another 6 months in prison if I didn’t go to and complete this boot camp successfully. Now that I look back at the 120 days I was there, it was kinda fun. Well anyways, it works and I have stayed out of trouble since going there. The program has changed me forever into a better person with more pride for myself. I would love to correspond with others that have been in the Illinois Impact Incarceration program and maybe even start a website to show how this program has changed us and how successful it really is, compared to prison,which is for the most part, ineffective…I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to go to I.I.P. and would like to thank IDOC for creating such a wonderful and successful program. To bad more incarcerated people don’t ever get the opportunity to participate in these types of programs. I think that it could reduce repeat offenders greatly.

  2. April 29th, 2012 at 8:07 am
    Jeff says:

    Fine 1 submit. Common drawback can be G. change ones own thoughts far too often.

  3. September 28th, 2012 at 12:30 am
    Renee says:

    My brother is awaiting sentencing, and I am to testify at the hearing. He wants me to push for I.I.P. I take it that you recommend the program. Is there anything I can tell him to try to prepare him for it if we get I.I.P.? I’d love any insight or information you could give me about it.
    And congratulations on your success!


  4. March 26th, 2013 at 3:05 pm
    Shannon says:

    I also participated in 1995 in IDOC’s IIP at Dixon Springs, which I believe this one is based off of. The Mississippi also flooded back then, and when I watch this movie it brings a tear to my eye as I remember being on sandbag duty as well. I also remember the people of these towns we went to being very grateful for us being there. This program instilled work ethic in me that I never had to this point. Since then, I have not been back to prison (I was only 17 at the time) I have been caught with pot a couple of times since, but nothing serious. Both times misdemeanors. Would I say this is a great way to catch them young before becoming career criminals? Yes indeed.

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