May, 22 2018
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History of Troubled Teen Boot Camps in the US
If the problem is a lack of discipline, then boot camps such as the one 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was enrolled in might seem like the answer.
The setting in Florida’s Panhandle was spartan. Push-ups, running laps and “sir, yes sir” were mandatory. And for the slackers, there were “control techniques” — punches, pressure grips and kneeings from drill instructors.
On the teenager’s first day at camp, seven guards beat him, dragged him and subjected him to ammonia fumes after they thought he was shirking assigned laps.
Martin, who was black, died shortly afterward, but on Friday, an all-white jury, after deliberating 90 minutes, found the guards, who are white, black and Asian, and a camp nurse not guilty of manslaughter — an outcome his parents’ attorney alleged was tainted by racism.
Where Boot Camps Came From
The notion that offenders could be reformed by military drills and training led to a wave of boot camps across the nation in the 1990s, and many states, including Florida, established programs based on the model.
But even with Friday’s acquittal, the fad seems destined for a slow fade. Repeated allegations of brutality, as in the Anderson case, along with repeated research showing that graduates of correctional boot camps are no less likely to get into trouble again, have increasingly led prison officials to drop the controversial concept.
Why Boot Camps Become So Popular
“People seemed to have a gut feeling that they would work,” said Doris MacKenzie, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland who has studied the boot camps for the U.S. Justice Department and found little effect on recidivism. “People thought, ‘Oh, this changed me when I was in the military.’ They didn’t seem to want to use science in making their decisions.”
When boot camps were proliferating in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, their regimens were seen as a way of being tough on criminals while also alleviating prison crowding.
The first such camp opened in 1983, and by 1995 state agencies ran 75 boot camps for adults, while state and local agencies operated 30 of the camps for juveniles.
Francis Cullen, a distinguished research professor in criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, says their popularity was based on “conventional quackery.” In the absence of scientific proof, the boot camps just seemed like a good idea.
“What was special about the boot-camp idea is that liberals and conservatives liked it — though for different reasons,” he said. “Liberals liked it because they meant less incarceration. Conservatives liked it because they meant harshness and discipline and discomfort. It was like the perfect storm.”
The trouble is, he added, is that “they don’t work.”
“Eventually, the science kicked in,” Cullen said.
By 2000, nearly one-third of state prison boot camps had closed and the average daily population in state boot camps dropped more than 30 percent, according to figures cited in federally sponsored studies. Florida closed its juvenile boot camps after Martin Anderson’s death.
How Troubled Teen Boot Camps of Today Have Changed
Even those camps that have remained open appear to have changed their emphasis, shifting in part to addressing the offenders’ psychological, education and health needs. Texas, for example, still maintains a 128-bed boot camp for juveniles — but officials there distinguish it from the “in your face” style of drill instruction that once seemed so popular. Rather than simply relying on the drills to reshape character, the camp has learned that addressing the offenders’ other issues is critical.
Making Sure That Therapy Accompanies Structure
“Kids are successful in a structured boot-camp environment — the trouble is when they go home and they don’t have a drill instructor standing next to them,” said Tim Savoy, communications director for the Texas Youth Commission. “What makes the therapy work is having a treatment program along with the structure.”
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