WASHINGTON – Prison “boot camp” programs are no better at preventing repeat offenses than traditional jail time or probation, according to a new study that analyzed boot camp research nationwide.
The study, presented Tuesday by researchers from the University of Maryland, found no difference between graduates of boot camps and those in other correctional programs when it came to arrests, convictions and reinstitutionalization.
“There are many other outcomes we could talk about,” said Doris L. MacKenzie, one of the study’s authors. “But when we look at recidivism, there’s no impact.”
Maryland corrections officials said that the findings don’t surprise them, but they insisted that the state’s boot camp is working because it incorporates the kind of social programming researchers have long advocated.
“A lot of boot camps in the country do nothing more than military stuff” and physical training, said Jack Kavanagh, assistant commissioner for Maryland’s Division of Correction. With that approach, he said, “At best you break even.”
But Kavanagh said the Maryland boot camp in Jessup is a breed apart.
“We think we’ve loaded it up real heavy on the program side,” he said. “Our hope is that having the inmates in a structured environment, this stuff will sink in better.”
Leonard Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said it was research by MacKenzie and others that prompted officials to make changes to the state’s 11-year-old boot camp in Jessup. That research showed that discipline alone is not enough to turn many offenders’ lives around.
“We’re not disagreeing at all that the social approach is the proper approach,” he said. “We recognized that a long time ago.”
The report discussed Tuesday at a forum in Washington did not specifically study the Maryland system, but Kavanagh said the state has asked MacKenzie to take a closer look at the program here.
The state shuttered its juvenile boot camps last year, after a series of stories in The (Baltimore) Sun reported physical abuse of youths in the program and a lack of follow up that found many of them falling back into their old criminal ways weeks after release.
The only remaining boot camp in the state is the adult facility in Jessup, which provides vocational training, substance abuse treatment and personal counseling to inmates, Sipes said. A special Corrections Options Program also follows a group of Baltimore-area graduates for six months after the boot camp, providing intense supervision, training in decision-making and job placement.
“You can give a heroin addict all the military discipline in the world, and that’s not going to stop him from being a drug addict,” Sipes said.
Yet even as they touted the rehabilitative value of therapy and other programs, state officials were not ready to abandon the military discipline that is a trademark of correctional boot camps.
“It’s amazing to see these surly, nasty individuals turn into a well- disciplined, polite bunch of individuals six months later,” said Sipes. “The discipline is a component that is important.”
He said the camaraderie developed in a military-type atmosphere helps offenders develop group values.
“The emphasis is no longer on me, the emphasis is on the group and the group’s success,” Sipes said. “I’m not sure anyone can really argue with that.”