History of Boot Camps Research Paper

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Correctional boot camps are programs modeled after military basic training. Just like basic training, boot camps emphasize drill and ceremony, and physical activity. Generally, boot camps target young, nonviolent offenders with limited criminal history. Boot camps are almost always short-term programs lasting 90–180 days. Inmates who successfully complete these programs are released under supervision back to the community; however, inmates who drop out or are dismissed from the boot camps often are required to serve longer terms of incarceration in traditional correctional facilities.

Correctional boot camps in the United States emerged, proliferated, and receded with remarkable speed. In the early 1980s, boot camps emerged in two states. Soon thereafter, boot camps became a national phenomenon with at least one boot camp operating in the majority of states by the mid-1990s. Near their peak popularity, the boot camp bubble burst and their popularity plummeted in the new millennium. Thus, in a span of a little more than 25 years, boot camps went from programs in a few states to being widespread back to obscurity. All the while, boot camps remained controversial.

This research paper traces the history of the rise, fall, and controversies of boot camps in the United States. In short, while many factors fueled the rise of boot camps, undeniably boot camps’ growth was driven by growing correctional populations and boot camps’ fit with prevailing political sensibilities. Conversely, their demise was driven by a combination of research inconsistent with the goals of boot camp and prominent cases of abuse. These factors served to erode boot camps’ political support. In all of this, there is a larger cautionary tale that warns against latching on to the latest criminal justice fad without some reasonably rigorous empirical support for that intervention.

The Boot Camp Model

The term “correctional boot camp” is a generic term referring to various correctional programs that utilize a militaristic style and atmosphere. Boot camps programs are sometimes called “shock incarceration” programs, “leadership camps,” “accountability programs,” and so forth. While program names may vary, the military style that is at the core of each makes them a boot camp.

The environment of boot camps resembles military basic training. Inmates typically live in barrack-style housing, are dressed in military uniforms, and are supervised by correctional officers with military titles (e.g., drill sergeant, corporal, captain). Inmates (“cadets”) refer to correctional staff as “sir” or “ma’am.” Cadets enter the boot camp in groups called “platoons.” Each platoon lives and works together as a group throughout the period of confinement.

The daily routine at a boot camp is filled with planned activities and idle time is rare. Cadets are required to wake early, typically 5 am. They dress quickly and then march to an exercise area. There, they engage in strenuous physical exercise (“physical therapy”) and perform military drill and ceremony. After an hour or two of physical therapy and drills, boot camp cadets march to a dining area for breakfast. Breakfast and all meals are orderly ceremonies. Cadets stand with their meals in hand until commanded to sit. Meals are eaten quickly and with minimal conversation. Generally, when breakfast is complete, cadets either attend school or leave the camp to engage in community service such as road cleanup. Afterwards, cadets are required to complete more physical therapy and military drills.

Cadets progress through three or more stages. Program activities vary by stage and there is usually decreasing emphasis on physical therapy and increasing emphasis on performing manual labor, work in the community (e.g., road cleanup), and treatment activities. The total length of stay in a boot camp is 90–180 days but can be extended by misbehavior that causes an inmate to repeat a stage.

At all times, boot camps require inmates to adhere to a strict code of conduct. Deviations from these rules are met with verbal reprimands, punishments involving physical exercises (e.g., push-ups), or the removal of privileges. Serious cases of misbehavior can result in an inmate being required to repeat a stage, and continued serious misbehavior can lead to expulsion from the program. Those expelled are usually placed in other correctional facilities and required to serve longer periods of incarceration. Conversely, those who complete boot camp programming are honored at a formal graduation ceremony which family members are encouraged to attend.

Those eligible for boot camp programs are almost always young and most often nonviolent offenders. Because of the physically demanding nature of boot camps, inmates are required to be youthful; thus, boot camp inmates are juveniles or young adults (typically, less than 30 years old, and very rarely more than 35 years old). Further, those eligible for boot camp participation are required to complete health screenings to ensure that they are capable of engaging in taxing physical activities.

Outside of this military atmosphere, boot camps vary widely. Some programs have little to no time allotted for treatment activities, while others devote considerable portions of the day to these activities. Some programs require offenders to volunteer for the programs; others allow judges and/or corrections officials to mandate boot camp participation. Another important variation is in the manner and intensity of post-release community supervision; some programs offer offenders limited community supervision, while other boot camp programs offer intensive supervision.

It is also important to note that boot camp programs appeared to evolve over time towards a rehabilitative focus. Early boot camps heavily emphasized military training. Later boot camps still kept the military model as a core component; however, these later programs included high levels of rehabilitative programming, especially drug treatment (Gransky et al. 1995).

Above and beyond these programmatic differences, at its core, the boot camp model is premised on the notion that an austere correctional environment combined with military style training will reduce crime through two mechanisms. First, the boot camps’ harsh environments deter crime by showing young, nonviolent offenders that crime is met with strict punishment. Second, boot camps instill discipline in program participants, which presumably is lacking, and this self-discipline allows participants to resist criminal temptations in the future.

The Rise Of Boot Camps

Modern correctional boot camps emerged in the early 1980s. Boot camps, however, have clear predecessors. Perhaps, the earliest forerunner is New York’s Elmira Reformatory, which implemented military training in 1888 under Zebulon Brockway’s leadership. This militaristic approach was adopted in an effort to instill discipline and to keep inmates active – the same goals as modern boot camps. The latter goal was particularly important at the time, as recent legislation restricted the use of inmate labor for commercial purposes, which had been the norm. This military atmosphere remained in place at Elmira until 1920 (Anderson et al. 1999). Thereafter, the “rehabilitative ideal” reached its peak popularity and the military training used at Elmira was adopted only sporadically at other correctional institutions until the 1980s.

Military training was most systematically and thoroughly implemented in the modern boot camps that emerged in the early 1980s. Oklahoma opened the first correctional boot camp in 1983. Later in the same year, Georgia opened a boot camp at the Dodge Correctional Institution. Thereafter, boot camps spread rapidly across the United States. By 1993, just 10 years after their emergence, 59 camps were in operation in 29 states. In 1995, this number expanded to 75 state-operated boot camps for adults and 30 more for juveniles were in operation, as well as another 18 adult boot camps operating in county jails. Boot camps even spread to the federal correctional system, where three correctional boot camps were in operation. These numbers surely underestimate the actual number of boot camps in operation, as many boot camps, especially those for juveniles, were privately run. Thus, at one point before the turn of the new millennium, the majority of states, the federal system, and some counties had at least one boot camp in operation.

This explosive growth in boot camp programs was driven by many factors but three factors appear most important. The first of these factors is the dramatic growth of correctional populations. Correctional populations increased rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, which caused overcrowding in many prisons and jails. Some of the offenders caught in this tidal wave of offenders were marginal who were deemed too serious for standard probation but too minor for prison. Boot camps, along with other “intermediate sanctions” (i.e., correctional sanctions in between standard probation and prison), provided courts with options suitable for these marginally serious offenders.

A second factor driving the popularity of boot camps was their purported ability to simultaneously reduce prison populations and costs, while reducing recidivism. As discussed above, boot camps involved short-term confinement. Proponents argued that these short periods of confinement were less costly than prison sentences, and consequently, boot camps would reduce prison costs and prison populations. Further, the harsh environment of boot camps were touted as effective in reducing recidivism via specific deterrence and perhaps more broadly via general deterrence. Thus, boot camps were advertised to be lower cost and more effective than traditional prisons.

The third, and perhaps most important, factor was that boot camps were a perfect fit to the “get tough on crime” political sensibilities of the time. In this era, increasingly policy-makers rejected correctional interventions based on “soft on crime” rehabilitative approaches and instead asserted the effectiveness and appropriateness of punitive sanctions based on just deserts, deterrence, and incapacitation. Policy-makers recognized boot camps’ fit to this new correctional paradigm and responded by allocating millions of dollars for boot camps. Specifically, Congress in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 allocated $24.5 million for boot camps, and this money was used to fund 44 grants for boot camp planning and construction in 1995. This allocation was relatively small in monetary terms, but it served as an important, symbolic endorsement of the boot camp model.


While boot camps became popular in the mid-to late 1990s, they were not without controversy. Proponents touted the utility of boot camps as intermediate sanctions, as well as their effectiveness in reducing recidivism, prison populations, and prison costs. These claims proved controversial as empirical research addressing these issues was in its infancy prior to the period of boot camp growth.

Most fundamentally, critics contended that because boot camps did not address the underlying individual and contextual risk factors for criminal behavior, such programs would be ineffective. According to these critics, the boot camp model fails to address the known correlates and causes of offending and instead focuses on factors such as self-discipline and physical fitness, which are not strong correlates of offending. The gap between the attributes targeted by boot camps and the attributes known to predict criminal behavior is so vast that Latessa et al. (2002) offer boot camps as an example of “correctional quackery.”

Further, given that history demonstrated most intermediate sanctions draw offenders from probation – not prison – boot camps were unlikely to reduce prison populations and costs. Other critics went a step further and argued that boot camps may actually be harmful. For example, Mathlas and Mathews (1991) argue that boot camps not only widen the net (i.e., lead to more offenders being incarcerated) but also the offenders drawn into boot camps are more likely to be ill-suited for these environments and, as a consequence, they are more likely to be harmed by the experience.

Still other critics contended that boot camps confrontational and unsupportive environments would cause damage to young offenders, especially offenders with histories of abuse. These critics predicted that youths with histories of abuse would have difficulty adjusting to the boot camp environment.

Likewise, Morash and Rucker (1990) argue that boot camps are abusive and dangerous environments. These authors provide one of the earliest, most critical, and, in some regards, most prescient critique of the boot camp model. They argue that boot camps are steeped in images of masculinity and power. These “ultramasculine” environments encourage aggression by staff and inmates, and thus boot camps are dangerous.

In short, few criminal justice-based interventions have been simultaneously as popular and as controversial as boot camps. These controversies stimulated research on boot camps and the popularity of these programs facilitated this research.

Analyzing The Controversy

Central to the disagreements between boot camp proponents and critics is the assumption that boot camps and traditional correctional facilities are vastly different. Thus, a fundamental issue concerns the similarity between these two kinds of correctional facilities. Research studying the environments of these facilities finds that boot camps and traditional facilities do in fact differ in many regards. The most prominent research comparing the environments of boot camps and traditional facilities is the work of Doris MacKenzie and colleagues (MacKenzie et al. 2001a). These authors surveyed juveniles and correctional staff at a large number of boot camps and traditional correctional facilities. These survey data revealed that both staff and juveniles indicated that boot camps are more structured/regimented and boot camps keep juveniles more active than traditional facilities. Interestingly, both staff and juveniles indicated that boot camp environments exhibited greater safety in regard to inmate-to-inmate aggressive behaviors but boot camps exhibited somewhat greater danger to juveniles from correctional staff. This latter finding is explained by the fact that boot camp correctional staff typically used more confrontational disciplinary practices such as verbal reprimands and physical therapy as punishment. These confrontational and sometimes aggressive disciplinary tactics, according to Lutze and Brody (1999), raise concerns about Eighth Amendment violations and make boot camps susceptible to civil, and perhaps criminal, litigation. The above findings are largely consistent with popular perceptions of boot camps and were largely confirmed in later research conducted in adult facilities.

The research, however, does not support certain popular perceptions about boot camps. Most notably, boot camps exhibit more rehabilitative programming than is typically assumed. In fact, research finds that boot camps have similar or greater amounts of rehabilitative programming as traditional correctional facilities. This finding contradicts the critique that boot camps will be ineffective because they fail to address the underlying risk factors for criminal behavior, as boot camps contain the same kinds and amounts of rehabilitative program as non-boot camp facilities.

Another important, but much less well-known, finding is that when asked about their perceptions of overall correctional experience, boot camp inmates reported more positive perceptions about their experiences than inmates in traditional facilities (Lutze 2001; MacKenzie et al. 2004). In other words, inmates confined to boot camps found their experiences less onerous than inmates confined in traditional facilities. Why this is so is unclear, but some portion of this finding appears to be related to the high activity levels found in boot camps. One of the negative aspects of correctional confinement is the sheer boredom of having lots of idle time. Boot camps solve this problem for inmates, and, therefore, instead of perceiving boot camps negatively, inmates actually preferred their experiences to those confined in traditional facilities! This finding undermines the notion that boot camp inmates will be deterred by the harshness of these facilities’ correctional environments; in that, one would expect boot camp inmates to have more negative perceptions of their correctional experience in comparison to inmates confined in other institutions, if the boot camp environment were truly aversive.

Considerable research also has been given to describing and assessing offender adjustment to the environments of boot camps. These studies generally find that boot camp inmates adjust to the correctional environment as well or better than inmates in traditional facilities (Lutze 2001; MacKenzie and Shaw 1990). However, juveniles confined in boot camps with histories of abuse adjusted less favorably to these environments than similar kids in traditional facilities (MacKenzie et al. 2001b). Somewhat similarly, other research finds that inmates who perceive the boot camp environment as more masculine adjusted more poorly than other inmates. And almost universally, research finds that a substantial minority of offenders cannot either conform to boot camps’ strict rules or handle the physical rigors, and as a result, they either drop out or are dismissed. These offenders tend to perceive the boot camp environment more negatively, have greater indicators of criminal tendency, and have lower self-efficacy than other participants. Thus, once again, the research fails to fully support the caricature of boot camps in that inmates typically adjust to their environments quickly – contrary to a common criticism of boot camps. However, there is a nontrivial minority of boot camp inmates for whom adjustment is difficult, if not impossible.

Without a doubt, the most controversial issue surrounding boot camps is whether or not they reduce recidivism. Boot camp proponents assert that boot camp inmates will have lower rates of recidivism than other inmates, whereas some boot camp critics contend that boot camp inmates will have higher rates of recidivism. Taken as a whole, the research supports neither of these claims. The research comparing recidivism rates of inmates confined at boot camps and other correctional institutions can be summarized accurately and succinctly with just two words: no difference. While there are a small number of evaluations that find statistically significant differences between these two groups’ recidivism rates, the great majority of such evaluations find highly similar recidivism rates. In fact, a large and sophisticated meta-analytic review of boot camp evaluations found no statistically significant difference in the average recidivism rates from these evaluations (Wilson et al. 2005). This finding held regardless of the evaluations’ methodological rigor and sample features (e.g., adult or juvenile sample). Interestingly, they found that boot camps that had greater emphasis on treatment or had an aftercare component did significantly better than their comparison groups. This conclusion was further supported by a recent evaluation by Kurlychek and Kempinen (2008) that found boot camp participants who received a mandatory aftercare component have significantly lower recidivism rates relative to the control group.

Despite the fact that boot camps in many jurisdictions were adopted at least in part to ease prison overcrowding and reduce costs, relatively few studies have addressed these issues. Most studies focuses on these issues conclude that boot camps have minimal effects on correctional populations and costs. This finding is attributable to the fact that most boot camp inmates appear to be drawn from probation, not prison populations. Further, a substantial proportion of boot camp inmates are expelled for noncompliance, and as a result, they are sent into the very incarcerative settings from which they were supposed to be diverted. As an example, the work of Parent is instructive (Parent et al. 1999). These authors analyzed prison populations from three jurisdictions. They found that even if boot camp participants are drawn from prison-bound offenders, boot camp graduates are given large reductions in sentence length, and few boot camp participants are kicked out of the program, cost savings are likely small. Thus, even in the ideal set of circumstances, boot camps save few prison resources.

Taken as a whole, the empirical research fails to fully support boot camp proponents or critics. Contrary to claims of proponents, boot camps do not lower correctional costs or prison populations, and boot camp inmates do not perceive their experiences as particularly aversive in comparison to inmates at other institutions. Contrary to the claims of boot camp critics, most inmates quickly adjust to boot camps, boot camps have as much or more treatment programming than traditional institutions, and boot camps do not experience greater inmate-to-inmate aggression than traditional institutions. Perhaps, if the controversies discussed above were the only factors affecting boot camps’ popularity, these programs’ popularity may have tapered off slowly or perhaps remained stable. Instead, however, the popularity of boot camps was dramatically altered by growing evidence and dramatic cases of staff-to-inmate abuse.

The Fall Of Boot Camps

Between 1995 and 2000, the number of state-operated boot camps dropped by more than 25 % and the number of inmates confined in boot camps dropped 30 %. Thereafter, national figures do not exist, but it is clear that the number of boot camps continued to decline sharply in the new millennium.

Boot camps’ popularity diminished rapidly in the face of three factors: (1) lack of empirical support for boot camps’ effects on recidivism and prison costs, (2) numerous and prominent cases of inmate abuse, and (3) the erosion of their political support due to the above factors. The lack of empirical support for boot camps’ claims of effectiveness in reducing recidivism and costs undermined their reason to exist. However, given policy-makers historical reluctance to modify criminal justice policy and practice in response to empirical research, it seems unlikely that boot camps would have fallen out of favor so rapidly if this were the only issue.

A more important factor leading to the abandonment of boot camps was the growing evidence of inmate abuse at the hands of boot camps’ correctional staff. As a collective, boot camps were plagued by complaints of abuse. These complaints received media attention beginning in the late 1990s and continuing into the new millennium when several deaths of juveniles confined in boot camps occurred. In 1998, Nicholaus Contreraz died at a privately run boot camp in Arizona from an untreated infection in his lungs. Despite Contreraz’s reports of feeling ill, correctional staff did not seek medical attention for him. Instead, correctional staff, believing that Contreraz was faking his illness, reportedly ridiculed him and made perform exercise as punishment. The infection in his lungs worsened and eventually led to his death. An investigation of this death revealed approximately 100 previous complaints about the facility. As a result of this investigation, the facility and several similar facilities in Arizona lost their licenses to operate and were closed in 1998.

Similar cases of abuse occurred in other boot camp facilities in the following years including the deaths of Gina Score, who died after a forced march in a juvenile boot camp located in South Dakota; Anthony Hayes, who died of dehydration in an Arizona juvenile boot camp; and Roberto Reyes, who died from an untreated case of rhabdomyolysis, probably caused by a spider bite. In all of these cases, despite complaining of feeling ill, these juveniles were forced to perform physical exercise until they died. Further, the autopsies in many of these cases revealed widespread bruising – suggesting that these juveniles were beaten prior to death.

The videotaped case of Martin Lee Anderson’s death at a juvenile boot camp in Florida is the most well-known and infamous case. Within hours of arriving, Anderson was forced to exercise including a run. When he complained of fatigue, he was physically forced to continue to run and denied medical treatment. Eventually, Anderson collapsed. He died one day after being admitted to the juvenile boot camp. The force used against Anderson was captured on video, which eventually became public and created a public outcry. Just as in the cases discussed above, there had been numerous complaints of abuse made against the boot camp. As a result of the public outcry concerning Anderson’s death and the ensuing investigation, the Florida Legislature closed all of the state’s juvenile boot camps.

The closure of Florida’s juvenile boot camps is a sure sign of the third factor that leads to the demise of boot camps: eroding political support. Florida had once been the nation’s leader in juvenile boot camps. Currently, Florida has none. Thus, even in a famously “tough on crime” state like Florida, boot camps are no longer a correctional option for juveniles (the state still operates at least one boot camp for youthful adults). This is just one prominent example of the eroding political support for boot camps. Another sign is the fact that no federal funds dedicated to the planning and implementation of boot camp have been made available after the mid-1990s. In fact, in 2007, Congress held a hearing concerning abuse at boot camps and other juvenile residential treatment facilities. This hearing and an accompanying GAO report detailed many cases of abuse at boot camps, and the witnesses featured in this hearing uniformly testified against the boot camp model. The overall message was clear: federal policy-makers no longer endorse boot camps and the boot camp model is obsolete.

Boot Camps: A Cautionary Tale In Criminal Justice Interventions

Boot camps burst onto the scene touted as effective interventions for offenders in the early 1980s. Their popularity was fueled by their fit to the political sensibilities of the era, and the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 endorsed boot camps as worthy crime control programs by providing federal funds for these programs. All of this occurred without any reasonably sound empirical support for their effectiveness and safety. In short, politics trumped science.

The moral to the history of boot camps is obvious: proceed with caution. Policy-makers should not have invested millions of dollars in boot camps. Federal policy-makers should not have spurred state and local jurisdictions to develop boot camps. At the time, the effectiveness and safety boot camps were not established. Instead of proceeding with caution, policymakers latched onto the latest criminal justice fad. A more reasonable approach would have been to fund and carefully evaluate a handful of boot camp demonstration projects before endorsing them by making funding available for such programs.

Given the history of corrections, the cautionary tale of the rise and fall of boot camps is likely to be forgotten. Likewise, the common sense advice of proceeding with caution in promoting and adopting correctional interventions is likely to go unheeded. As a consequence, the next criminal justice fad of the day is only a short series of serendipities away.


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