NEW YORK, Dec. 23 — A damning series of stories in The Baltimore Sun offers more compelling evidence that it may be time to stick a fork in America’s correctional boot camp boondoggle. The four-part series, published Dec. 5-8, was a vivid portrayal of brutality at Maryland’s boot camps for juvenile offenders.
REPORTER TODD Richissin spent a year following 14 juvenile offenders through boot camp, into aftercare and back onto the streets. Eleven of the 14 were rearrested within nine months.
But the recidivism was a mere footnote in the report. Richissin’s narrative and the evocative photos by Andre Chung documented the violence and threats that boot camp staff members used against juvenile offenders. (The series is available on the Sun’s Web site, www.baltimoresun.com, under the “Charlie Squad” keywords.)
‘I still don’t know exactly what was going through their minds. This was not a hidden-camera thing. My photographer is standing there taking pictures, and I’m standing there with my notebook out while this is going on.’
— TODD RICHISSIN The Baltimore Sun
Operation of the camp has been suspended; several state officials have been fired; the state police are exploring possible criminal charges; the FBI is probing for civil rights violations; and the heat is on state Gov. Parris Glendening, who says he was unaware of the violence, and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the state’s anti-crime guru.
Vince Schiraldi, a juvenile advocate in Washington, said the series revealed “state-sanctioned child abuse.”
STORY PITCHED BY POLITICIAN
Richissin, 36, joined the Sun two years ago after working at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. A general assignment reporter, he told Crime Beat the boot camp story was pitched to the paper last year by Townsend, who apparently expected an “isn’t-this-cool” piece.
Richissin spent a day at a boot camp but decided a long-term look would be more informative. State officials gave him access to records about abuse allegations against boot camp staffers, and he saw abuse firsthand during his many visits to the camp.
“It really did not start out as a story about violence at the camp,” Richissin said. What began as a story about troubled teenagers evolved into an investigative series after the reporter and his photographer witnessed repeated instances of brutality — kicking, punching, body slams — by squad leaders over a five-month period.
“I still don’t know exactly what was going through their minds,” he said. “This was not a hidden-camera thing. My photographer is standing there taking pictures, and I’m standing there with my notebook out while this is going on. ... All I can think is that some of the earlier allegations of abuse at the camp were more serious, so maybe in their minds they were really toning it down.”
Military-style boot camps have been haunted by abusive staff members, even as they were being touted as cheap, effective prison space-savers and politically tasty. For conservatives, they seemed to be a can’t-lose, get-tough solution. For liberals, boot camps represented a palatable alternative to traditional punishment. The media encouraged the shock-incarceration fad by treating readers and viewers to pictures of sweat-stained criminals in fatigues doing push-ups under the combat boot of a Sgt. Slaughter-like drill instructor.
Ten years ago, Dale Parent, a social scientist in Cambridge, Mass., and leading boot camp expert, wrote, “Shock incarceration makes good copy, conveying powerful visual images well suited to the electronic media.”
The first adult prison boot camps opened in this country in 1983, and their numbers continued to climb to a peak of 15,000 “graduates” in 1995. By then, study after study had shown that boot camps had no bearing on recidivism, the standard measure of what works in the world of corrections. Boot campers proved no less likely to return to crime as cons who faced traditional punishment.
Nonetheless, when juvenile crime began to rise in the early 1990s, politicians (including President Clinton, a one-time boot camp zealot) decided to apply to juvenile offenders the boot camp solution that already had failed among adult lawbreakers.
BRUTALITY, DEATHS, LAWSUITS
In 1992, the federal government funded three programs — in Cleveland, Denver and Mobile, Ala. — to encourage development of a boot camp model that would be most effective in reforming juveniles.
Today, about 50 juvenile boot camps operate across America, with a total of about 4,500 beds. None has proved to reduce recidivism. Generally, about eight in 10 juvenile boot camp graduates are rearrested within 30 months, even at the most highly regarded facilities.
Meanwhile, brutality allegations have mounted. The Mobile program was forced to shut down for three months in its first year after allegations of abuse by staff members. Brutality-related criminal charges or lawsuits related to juvenile boot camps are pending in a number of states, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
In August 1998, a boot camp in Arizona lost its license temporarily when a16-year-old boy died while being forced to exercise. At a South Dakota camp, a 14-year-old girl died last July while on a forced walk and run.
Following each case, the authorities promise reforms — just as they now have in Maryland.
‘SCREAMING DOESN’T WORK’ In an interview not long ago, Barry Holman, an advocate for alternative punishment, told Crime Beat that boot camps had run their course as the latest criminal justice Hula-Hoop.
“The screaming doesn’t work and never has worked,” said Holman, an official of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, in Alexandria, Va. “What works is individual care and direction. ... That doesn’t have to come from a military-type setting. It can come from employment programs, school programs, after-school activities, church groups.”
Maryland and other states have eschewed the “boot camp” name in favor of “youth leadership academy.” Advocates say these programs are the third generation of boot camps — that they have progressed beyond the break-’em-down physical regimen to include equal parts classroom work, therapy and aftercare.
But, as The Baltimore Sun series made clear, the Neanderthal, drill-sergeant mentality that continues to pervade the boot camp culture will blunt even the most progressive ideas.
David J. Krajicek is former chief of the New York Daily News’ police bureau and an APBnews.com contributing editor.