Shock Incarceration and Boot-Camp Prisons

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Shock incarceration programs, frequently called boot-camp prisons, are short-term prison programs run like military basic training for young offendersadult and youthful felons (MacKenzie & Parent, 1992). 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. Boot-camp prisons have proved controversial over time, as critics argue that this type of regimen does not reduce recidivism (the tendency to return to crime). In the late 1990s, allegations of misconduct and abuse by boot-camp prison staff members against their juvenile inmates have led to criminal investigations and the closing of facilities. Nevertheless, this type of "tough love" approach remains a popular option for correctional officials.

Those sentenced to boot-camp prisons are required to arise early each day to participate in a rigorous schedule of physical training, military drill and ceremony, and hard labor. While they are in the boot camp, participants are separated from other prisoners. They are allowed few personal possessions, no televisions, and infrequent visits from relatives on the outside.

The correctional officers in the programs are referred to as drill instructors and are responsible for seeing that the inmates obey the rules and participate in all activities. When speaking to staff, inmates must refer to themselves as "this inmate" and they must proceed and follow each sentence with sir or madam as in "Sir, yes, sir." Disobedience is punished immediately using summary punishments, frequently in the form of some additional physical activity, such as pushups or situps. More serious rule violations may result in dismissal from the program.


The boot-camp prisons were developed during the 1980sin part, in response to the phenomenal growth in the number of convicted offenders. Correctional jurisdictions faced severe prison overcrowding, and probation caseloads grew so large that many offenders received only nominal supervision during their time in the community. Officials searched for ways to manage the offenders. There were two optionseither they were sent to prison or they were supervised in the community on probation. Neither option was entirely satisfactory for the large number of young offenders. Alternative sanctions or intermediate punishments such as intensive community supervision, house arrest, or residential-community corrections centers were proposed as solutions to the problem. These options provided more control than a sentence to probation but less than a sentence to prison. Boot-camp prisons were one relatively inexpensive alternative sanction that became particularly popular.

The first boot-camp prisons were begun in 1983, in Oklahoma and Georgia. These two programs attracted a great deal of attention and other jurisdictions soon began developing similar programs. By 1999, more than fifty boot camps housed about 4,500 juveniles. Additional facilities house adult felons and other programs have been started in local jails and in juvenile-detention centers. Although the majority of the boot camps have male participants, some programs admit women into the boot camps with the male offenders. Other states have developed completely separate boot-camp prisons for women. The Federal Bureau of Prisons developed one boot camp for males and a separate program for females. However, by 2000 several states had either ended their programs or drastically scaled back the size of the programs.


Since most boot camps have strict requirements about who is eligible for the camp, inmates are carefully evaluated prior to being sent there. 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 than a traditional prison sentence.

The first day of the boot camp involves a difficult intake 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 receive short haircuts. This early period of time in the boot camp is physically and mentally stressful for most inmates.

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 are released from prison. After graduating, offenders are supervised in the community for the rest of their sentence. There is usually an elaborate graduation ceremony when inmates demonstrate the military drills they have practiced. Many programs encourage family members to attend the graduation ceremony.


On a typical day, the participants arise before dawn, rapidly dress, clean their living quarters, and march in cadence to an exercise area. There they will spend an hour or more doing calisthenics and running. They march back to their quarters for a quick cleanup before breakfast. As they do at every meal, they march to breakfast and stand at parade rest while waiting to be served. They stand at attention until ordered to sit and eat without conversation. Following breakfast they may work six to eight hours. This is usually hard physical labor such as cleaning state parks or public roads. They return in the late afternoon for additional physical exercise or practice in drill and ceremony. After a quick dinner, they attend rehabilitation programs until 9p.m. when they return to their dormitories. In the short period before bedtime, they have time to be sure their shoes are shined and their clothes are clean and ready for the morning.


All the boot-camp prisons incorporate the core components of military basic training, with physical training and hard labor. Most target young offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes such as drug, burglary, or theft. Participation is limited to those who do not have an extensive past history of criminal activity.

Other than these similarities, the programs differ dramatically. Some focus only on work, military drill, and exercise. In other boot camps, offenders spend a great deal of time each day in rehabilitation programs. The camps also differ in the type of the therapeutic programming provided. Some emphasize academic education, others focus on group counseling or treatment for substance abuse.

The boot camps also differ in the ways offenders are managed after release. Some programs intensively supervise all offenders who successfully complete the boot camp; others are supervised as they would be in traditional probation caseloads. Program officials worry about the difficulty the graduates have in 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 them make the change. These aftercare programs do more than increase the surveillance over the activities of the graduates. They are designed to provide drug treatment, vocational counseling, academic education, or short-term housing to boot-camp graduates.


The earliest boot camps focused on discipline and hard work. More recently, they have begun to emphasize treatment and education. It became clear that many of the entrants were drug-involved. Realizing that the punishment alone would not effectively reduce the drug use of these offenders, corrections officials introduced drug treatment or education into the daily schedule of boot-camp activities. By the late 1980s, all the camps had some type of substance-abuse treatment or education for boot-camp inmates (MacKenzie, 1994).

As happened with other aspects of the programs, the type of treatment and the amount of time devoted to substance-abuse treatment varied greatly among programs. The 90-day Florida program included only 15 days of treatment and education; in contrast, in the New York program all offenders received 180 days of treatment. Most programs reported that drug use was monitored during community supervision; however, the schedule and frequency of this monitoring varies greatly.

New York's Therapeutic Community Boot Camps.

In the boot camps that include substance-abuse treatment as a component of the in-prison phase of the program, there are large differences in the way it is delivered. The boot-camp programs, developed by the New York Department of Correctional Services, use a therapeutic-community model for the program. All offenders are given a similar regimen of drug treatment while they are incarcerated (New York Department of Correctional Services, 1994). 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 (AA) and Narcotic Anonymous (NA) models of abstinence and recovery. All boot camp inmates participate in the substance-abuse treatment regardless of their history of use and abuse.

Illinois's Boot Camp with Levels of Treatment.

Like New York, the Illinois boot camp also targets substance abusers. However, the delivery of treatment services is very different. In Illinois, counselors at the boot camp evaluate offenders and match the education and treatment level to the identified severity level of the offender (Illinois Department of Corrections, 1992). Three different levels of treatment are provided. Inmates identified as level-one have no substance-abuse history, therefore they receive only two weeks of education. Level-two inmates are identified as probable substance abusers. They receive four weeks of treatment in addition to the drug education. The treatment consists of group therapy focusing predominately on denial and on family-support issues. Inmates identified as level-three are considered to have serious drug addictions; they receive ten weeks of education and treatment. In addition to the drug education and group therapy, they receive group sessions on substance-abuse relapse, Codependency, behavioral differences, family addiction, and roles within the family.

Texas's Voluntary Participation Model.

A third model is represented by the Texas program (MacKenzie, 1994). In the boot camp, all participants receive five weeks of drug education. During this phase, inmates may also receive individual counseling and attend Twelve-Step fellowship meetings. More drug treatment is available for those who volunteer (the substance-abuse counselors in this program believe that treatment should be voluntary). These volunteers receive approximately four hours per week of treatment in the form of group therapy. The meetings are held during free time, so inmates are not released from work to attend. The group sessions focus on social values, self-worth, communication skills, self-awareness, family systems, self-esteem, and goal setting. Some inmates also receive individual counseling.


As occurs in many drug-treatment programs, boot camps may have high dismissal rates. Depending upon the program, rates vary from 8 percent (Georgia in 1989) to as much as 80 percent (Wisconsin in 1993). Offenders can be dismissed from the boot camp because of misbehavior or, in some boot camps, they can voluntarily ask to leave. Those who are dismissed will either be sent to a traditional prison, where they will serve a longer sentence than the one assigned to boot camp, or they will be returned to the court for resentencing. Thus, in both cases there is the threat of a longer term in prison for those who do not complete the boot camp.

There is very little information about how drug-involved offenders do in boot camp prisons. One study of the Louisiana boot camp examined the dismissal rates of drug-involved offenders and compared these rates to offenders in the boot camp who were not identified as drug-involved (Shaw & MacKenzie, 1992). Two groups of drug-involved offenders were examined: (1) those who had a legal history of drug-involvement (an arrest or conviction for a drug offense); and those who were identified as drug abusers on the basis of self-report. In this program, offenders were permitted to drop out voluntarily or they could be dismissed for misbehavior. Surprisingly, in comparison to other offenders, the drug-involved offenders were less likely to drop out of the program.

In another study of the Louisiana boot camp, 20 percent of the participants were identified as problem drinkers on the basis of their self-reported alcohol use and problems associated with use (Shaw& MacKenzie, 1989). The problem drinkers were no more likely to drop out of the book-camp prison than were the others.

In interviews, offenders who are near graduation from boot camp report that they are drug free and physically healthy (MacKenzie and Souryal, 1994). Unlike offenders incarcerated in conventional prisons, boot-camp participants believed that their experience had been positive and that they had changed for the better. They also reported that the reason they entered the boot camp was because they believed they would spend less time in prisonnot because of the treatment or therapy offered.


Studies have compared the performance during community supervision of graduates from the boot-camp prisons to others who served a longer time in prison or who were sentenced to probation. In most cases, there were no significant differences between these offenders in recidivism rates or in positive social activities (MacKenzie & Souryal, 1994). However, boot-camp graduates in Illinois and Louisiana had fewer revocations for new crimes. Research examining New York offenders found mixed results. Graduates had fewer new crime revocations in one study (New York Correctional Services, 1994) and fewer technical violations in another study (MacKenzie & Souryal, 1994).

All the boot-camp prisons had a military atmosphere with physical training, drill and ceremony, and hard labor. If this atmosphere alone changed offenders, we would expect all the graduates to have lower recidivism rates and better positive adjustment. The inconsistency of the results suggests that the boot-camp atmosphere alone will not successfully reduce recidivism or positively change offenders. Some other aspects of the Illinois, New York, and Louisiana programs, either with or without the boot-camp atmosphere, led to the positive impact on these offenders. After an examination of these programs, the researchers concluded that all three programs devoted a great deal of time to therapeutic activities during the boot-camp prison, a large number of entrants were dismissed, the length of time in the boot camp was longer than other boot camps, participation was voluntary, and the in-prison phase was followed by six months of intensive supervision in the community. Research as of the mid-1990s cannot separate the effect of these components from the impact of the military atmosphere. Most likely, a critical component of the boot camps for drug-involved offenders is the therapy provided during the program and the transition and aftercare treatment provided during community supervision.

Performance of Drug-Involved Offenders.

Shaw and MacKenzie (1992) studied the performance of drug-involved offenders during community supervision in Louisiana. In comparison to offenders who were not drug-involved, those who were drug-involved did poorer during community supervision. This was true of those on probation, parolees from traditional prisons, and parolees from the boot camp. The boot-camp parolees did not do better than others. During the first year of supervision, the drug-involved offenders were more likely to have a positive drug screen.

Problem drinkers who graduated from the Louisiana program were found to perform better, as measured by positive activities during community supervision (Shaw& MacKenzie, 1989). Their performance was, however, more variedindicating that they may need more support and aftercare than other offenders.

In contrast to the Louisiana findings, research in New York indicated that those who were returned to prison were more apt to be alcoholics (New York Department of Correctional Services, 1994). In both Louisiana and New York, offenders who were convicted of drug offenses did better than self-confessed alcoholics during community supervision.


Boot-camp prisons are still controversial. By the late 1990s, skepticism rose about the effectiveness of this approach. Studies conducted for the U.S. Justice Department found that the national recidivism rate for boot camps ranged from 64 to 75 percent. This compared to recidivism rates from 63 to 71 percent for those who served their time in traditional detention centers. 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.

People are concerned that inmates' rights will not be observed and that they are being coerced to do something that is not good for them (Morash & Rucker, 1990). These critics argue that the summary punishments and the staff yelling at offenders may be abusive for inmates; that participants may leave the boot-camp prison angry and damaged by the experience; that the military atmosphere designed to make a cohesive fighting unit may not be appropriate for these young offenders. These concerns became public in the late 1990s, as state and federal prosecutors investigated allegations of abuse and misconduct by prison camp staff. Maryland fired its top five juvenile-justice officials in 1999 after state officials investigated reports of systematic assaults at three boot-camp prisons.

Advocates of the boot camp say that the program has many benefits. In their opinion, these offenders lack the discipline and accountability that are provided by the program. Furthermore, they argue, the strong relationship between the offenders and the drill instructors may be helpful to the inmates. Also, there may be some aspects of the boot camps that are particularly beneficial for drug-involved offenders. Although controversy exists about the boot-camp prisons, they remain a popular alternative sanction.

(See also: Civil Commitment ; Coerced Treatment for Substance Offenders ; Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act ; Prisons and Jails ; Treatment in the Federal Prison System ; Treatment Types: An Overview )


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Doris Layton Mackenzie

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner

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Shock Incarceration and Boot-Camp Prisons

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