Saturday, December 13, 2008

Juvenile Boot Camps

by Rocky G. Macy

(Note: The following paper was written in 2001 while I was doing graduate work at the University of Missouri. The content is somewhat dated in places.)

Juvenile Boot Camps: The Utilization of Dual Perspectives in the Quest for Good Public Policy

by Rocky G. Macy, MSW

The creation of public policy flows from several sources. Good research should be, and usually is, a significant contributor to the formation of policy by public entities and their officials. There are some issues, however, that lend themselves more readily to public consumption and thus may alter or even void the impact of appropriate and sound research as political pressures emerge. This paper examines that phenomenon as it relates to the evolution of public policies regarding juvenile boot camps.


There was a time in a more innocent America when “going to camp” meant that some lucky children were about to embark on a holiday. They would spend their days canoeing or riding horses, and evenings around a campfire telling tales and putting on skits. The campers would be guided and cared for by adult counselors who were there to cultivate enjoyment and learning, and to ensure that the kids were safe. That image of the phrase “going to camp” may still be dominant throughout much of society, but its idyllic connotation is now being challenged for preeminence by a more insidious, meaner definition.

Today when children go to camp, it isn’t always for pleasure, and it isn’t always safe. News accounts over the past decade, in fact, bear witness to the reality that many “camps” for children and young people are little more than punitive holding pens where youth are beaten, tortured, and even killed. As these tragic, and often bizarre, stories play out in the popular press, public opinion starts to shift, opportunistic politicians change positions in mid-sentence without missing a bleat, and government entities begin the process of redirecting policies. The forgotten irony is, however, that it was the popular press that initially portrayed these camps in so favorable of a light that they proved nigh irresistible to the general public and their elected officials.

The term “camp” as used in this paper includes two separate, but not overly distinct, concepts. First there are the military-style juvenile “boot camps” that began in the United States in the mid-1980s and proliferated widely during the next decade. These are generally governmental operations sponsored by counties or states, and are a part of their juvenile justice programs. With an exception of programs run by the National Guard, these governmental boot camps do not accept parental placements.

The second type is the “behavior modification camps,” “therapy camps,” and “wilderness programs” that are usually privately owned and run on a for-profit basis. These programs solicit parental placements of troubled kids through advertisements in national magazines and referrals from therapists. Occasionally the private camps will even enter into contracts with government entities to supplement their juvenile corrections systems. (Sanchez, Davis, & Grover, 1998) These private enterprises tend to be especially prolific in states that have little or no governmental oversight. (Janofsky, 2001c)

This paper examines America’s evolving reaction to the use of boot camps for taming troubled or troublesome teens. A history of this phenomenon is presented, and the current boot camp movement is explored in terms of its rationale, basis in professional research, and changing image that is espoused by the popular press. Discussion follows regarding the intertwined roles the press and professional research in shaping public policy.


The idea of placing children in camps to acquire self-discipline can be traced back to the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. The sons of Spartan citizens were removed from their families and placed in military barracks at the age of seven where they began rigorous military and physical training. At the age of 20 the young men were allowed to marry, but they still had to continue residing in the barracks, sans spouse, until they reached the age of 30. (Talbert, 1988)

The concept of using a military approach as a corrections method in this country dates back nearly two centuries. A “deputy keeper” at the Auburn prison was concerned with the high rates of suicide and mental breakdowns at his facility in 1821. He instituted a military regimen that included, among other things, lockstep marching and constant activity under close supervision. (Morash & Rucker, 1990)

The state of New York used a military model in its state reformatory at Elmira from 1888 until 1920. The program at Elmira consisted of five to eight hours a day of marching and executing the manual of arms. (Osler, 1991)

After a retirement of 60 years, the idea of incorporating a military model in the field of corrections was revived in 1981 when officials in Georgia began a dialogue about its feasibility. As Georgia was constructing its plan, the state of Oklahoma seized on their work and managed to open the first modern boot camp in October of 1983, two months ahead of Georgia’s first boot camp facility. The nation’s third boot camp for adult offenders was inaugurated in Mississippi in 1985. (Osler, 1991)
1985 was also the year in which the first government-run boot camp for juvenile offenders opened its doors. That facility was located in Orleans Parish, Louisiana. (Zaehringer, 1998) (Tyler, Darville, & Stalnaker, 2001)

The federal government entered this arena in 1990 when the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) announced a demonstration program “to develop boot camp models for the juvenile system and to test the feasibility and appropriateness of their implementation.” (Bourque, Felker, Han, & White, 1999) The following year three groups in three diverse locations (Cleveland, Denver, and Mobile) received grants to develop juvenile boot camps. At the same time, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sponsored evaluations of those camps focusing on the young people who entered the programs during their first year of operation. (Bourque et al., 1999) The number of boot camps that served the various state juvenile justice systems rapidly expanded to a total of 75 in 33 states by 1997. (Moore, 1997) (Tyler et al., 2001) The trend toward the use of juvenile boot camps as a piece of the juvenile justice systems peaked in the late 1990’s and has now begun to decline. (Koch, 2000)

Little is officially known of the history of the private, for-profit camps. Wilderness therapy camps for troubled teens have been in existence for over fifty years (Janofsky, 2001c), and while not all are run in boot camp fashion, many are. (Collier, 2001) Some states do not require that these operations go through any certification or registration process or provide any other information that could be used in an oversight function. (Janofsky, 2001c) The existing history is basically information that the private camps put out through advertisements and the occasional grim stories that surface in the popular press. Today the industry has increased to somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 such facilities. (Janofsky, 2001d)


“Boot camps sounded like a great idea. Stick young, nonviolent first offenders into a rigorous, military-style setting and teach them self-discipline, respect for the law, and the value of work. Consigning them to overcrowded prisons, proponents argued, only increased their chances of becoming career criminals. Taxpayers would benefit from the camps, too, since they promised a lower-cost alternative to expensive prison cells.” (Katel & Liu, 1994)

The correctional boot camps that are run by various levels of government, whether they are intended for an adult population or juveniles, have five basic goals. First, they are intended to deter individuals from committing crime, both through their perceived conditions as translated via the media, and as a comparison to prison that is to be presumed as even worse. Second, boot camps are intended to rehabilitate, or to decrease recidivism, as they actually place young felons on a different, more acceptable life path. A third goal of boot camps is to punish, to deliver some actual retribution on the offender. Incapacitation is a fourth goal. The short period of time that an offender is confined in a boot camp is time that he is unavailable to be on the street participating in criminal activities. The fifth goal is to reduce overcrowding in jails and prisons and thus cut costs. (Osler, 1991)

The primary reason that parents cite for placing their children in private boot camp facilities is the need for the child to learn discipline. (Spencer, 2001) There has been virtually no independent research on this private industry (other than horror stories in the popular press), so their rationale may be best illustrated through advertisements. One facility in Jamaica that is owned by a U.S. company sells the benefits of being located on foreign soil. Although the company presents several reasons for selecting their facility, three of the selling points resound especially clearly as justification for packing a youth off to either a foreign or a domestic camp. The first selling point centers on the benefit of remoteness, or being far removed from “the negative friends and influences that have adversely affected (the teens) lives.” The second is pliability. Due to being in an “unfamiliar culture, (the teens) are more teachable and open to change and direction.” Selling point number three is hindsight. Being in a foreign or unfamiliar environment is “much more impacting and instills a greater appreciation for home and family.” ("'Tranquility Bay: Growing and winning'",2001b)

Research: The Professional View

As previously noted, there is literally no extant research on private behavior modification camps other than grim, anecdotal news accounts. There is, however, a growing body of research on camps that are run under government auspices with public funding.

The early expectations of boot camps for young offenders landed on both ends of the spectrum. Proponents hailed the idea as the ultimate answer to juvenile delinquency and crime. Opponents saw juvenile crime as socio-economic in origin and believed that boot camps had more to do with political considerations than they did with the welfare of children or dealing with the root causes of crime. The concept was new, and therefore not much research existed that had direct relevance on the issue.

One area from which inferences could be drawn was earlier research that had been conducted with military inductees as they progressed through training. Morash and Rucker (1990) examined research on the effects that military basic training had on recruits. Their review of the literature on basic training noted that, “Although correctional boot camps do not provide training in the use of weapons or physical assault, they promote an aggressive model of leadership and a conflict-dominated style of interaction that could exacerbate tendencies toward aggression.” The reviewers also found indications that shared misery seemed to create a bond between those going through the training. “Increased aggression and a bond among inmates,” they observed, “are not desired outcomes of correctional boot camps.” (Morash & Rucker, 1990)

Ekman, Friesen, and Lutzker (1962) (as reported in Morash and Rucker, 1990) cited shifts in the MMPI profiles of recruits (age 18-22) after basic training that showed a slightly increased prominence in aggression, impulsiveness, and energetic features. Eckman et al. cited changes on the MMPI subscales that implied recruits were more prone to have callous attitudes during basic training, ignore the needs of others, and exhibit feelings of self- importance. Eckman et al. further noted that “The recruits appear less prone to examine their own responsibility for conflicts, and more ready to react aggressively.” The most damning finding, though, as it relates to the subsequent juvenile boot camps, was the MMPI information that revealed “no increase in scores on ego-strength, or any other evidence of beneficial psychological effects accruing from basic training.” (Eckman, Friesen, & Lutzker, 1962)

Crawford and Fielder (1982) completed structured interviews of two matched sets of 25 air force basic trainees. The first group was being dismissed from the service during basic training due to mental health reasons, while the second group was progressing appropriately through basic training. The researchers found that of the set that had proved unable to complete basic training, 40 percent (eight individuals) reported being the victims of sexual or physical abuse before reaching the age of 18. Of those in the other set who were moving successfully through basic training, only one reported a history of sexual or physical abuse prior to the age of 18. In discussing their findings, Crawford and Fielder had this to say:
“Childhood abuse may well predict decreased ability to tolerate the stresses of adult life, such as those encountered in military basic training. Basic training is intentionally designed to be a stressful environment, in which training instructors who are mostly men disperse orders in a manner that can be perceived as harsh and aggressive. Those recruits with a history of abuse may respond to such a style as if they are being abused, and therefore may be unable to withstand the emotional pressure of military training.” (Crawford & Fielder, 1982)

Nearly twenty years later Tyler, Darville, and Stalnaker (2001) reviewed the literature on boot camps and came to a conclusion that seems to bear some relationship to findings of Crawford and Fielder (1982). Tyler et al. noted that juveniles who had suffered a history of abuse were more likely to recidivate after the boot camp experience unless their aftercare programs took that previous abuse into account and offered appropriate counseling.

MacKenzie, Wilson, Armstrong, and Gover (2001) reported a similar finding with regard to juveniles who had been abused. The researchers found youth who reported prior abuse also reported higher levels of stress, showed less improvement overall, and experienced more success in traditional facilities. The authors also suggested that abuse by staff might be especially contra-therapeutic for girls who had been victims in abusive relationships.

Osler (1991) provided an overview of the boot camp program as it applied to adult offenders. The article, which appeared in Federal Probation, had an intended audience of “sentencing judges, program planners, and other sentence creators”. Osler used that forum to argue for “bridge” services to guide boot camp graduates in their transition back to the community, a move that he saw as necessary if recidivism was to be decreased. He argued that sentencing should be based on two components: punishment value and therapeutic time. Punishment time would be based on severity of offense and be used in determining length of term and place of incarceration. Therapeutic time, or time needed to complete therapy successfully would be a factor in the rehabilitative elements of the sentence such as the requirements for probation.

Osler (1990), commenting on the goals of boot camps, stated that the only one of the five (mentioned previously) that had thus far been achieved was that of cost savings relative to traditional incarceration. He noted with caution that the cost savings would remain only if the boot camp sentences replaced longer sentences in traditional facilities,and at that time (1991) “figures” did not show that boot camp programs brought about a decrease in recidivism or an increase in rehabilitation.

The federal government through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs (OJJDP) authorized three pilot demonstrations of juvenile boot camps in 1981 to be coupled with evaluations sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Those programs were located in or near Cleveland, Denver, and Mobile. (Bourque et al., 1999) Researchers Polsky and Fast (1993) were given the opportunity to evaluate the facility near Cleveland, Camp Raulston located at Hudson, Ohio.

Camp Raulston, like the other two pilot boot camps, was to house 30 recruits for a term of three months, a term that would be followed by a nine-month aftercare program. The camp was managed by a non-profit organization that had twenty years of experience in the design and operation of residential programs for disturbed and delinquent juveniles. The researchers were given complete access to a group of recruits as they went through the program. The researchers also interviewed graduates who were in the aftercare program as well as staff at all levels. Their qualitative research accumulated to more that 100 accounts of recruits in all phases of the program. (Polsky & Fast, 1993)

The findings of Polsky and Fast (1993) leaned to the positive: “Boot camps are perceived in a positive light by staff, the public, and politicians alike. The military model substitutes pro-social norms for those negative norms that offenders have learned on the street. Self-esteem is significantly enhanced, and most recruits graduate with a sense of accomplishment at having finished the program. However, high recidivism rates indicate that the boot camp alone is not enough.”

The researchers characterized boot camps as a “first step” in a rehabilitation program for youth. They suggested that more challenges were required in the areas of education, life skills, and self-realization. They also proffered a need for a more comprehensive aftercare program that would utilize alternative schools and group homes. (Polsky & Fast, 1993)

An interesting aside to evaluation of Camp Raulston by Polsky and Fast (1993) appeared in the popular press. The Mobile boot camp, another of the three programs that were originally funded by the federal government, had to be shut down for three months during its first year of operation. The closure was reportedly to deal with allegations of participant abuse by staff members. (Krajicek, 1999)

Bourque et al. (1996) conducted a process evaluation of the federally funded camps near Cleveland, Mobile, and Denver. Their report referenced a “disruptive factor” at Mobile and Cleveland of having to replace and train new instructors due to burnout and low salaries.

The study by Bourque et al. (1996) highlighted ways in which the three related-by-birth federal programs differed from one another in a philosophical sense. The Cleveland site “stressed building healthy, pro social norms in a safe, comfortable environment that was given order through military regimentation.” Cleveland was the only site to incorporate therapeutic counseling as a central part of its program. The sites at Denver and Mobile focused on more militaristic models “that taught socially acceptable behavior while emphasizing the consequences of deviance.” Mobile included some educational opportunities in its program, while Denver practiced the most comprehensive military model.

Staff was selected to enhance the program designs. The Cleveland program looked for staff with both counseling and military backgrounds “as a check against unhealthy bias toward unstructured treatment or overstructured military drill.” Denver and Mobile looked for staff with military backgrounds, especially drill instructors, and Denver shied away from applicants with counseling or therapy backgrounds “for fear they would have difficulty with the more militaristic aspects of their programs.” (Bourque et al., 1996)

Aftercare, a stipulation of the NIJ grant, also proved to have a philosophical bent. Cleveland, with its emphasis on counseling and rehabilitation, offered the most comprehensive aftercare program. Of the three sites, only Cleveland employed a full-time vocational services counselor and a family services counselor. Denver and Cleveland utilized aftercare centers. Denver’s aftercare center resembled a “small private school” that offered only academic instruction. Other services, like drug counseling, were contracted to outside agencies. Cleveland’s center included an alternative school as well as daily counseling and support services. Mobile, which had no centralized aftercare center, met the requirement by mainstreaming their graduates into the seven local Boys and Girls Clubs. (Bourque et al., 1996)

Bourque et al. (1996) concluded that the demonstration projects failed to show that the boot camp programs were effective. None of the three sites graduated more than 50 percent of the participants in their aftercare programs, and half of those terminated during aftercare occurred as a result of new arrests. Absenteeism was a problem at each site, due in part because none of the sites were able to find effective incentives to promote attendance.

Some states avoided the messiness of negative concerns raised through evaluations by neglecting to have their programs stand for evaluation. The General Accounting Office (as noted in Colledge and Gerber 1998) conducted a survey of 26 states that ran boot camps for adult offenders in 1993. Only five of the 26 reported having completed any formal evaluation. ("'Prison boot camps'"1993)

MacKenzie, Wilson, Armstrong, and Gover (2001) conducted a comprehensive comparison of juveniles in boot camps with juveniles in traditional facilities. One of their conclusions was that the boot camp group viewed their environments more positively than did their counterparts in the traditional facilities. They also found that the youth in boot camps did not appear to have higher levels of anxiety and depression than did those in the other facilities. As noted previously, these researchers found some evidence to suggest that juveniles who had experienced abuse prior to entering boot camps were less likely to exhibit desirable change than those who had not experienced abuse before entering the program. One of the most intriguing findings of MacKenzie et al., however, was regarding African Americans: “For African Americans, there was virtually no relationship between the characteristics of the facility environment, as measured by our single factor, and change in social attitudes, whereas non-African Americans exhibited greater change in the desired direction as the environment became more positive.”

The authors noted that the finding could be due to sampling error, and that if it was confirmed by subsequent research more attention would need to be paid to environmental factors and how they relate to positive change within racial groupings. (MacKenzie, Wilson, Armstrong, & Gover, 2001)

As mentioned previously, Osler (1990) noted that the only one of the five general goals for boot camps that seemed to be being met was the cost savings over traditional facilities. Tyler, Darville, and Stalnaker (2001) compared costs of boot camp programs to costs of maintaining the juveniles on a probationary status, even supervised probation, and found, not surprisingly, that probation was a much more economical option.

The possibility of creating victims in boot camps, either at the hands of abusive staff or through abuse from older and tougher youth, has also been a significant concern to researchers. As already noted, the federal program in Mobile was shut down early on for a period of time due to allegations of abuse by staff. One researcher cited a case that he personally knew about in which a 12-year-old male was a victim of sexual assault in a juvenile boot camp. (Tyler et al., 2001) That same researcher and his fellow researchers observed that “…we now have 12 and 13-year olds frequently thrown together with older juveniles.” They cautioned, “This situation can lead both to physical and psychological harm to the younger inmates and to the latter’s learning of more violent behavior from their older colleagues.” (Tyler et al., 2001)

The United States Justice Department conducted a one-year study of three juvenile boot camps in Georgia in 1998 and found several areas of concern.
1. Guards routinely used extreme forms of corporal punishment under the guise of providing on-the-spot correction, resulting in serious injuries to youths.
2. Mentally ill and disabled youths received inadequate care and services.
3. Inadequate screening allowed youths with injured legs and feet or with serious medical conditions to be admitted into the program.
4. Younger children who had difficulty understanding boot camp commands were being psychologically and physically harmed.

A representative of the Justice Department concluded, “It is our experts’ opinion - and the opinion of many of the boot camp staff and mental health professionals with whom we spoke – that the paramilitary boot camp model is not only ineffective, but harmful to such youths.” ("'U.S. Justice Department says boot camps do more harm than good'",1998)

Two problem areas that stand out prominently and consistently in a review of the research on boot camps are the related issues of aftercare and recidivism. Osler (1990) noted early on that recidivism was a problem. Polsky and Fast (1993) found recidivism to be problematic and went on to argue that boot camps should only be the first step in a process toward rehabilitation. Bourque et al. (1996) showed that the aftercare programs at two of the three demonstration sites were woefully inadequate, and that recidivism was a problem at all three juvenile boot camps. Styve, Mackenzie, Gover, and Mitchell (2000) found no difference in recidivism of youth who attended boot camps compared to youth who were incarcerated in traditional facilities. They felt even though kids in boot camp group tended to view their environments more positively than the other group, “the specific components necessary for changing behavior are no more available in the boot camps than in traditional facilities.”

The research leaves in question the future of juvenile boot camps. High rates of recidivism are a continuing problem, and good aftercare programs, like many other social programs, will be costly and not show immediate results. Clouding the issue even more are the numerous private facilities that seem to proliferate across the landscape like a resistant strain of thistle, scattering seeds of abuse and injustice with an arrogance and impunity that is almost an expectation of an under regulated industry.

Photo Ops, Sound Bites, and Horror Stories: The Public View

The public got on board with the idea of juvenile boot camps early in the process. Violence in schools and on the streets filtered through a sensationalized press and the rabid rhetoric of politicians left many with the impression that the younger generation had run amuck. The call for retribution reverberated loudly through the media and was quickly seized upon politicians hungry for positive attention and votes.

The idea of sending these juveniles to correctional boot camps quickly garnered favor with politicians, even though the same concept when used with adults during the preceding decade had shown disappointing results, especially with regard to recidivism. (Krajicek, 1999) Georgia Governor Zell Miller stated emphatically, “Nobody can tell me from some ivory tower that you take a kid, kick him in the rear end, and it doesn’t do any good.” (Selcraig, 2000) South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow was quoted as referring to some of his state’s juvenile delinquents as “scum” and declared that South Dakota would make a success of juvenile boot camps because South Dakota had always been able to “make things work.” (Selcraig, 2000) Even President Clinton championed the idea of boot camps for delinquent juveniles, and his administration sent a request to Congress to $172 million to aid in the development of such programs. (Simons, 1994)

The political support for juvenile boot camps crossed political philosophies. “For conservatives, they seemed to be a can’t-lose, get-tough solution. For liberals, boot camps represented a palatable alternative to traditional punishment.” (Krajicek, 1999) Seldom noted, but also a factor influencing some national politicians, was the economic and political need to put recently closed military bases to use. (Polsky & Fast, 1993)

Not too long into the age of juvenile boot camps, however, the media found something new to report in dramatic fashion: abuses at the boot camps. Headlines like the ones that follow caught the public’s attention and began building pressure for policy changes:

“Camp Fear” (Mother Jones, 2000), “States pressed as 3 boys die at boot camps” (New York Times, 2001), “Child handcuffed for three days: Boot camp for troubled kids closed” (Associated Press, 2000), “Florida camp delinquents get red ant punishment” (Yahoo News, 1999), “Children were isolated and hogtied, they report” (Rocky Mountain News, 1998), and “A noisy, obvious, gruesome, extended death: Arizona Boys Ranch charges” (Arizona Daily Star, 1999).

The stories all too regularly lived up to their horrific headlines. The vignettes that follow have been taken from the popular press. They deal with three different young people at three different types of facilities: one government, one private, and one private that had contracted its services to a government entity. The vignettes tend to be dramatic in nature. However, no apologies are offered for the dramatic overtones that carry forward into this paper because child abuse and the death of children are tragic events that resonate dramatically across all levels of society and all manner of press.)


Gina was fourteen-years-old and in the eighth grade when she was sentenced to a term in the South Dakota Training School at Plankinton, a disciplinary, state-run “boot camp” for delinquent girls. The incident that brought about Gina’s committal to Plankinton was the theft of a Beanie Baby. (Parenti, 2000) The short and heavy girl (5 feet, 4 inches tall, 224 pounds) arrived at the Plankinton facility in mid-July of 1999. Less than a week after her incarceration began, Gina was pronounced “dead” in an ambulance that was racing to a local hospital. Cause of death: hypothermia; cause of hypothermia: a 2.7 mile forced run on a humid morning, and a significant lack of medical attention. ("'Teenage girl run to death in SD boot camp'",1999) Eyewitnesses stated that by the time Gina finished the run, she was “lying in a pool of her own urine, frothing at the mouth, gasping for breath, twitching, and begging for ‘mommy’”. (Parenti, 2000)


It was another hot July day two years later when Tony’s mother packed him off to a private disciplinary boot camp. His mother, a desperate single parent, felt that she was losing control of her son after he slashed the tires on her car and shoplifted an inexpensive action figure. Tony, like Gina, was fourteen years old when he arrived at the boot camp near Buckeye, Arizona, and, like Gina, he was dead less than a week later.

Tony’s camp was run by America’s Buffalo Soldiers Re-Enactors Association (ABSRA), and was under the direction of a former Marine lance corporal who liked to be referred to as “Colonel”. (Janofsky, 2001b) The “Colonel” had two prior confrontations with law enforcement for domestic violence that included using a sledgehammer to bust in the door of an ex-girlfriend’s apartment, and on another occasion punching the same woman in the face with his fist. ("'Director of boot camp said faced probe'",2001a)

The final autopsy report on Tony listed the cause of death as an accident that “resulted from complications of near-drowning and dehydration from heat exposure” after being forced to stay in direct sunlight for one to five hours in 111-degree heat. (Janofsky, 2001b) The near drowning was not elaborated on in the findings, but news sources said that came about after Tony had passed out from the heat. Camp staff took him to a motel in nearby Buckeye where they placed him in a bathtub and turned on the shower. He was in the tub, unconscious, when staff inexplicably left the room for some reason. When they returned, Tony was face down in the water. Instead of proceeding to a hospital with Tony, the staff, who believed he was faking, returned him to the boot camp. Tony never regained consciousness. (Janofsky, 2001b)

Another indignity that Tony was forced to endure during his week at camp involved being handcuffed and shackled, and having his pants pulled down by staff. He was then beaten on his bare buttocks by a staff member wielding a boot, all the while being kicked repeatedly and having his mouth packed with mud for screaming during the ordeal. (Janofsky, 2001a)


Nicholaus died at another Arizona camp for delinquent teens. The sixteen-year-old had been busted for joyriding in a stolen car in California, and after being adjudicated he was shipped to Arizona to serve his time at a contracted facility. Nicholaus became ill while at the boot camp and complained of nausea and diarrhea. The staff at the camp considered him to be faking, and over the next two months they heaped abuse, both verbal and physical on the youth as his condition worsened. At one point after Nicholaus had begun vomiting regularly and soiling his sheets, staff made him carry around a bucket full of his own vomit, feces, and soiled sheets. It was also alleged that he had to do pushups with his face just above the bucket of “acrid slop”. (Parenti, 2000)

Finally, at the end of a day in which staff allegedly spent a great deal of time throwing Nicholaus to the ground, bouncing him off of a wall, and making him do pushups, the teen collapsed to the ground. When a staff member bellowed for him to get up, “no,” was all that Nicholaus said. He died in the dirt. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest, but the autopsy also detailed that the boy’s stomach was distended and flooded with “more than two-and-one-half quarts of pus from a virulent hybrid infection of staph and strep.” Nicholaus’ lungs were filled with fluid, and his body was “covered with seventy-one cuts and bruises.” (Parenti, 2000)

And So Many Others

Gina, Tony, and Nicholaus are just the tip of an iceberg that has been forming for over two decades, and the stories of children who have suffered and even died in these stark settings just keep coming. In February of 2001 fourteen-year-old Ryan hanged himself in a West Virginia wilderness therapy camp. (Janofsky, 2001d) That same month Michael, aged 12, died at a camp for troubled boys in Florida after being restrained on the ground by a 320-pound counselor for nearly half-an-hour. (Janofsky, 2001d) As many as 31 teens in 11 states have died in these camps since 1980, and 10 of those were in Arizona alone. (Janofsky, 2001d) With an estimated 400 boot camps in operation nationwide (Janofsky, 2001d), the potential for the abuse and deaths of more children would appear to be staggering.

New Directions

In looking at the reality of juvenile boot camps, both governmental and private, through research and the popular press, two things are readily apparent. First, the “in-your-face” methodology of drill sergeants, as measured by recidivism, isn’t working, especially if there is not a strong therapeutic component attached to the programs both integrally and as aftercare. Second, there is an urgent need for stricter oversight of all programs. Both of these situations are changing, but changes in social policy can often be heartbreakingly slow.

Two places where changes appear to be occurring are Maryland and Arizona. Governor Parris Glendening and Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of Maryland were facing a tough reelection bid in 1998. Their public relations people approached the state’s largest newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, about running a piece on the state’s juvenile boot camp program that would hopefully portray the team of Glendening and Townsend as tough on crime. The reporter chosen to write the article decided that there was more of a story in the boot camp program than the “puff piece” that the state’s leaders hoped to generate. The reporter and a photographer followed a group of 14 juveniles from the day they entered the program through their graduation and first few months back on the streets. When the four-part series finally went to press over a year later, its tales of almost constant physical and verbal abuse perpetrated by the staff brought about investigations, forced resignations, and firings. (Richissin, 2000) One of the state’s three juvenile boot camps was closed, and the other two dropped their military regimen. Governor Glendening appointed a task force to examine aftercare, which had been described in the newspaper series as being “in shambles with probationers routinely skipping drug treatment and other follow-up therapies.” (Marks, 1999) Maryland’s programs are now called “youth leadership academies”, and they include equal parts of classroom work, therapy, and aftercare. (Krajicek, 1999)

Arizona holds the dubious distinction of being the state with the largest number of juvenile boot camp deaths. Tony (described above in a vignette) brought the state’s total to 10 when he died in July of 2001. The fact that Arizona has no regulations or laws governing camps that cycle kids through in less than a year is undoubtedly as attractive to the teen camp industry as it is abhorrent to the parents of those 10 young people who died. (Janofsky, 2001d)

Chris Cumminsky, a state senator from Arizona, commented on his state’s lack of oversight of this industry by saying, “You have to provide more documents to get a fishing license than to run a camp for young boys.” Cumminsky added, “We require nothing to demonstrate that you have the qualifications to engage in this type of activity.” (Janofsky, 2001d) The national spotlight has begun to wither Arizona’s conservative resolve to keep “hands off” of private enterprise, and Governor Jane Hull believes that the legislature has been backed into a position that will force them into action. (Krajicek, 1999)

The unique blend of professional research and stories in the popular press may work together to address the deficiencies of aftercare and oversight, and through that odd union perhaps a solution that will emerge that can truly serve the needs of troubled youth and society. Doris Layton MacKenzie, a researcher with an impressive background in the study of boot camps, took aim at the current situation in America and fired off this summative salvo:

“When boot camps are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid – and that’s what’s scary.” (Marks, 1999)

(1993). Prison boot camps: Short-term prison costs reduced, but long-term impact uncertain. . Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office.

(1998). U.S. Justice Department says boot camps do more harm than good. Associated Press.

(1999). Teenage girl run to death in SD boot camp. Argus Leader.

(2001a). Director of boot camp said faced probe. Associated Press.

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Anonymous said...

Juvenile boot camps are effective because they teach troubled teens discipline and various skills that will be useful for them in future.

Cindy Spark said...

I actually like the idea of juvenile boot camps. But there is really no dependable proof which actually supports that boot camp programs are indeed effective. Some teens have benefited from its existence while others have negative experiences wherein the effects have been irreversible.