Study faults boot camps for inmates

April 13, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

The boot camp prison, a widely embraced alternative to long-term incarceration, has had only negligible success in steering offenders away from crime, a new study by a Maryland researcher has found.

In New York, for example, almost half of boot camp graduates were rearrested within 12 months of their release, compared with 57 percent for offenders released from traditional prison.

In Georgia, boot camp graduates got in trouble more often than other offenders, according to the study led by Doris Layton MacKenzie, a criminologist at the University of Maryland College Park.

The federally funded study, which was released yesterday, looked at boot camp prisons in eight states, not including Maryland.

"There is some evidence that some positive things are happening during the in-prison phase of the program," the study concluded. "However, there is very little evidence that the programs have had the desired effect of reducing recidivism and improving the positive activities of offenders who successfully complete the program."

Boot camp prisoners take part in rigorous physical exercise, classroom instruction and work details, all the while adhering to military-style disciplinary standards.

While Maryland's 4-year-old boot camp prison was not studied, state officials agree that its graduates return to criminal activity at about the same rate as offenders who served time in a traditional prison.

"We know that the national experience is that boot camp offenders do no better or marginally better than the inmate population as a whole," said Leonard A. Sipes, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In Maryland, 18.6 percent of the boot camp graduates in 1991 returned to either prison or probation within a year.

While state officials did not have comparable numbers for the general prison population for that year, a study from the mid-1980s showed that about 20 percent of offenders leaving regular Maryland prisons returned to prison or probation within a year.

But, Mr. Sipes said, Maryland's boot camp prison accomplishes its primary goal: reducing overcrowding in the prison system.

"We have stated repeatedly it is our policy to hold scarce prison beds for repeat violent offenders, major drug dealers and child abusers," Mr. Sipes said.

Boot camp prison is seen as a cheaper alternative to longer-term incarceration in traditional prisons. That made it an easy sell in Maryland in the late 1980s, when the state's prison population and budget were soaring.

Some 1,270 inmates have made it through the grueling six-month program at Maryland's boot camp in Jessup since it opened in August 1990, according to a Division of Correction spokeswoman.

The prison now houses 258 inmates.

Mr. Sipes said the state has increased supervision and vocational training for boot camp graduates to try to improve the recidivism rate. The boot camp will increase also the amount of substance abuse counseling that inmates receive, he said.

At least 29 states, as well as the federal government and several local communities, operate boot camp prisons, and President Clinton supports a proposal to build more.

In addition to New York's program, the study looked at prisons in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

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