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The Drawbacks of Juvenile Boot Camps' Confrontational Approach
By Hugh C. McBride
Decades ago in the United States, some young men who had committed certain crimes were given the choice of enlisting in the Army or going to jail. This informal diversion program was based in part on the belief that wayward young men might be set straight by the strict discipline and intense regimentation of military life.
The military is no longer offered as an alternative to imprisonment, but a belief in the rehabilitative powers of discipline, physical labor, and strict living conditions still exists. In fact, this philosophy is a central tenet of many boot camps for juvenile offenders and other troubled teens.
Though these boot camps for adolescents are not affiliated with the U.S. military, many attempt to simulate the military experience by featuring components such as an intense indoctrination period, mandatory physical fitness, strict rules and harsh punishments, and a tightly controlled living environment.
But many questions remain. Can a system that was inspired by an effort to mold civilian adults into battle-ready soldiers help troubled teens transform into responsible members of society? And is a confrontational approach an appropriate (and safe) way to rehabilitate teenage boys and girls? In other words, are juvenile boot camps worth the risk?
Initial Enthusiasm, Declining Support
In the United States, the use of boot camps as an alternative to jail began in the 1980s. The first boot camp for adult offenders opened operations in Georgia in 1983. Two years later, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, became the site of the nation's first juvenile boot camp.
In the January 2007 edition of Reason magazine, writer Maia Szalavitz noted that when they first appeared on the scene, juvenile boot camps accomplished something that very few programs ever do – they received support from both sides of the political divide.
"Liberals liked that it wasn’t prison and usually meant a shorter sentence than conventional detention,” she wrote. “Conservatives liked the lower costs, military style, and tough discipline."
Erin Hanusa echoed this evaluation of public support in a Nov. 30, 2006 article titled "Are Boot Camps Obsolete?" that appeared on the website of the Youth Policy Action Center.
"Many politicians and voters like the idea of boot camp," Hanusa wrote. "The images involved are almost romantic: taking the ragged edges of troubled kids and shaping them into the bright, sharp lines of marching cadets.”
However, Hanusa noted that although boot camps "can take an important place in a spectrum of juvenile sanctions," the evidence indicates that the programs aren't all that successful at achieving the result to which they strive:
Dr. Ed Latessa, a juvenile justice expert at the University of Cincinnati, says public esteem for boot camps is misguided. “There’s a common misperception that what these kids need is structure, discipline, and order. But those aren’t big risk factors. They don’t have much to do with criminal behavior,” says Latessa. ...
Latessa cites social learning theory – the premise that we internalize and imitate the behavior we see – as one reason that boot camps don’t work. “The first thing they do when these kids get off the bus is yell, scream in their faces, and tell them they’re going to straighten them out. So they’re teaching these kids that the way you solve problems is to get up in someone’s face and yell. It’s a formula for disaster.”
Regardless of the types of rules that a boot camp claims to enforce regarding physical contact, Latessa told Hanusa, the result is an unhealthy environment. "The military approach lends itself to abuse,” he said.
Abuse & Neglect
A June 25, 2008 USA Today article enumerated a few of the more egregious examples of the types of abuse and neglect that have occurred in juvenile boot camps:
- Researchers with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that a 15-year-old died from a severed neck artery after being held face down in the dirt for 45 minutes.
- The GAO documented the experience of a14-year-old at an Arizona boot camp who died of dehydration after being forced to sit in 113-degree desert heat as punishment for asking to go home.
- The GAO also reported a case where boys at a boot camp were required to stand with bags over their head and a hangman's noose around their necks.
One of the most notorious cases involving abuse at a state-run boot camp involved Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old Florida teen who chose boot camp instead of juvenile detention following a probation violation. According to a March 14, 2006 CNN report, Anderson died while surrounded by camp guards:
Anderson died shortly after collapsing at the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp for juvenile offenders on January 5. He had complained of breathing difficulties while running around a track as part of the entry process on his first day at the facility.
Videotape of his entry process showed staffers hitting Anderson from behind and using various takedown methods against him, including knees to the thigh, pressure points to his ear and punches to his arms.
A staff report prepared later explained that Anderson had resisted repeated attempts to get him to complete the exercise. One staffer wrote: "I ordered (the) offender to stop resisting and relax his arms. Offender refused to comply with those instructions."
The Bay County sheriff's office said he was restrained for being "uncooperative."
As Dr. Ed Latessa observed in Erin Hanusa's article, antagonism and other forms of confrontation aren't just occasional occurrences at many juvenile boot camps -- they are actually a central component of the programs' philosophies.
"They embrace in-your-face confrontation as the most effective means," R. Dean Wright, a criminology professor at Drake University, said in the June 2005 edition of Reader's Digest. "The mantra is break the kid down so you can build him back up."
Treating the Symptoms, Ignoring the Causes
Critics of juvenile boot camps have noted that some camps do not employ therapists, counselors, or other trained professionals who can assess and address the emotional well-being of children who are placed there. Seamus McGraw addressed this issue in a Reader's Digest article:
Counselors are little more than guards, former military personnel or retired police, who are told they have the authority to enforce strict discipline. "They create a climate where being physical is what you're pushing," says Mike Finley, an attorney formerly with the Washington-based Youth Law Center. "When you're telling staff, 'Here's our program, it's about punishing kids and being physical,' you're just asking for abuse."
As many child psychologists, therapists, and other mental health experts have noted, unacceptable behaviors such as teen substance abuse, defiance, and aggression are often symptoms of an underlying emotional disorder. Thus, approaches that attempt to scare or intimidate a teen into acting appropriately may work in the short term. But, as would happen if a doctor treated a patient's broken leg with nothing but painkillers, the root cause of the problem will continue to inflict damage.
As many studies have shown, the recidivism rate for boot camp graduates is virtually the same as it is for youth who were sentenced to more traditional forms of juvenile detention.
In the case of teens whose parents enroll them in boot camps as an alternative to a therapeutic wilderness program or boarding school, a failure to provide counseling and other mental-health services (to both the child and the family members back home) almost guarantees that the underlying conditions will be left untreated, only to re-emerge once the child has been removed from the tightly controlled boot camp environment.
- Education Brings Hope to Teens in Substance Abuse Treatment
- Bored Teens More Likely to Drink, Take Drugs
- Teachers at Residential Programs for Teens Take a Specialized Approach to Education
- The Drawbacks of Juvenile Boot Camps' Confrontational Approach
- Things to Consider Before You Ship Your Teen Off to Boot Camp