Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Study Shows Boot Camps Are a Failure

Study Shows Boot Camps are a Failure

A June 2003 study published by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, shows that boot camps are failures in reducing recidivism and prison populations.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, lawmakers throughout the United States pushed boot camps as a means of reducing recidivism, prison populations, and operating costs while at the same time getting tough on criminals. By 1995, there were 75 adult boot camps, 30 juvenile boot camps, and 18 local jail boot camps operating in various State and local jurisdictions throughout the United States. As the name implies, prison boot camps are detention facilities that use in-your-face military-style training to correct offender behavior. These camps force vigorous physical exercise, drill and ceremony, manual labor, and other physical exercises on prisoners leaving them little free time. Strict rules and intense verbal tactics designed to break prisoners' wills combined with the military-style training were thought to lead to improved behavior and attitudes and, consequently, reduced recidivism. To reduce prison populations, boot camp prisoners were given shorter sentences in exchange for successful completion of the program.

The NIJ study, led by Dale G. Parent, ran from 1988 to 1997. The key findings of this study were that:

1. Boot camps generally produced shortterm positive changes in "the attitudes, perceptions, behaviors and skills" of boot camp prisoners; but,

2. "With limited exceptions, these positive changes did not translate into reduced recidivism[;]" and

3. Boot camps achieved only small relative reductions in prison populations and operating costs, and then only "under a narrow set of conditions." Three factors were identified as contributing to the failures of boot camps. These factors were:

a. Mandated early releases from prison made boot camps unnecessary as a means of reducing prison populations because these mandated reductions offset the need for the shortened boot camp sentence;

b. There was no standard boot camp model; and,

c. There was no postrelease programming to prepare prisoners for returning to Society, resulting in high rates of recidivism.

The report noted particularly the conflict between shorter sentences, intended to reduce prison populations, and the lack of programming designed to reduce recidivism. The 90120 day boot camp sentence had the effect of reducing relative prison populations but created high recidivism rates. When programming was added to address prisoners' needs, recidivism rates dropped, but the length of stay increased, offsetting the prison population reductions. The report also observed that the differing offending histories and programming needs of female prisoners compared to male prisoners made boot camps even less successful for female prisoners than for male prisoners.

The report offered several conclusions from the boot camp study. Particularly, the report found that reduced idleness made boot camps safer than the typical prison and that increased programming reduced recidivism.

The report is titled Correctional Boot Camps: Lessons from a Decade of Research. It is report number NCJ 197018. It can be downloaded from the NIJ website ( One copy of the report is free by writing NCJRS, Post Office Box 6000, Rockville, Maryland 20849-6000.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login