8.4. Boot Camps/Shock Incarceration

David Carter

Boot camps represent another form of “intermediate sanction”, which also follow a model of “shock incarceration.” Developed in the 1980s in Georgia, boot camps were targeted to youths and young adults, and were seen as a way to alter individuals through a brief, intense experience (the shock). At their essence, boot camps are designed to change the offender through a physical activity and discipline. Designed on a militaristic ideal, boot camps assume that a regimen of strict physical exercise will imbue lasting discipline through a strict daily structure. Because of a high level of face validity (“this looks like it will work, so it must work”), boot camps flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. The state of Pennsylvania, for example, opened the Quehanna Boot Camp in 1992, which offers a “six-month, military-style program with a drug and alcohol treatment components.” [1]

Boot Camp Success

While there have been some positive results, boot camps have generally failed to produce the desired reductions in recidivism. [2] For prosocial individuals, structure and discipline can be advantageous. However, when individuals of differing levels of antisocial attitudes and social disadvantage are mixed together, reductions in recidivism generally do not appear. As we have discussed in the section on rehabilitation, criminogenic needs are often not addressed within boot camps. Thus, boot camps fail to reduce recidivism for several reasons. First, since boot camps fail to address diverse criminogenic needs, they tend not to be effective. Second, because of the lower admission requirements of boot camps, individuals are generally “lumped” together into a start date within a boot camp. Therefore, high-risk offenders and low-risk offenders are placed together, building a cohesive group. In this way, lower-risk offenders may gain antisocial associates that are higher-risk. Finally, when boot camps emphasize the increase of physicality, rather than behavioral change, it generally does not reduce aggressive behavior. [3] For more information on the status of boot camps, please see https://www.crimesolutions.gov/PracticeDetails.aspx?ID=5 .

The Dark Side of Bootcamps

While the bootcamp model has been derided as an idea that has “come and one” within U.S. criminal justice (despite the survival of some facilities), the idea that “tough love” works has persisted outside of the justice system. In the past 10 years, the country has seen steep increases in levels of anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness among young people; mental health problems are often manifested in other high-risk behaviors, such as substance use. In the absence of appropriate care, some parents turn to facilities promising to help their children through a regimen of physical discipline similar to correctional boot camps – despite a lack of evidence and oversight. Watch some brief interviews compiled by the New York Times, from teens (and their parents) who experienced some programs here.

  1. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. (2022) Facilities. Quehanna Boot Camp. https://www.cor.pa.gov/Facilities/Pages/Quehanna-Boot-Camp.aspx
  2. Parent, D. G. (2018). Research for practice: Correctional Boot Camps: Lessons from a decade of research. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice (June 3rd), NCJ 197018 https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/197018.pdf
  3. Wilson, D. B., MacKenzie, D. L., & Mitchell, F. N. (2005). Effects of correctional boot camps on offending. Campbell Systematic Reviews6, 1-42.


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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