Boot Camps and Shock Incarceration

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Boot Camps and Shock Incarceration

Boot camps, also known as shock incarceration programs, are short-term prison programs run like military basic training for young criminal offenders. Most programs target young offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes such as drug possession or sale, burglary, or theft. Participation is limited to those who do not have an extensive past history of criminal activity. Most programs require participants to sign an agreement saying they have volunteered. They are given information about the program and the difference between a boot-camp prison and a traditional prison. The major incentive for entering the boot camp is that the boot camp requires a shorter term in prison than a traditional prison sentence.

Boot-camp prisons were first established in Georgia and Oklahoma in 1983, and since then all states and many counties have adopted this type of program. In the 1980s the number of convicted criminals rose sharply, and prisons became severely overcrowded. In addition, there were not enough probation officers to supervise the large numbers of offenders who were sentenced to probation in the community rather than jail time. Young offenders on probation were in special need of better supervision. Boot-camp prisons were developed in response to these problems. By 1999, more than 50 boot camps housed about 4,500 juveniles. Some boot camps house adult felons. The majority of boot camps have male participants, but some programs do admit women along with men. Other states have developed separate boot-camp prisons for women.

Aspects of the Program

The first day of the boot camp involves a difficult in-take process, when the drill instructors confront the inmates. Inmates are given rapid orders about the rules of the camp, when they can speak, how they are to address the drill instructors, and how to stand at attention. The men have their heads shaved; the women are given short haircuts. This early period of time in the boot camp is physically and mentally stressful for most inmates.

Inmates of most boot camps are required to wake before dawn each day, clean their living quarters, and march to an exercise area to participate in rigorous physical training. During the day they practice military drill and ceremony, and perform six to eight hours of hard labor such as cleaning parks or public roads. They march to every meal and stand at parade rest while waiting to be served. After dinner, they attend rehabilitation programs until 9 P.M., when they return to their dormitories. Inmates are allowed few personal possessions, no televisions, and infrequent visits from relatives on the outside.

In other types of boot camps, offenders spend less time on work and military drill and a great deal of time in rehabilitation programs. Some camps emphasize academic education, while others focus on group counseling or treatment for substance abuse.

The correctional officers in the programs are referred to as drill instructors and are responsible for ensuring that inmates obey the rules and participate in all activities. When speaking to staff, inmates must refer to themselves as "this inmate." They must precede and follow each sentence with sir or madam, as in "Sir, yes, sir." Inmates who are disobedient are punished immediately, often in the form of additional physical activity, such as push-ups or sit-ups. Inmates who commit more serious rule violations may be dismissed from the program.

The programs last from 90 to 180 days. Those dismissed prior to graduation are considered program failures. They are either sent immediately to a traditional prison to serve a longer term of incarceration or they are returned to court for resentencing.

Offenders who successfully complete the boot camp participate in an elaborate graduation ceremony, in which inmates demonstrate the military drills they have practiced. Many programs encourage family members to attend the graduation ceremony. After graduating, offenders are supervised in the community for the rest of their sentence. Some programs closely supervise all offenders who successfully complete the boot camp; others offer a looser form of supervision similar to that of traditional probation sentences.

Program officials worry that graduates may have a difficult time making the transition from the rigid structure of the boot camps to the community environment. For this reason, some boot camps developed aftercare programs to help graduates make the change. These aftercare programs provide drug treatment, job counseling, academic education, and/or short-term housing.

Drug Treatment in Boot Camps

The earliest boot camps focused on discipline and hard work. More recently, they have begun to emphasize treatment and education. Corrections officials realized that many of the entrants were using drugs or involved in the drug trade. They realized that the punishment alone would not reduce drug use among these offenders. As a result, they introduced drug treatment or education into the daily schedule of boot-camp activities.

The type of treatment and the amount of time devoted to substance-abuse treatment varies greatly among programs. The ninety-day Florida program includes only fifteen days of treatment and education. In contrast, in the New York program, all offenders receive 180 days of treatment. In the New York program, each platoon in the boot camp forms a small community. They meet daily to solve problems and to discuss their progress in the shock program. They spend over 200 hours during the six-month program in substance-abuse treatment activity. The treatment is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous strategies for recovery from addiction. All boot-camp inmates participate in the substance-abuse treatment regardless of their history of use and abuse.

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Like New York's program, the Illinois boot camp also targets substance abusers. However, in Illinois different levels of treatment are provided to inmates depending on their needs. Inmates with no history of substance abuse receive only two weeks of education. Inmates who are identified as probable substance abusers receive four weeks of treatment in addition to drug education. Inmates considered to have serious drug addictions receive ten weeks of education and treatment. In addition to drug education and group therapy, they receive group sessions on substance-abuse relapse , codependence , family addiction, and roles within the family.

Pros and Cons

One problem with boot camps is that many participants are dismissed from the program. Depending upon the program, rates of dismissal vary from 8 percent to as much as 80 percent. In terms of their return to criminal activity, graduates of boot-camp prisons do not appear to perform better than offenders who served longer terms in prison or were sentenced to probation. Some programs have more success than others, but overall the results have been disappointing. The boot camps' military atmosphere alone does not appear to reduce repeat criminal activity. For drug-involved offenders, the drug-treatment therapy provided during the program and the aftercare treatment provided during community supervision do appear to be effective.

Studies conducted for the U.S. Justice Department found that the rate of repeat criminal activity for boot-camp graduates ranged from 64 to 75 percent. For those who served their time in traditional prisons, the rate ranged from 63 to 71 percent. Though juveniles often responded well while in the camps, they returned to the same neighborhoods where they first got into trouble. Colorado, North Dakota, and Arizona ended their programs, and Georgia, where boot-camp prisons started, is phasing out its camps.

Boot-camp prisons have sparked controversy. Critics point to evidence that this type of regimen does not reduce the likelihood that young offenders will commit more criminal acts after their release. Critics have also argued that participants may leave the boot-camp prison angry and damaged by punishments and verbal abuse, and that the military atmosphere designed to make a cohesive fighting unit may not be appropriate for these young offenders. In the late 1990s, state and federal prosecutors investigated allegations of abuse and misconduct by prison camp staff. By 2000 several states had either ended their programs or drastically reduced the size of their programs.

Advocates of the boot camp say that the program teaches discipline and responsibility. They argue that the strong relationship between the offenders and the drill instructors may be helpful to the inmates. Also, some aspects of the boot camps may be particularly helpful for drug-involved offenders. Although controversy exists about the boot-camp prisons, correctional officials still consider this type of "tough love" approach a good alternative to traditional prison terms.

see also Law and Policy: Court-Ordered Treatment; Law and Policy: History of, in the United States; Treatment Types: An Overview.