Prison boot camps may not help inmates

Drills and barracks-style housing have sprung up for inmates in 33 states. But do the programs reduce likelihood of repeat offenses?

It was a sight to warm the heart of any politician who ever pledged to be "tough on crime." A room full of young felons in a spartan barracks stood rigidly at attention before a tough ex-Marine Corps drill sergeant, shouting "Sir, yes sir."

The criminals were about to embark on six months in the Herman L. Toulson correctional boot camp a few miles south of Baltimore. By the time they were done, prison officials said they expected those who completed the program would be new men and women - disciplined, physically fit, better educated with higher self-esteem, self-knowledge, and newly acquired job skills.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. While data is scarce, research suggests that boot camps do little or nothing to reduce offender recidivism.

When asked, for instance, about what proportion of the 3,839 graduates from the boot camp here had found their way back to prison since the program began in August 1990, assistant commander Charles Santa said: "We don't know. We don't have the numbers. We're just beginning to look at it."

Others have been more definitive in their assessments. "Boot camp graduates did not adjust more positively to community supervision following boot camp than did comparison samples of boot camp failures, prison releasees, and probationers," concluded University of Maryland criminologist Doris Layton MacKenzie in a study of eight boot camps in 1996.

The idea is popular, however. Since Georgia and Oklahoma opened the first penal boot camps in 1983, more than 50 other facilities have been set up in 33 states, processing thousands of inmates a year.

Although regimens vary from state to state, they all feature barracks-style housing, military titles, drills and ceremonies, uniforms, groupings of inmates in platoons, and summary punishments for failure to perform.

The idea is that the harsh training environment, with several hours a day devoted to running, push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, drilling, and inspections, should generate physical and mental stress.

That in turn teaches inmates to become part of a group and to start thinking of others apart from themselves, which helps them become constructive citizens.

Inmates are carefully selected. They must be between 17 and 35, in good health, first-or-second-time offenders with good disciplinary records. Violent offenders are rarely selected. Successfully completing the program can earn the offender early parole. Failure may result in the loss of "good time."

Inmates in Maryland quickly learn how they are expected to speak when addressed by civilians or staff. "This inmate has been treated fairly by the staff for the most part," said James Moulton, serving five years for insurance fraud.

One of only three whites in a platoon of 46, he said he was subject to frequent racial taunting from fellow inmates and a couple of times had been physically attacked.

Around 75 percent of Maryland boot-camp inmates are black. Some 3 percent are women, including April Miller, serving eight years for drug trafficking. "I like it here," she says. "I got my body in shape, which I wouldn't have done at home. I'm too lazy."

No one is likely to remain lazy for long under the regimen of Maj. Valentino Savage, the ex-marine in charge of the program here. "It's tough physically," he says. "For some of them, the only running they've ever done in their lives before now is running away from the police." But, he adds, "we aim to build the minds and spirits as well as the bodies of the inmates - the complete man or woman."

Inmate Jerome Martin, serving 6 years for carjacking, says it had been hard both physically and mentally.

"You have to leave your pride somewhere else, because it's not going to help you in here. Normally, if someone is giving you face, you give it back. Here, if a drill instructor is in your face, you learn to suck it up," he says.

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