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New York Closes Moriah ‘Shock Camp’

by Kevin W. Bliss

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) shuttered its upstate “shock camp” on March 10, 2022. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced in her 2022 budget the closing of several prisons including the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility. That leaves the state’s last shock camp, Lakeview, operating a seven-hour drive west.

Shock incarceration began during the war on drugs in the 1980s as a rehabilitative means to “shock” prisoners into sober, law-abiding lives using regimented discipline and physical activity combined with confrontational drug counseling. Yet research conducted over the intervening 40 years does not show it is effective. In fact, many studies have shown it is abusive and has no effect on recidivism.

However, DOCCS said Moriah Shock’s three-year recidivism rate was just 28%, compared to the system-wide average of 43%. Some prisoners went so far as to file lawsuits trying to get into the shock program because it also meant early release after completion.

A feature of shock camps is restricted access for prisoners to televisions, radios, magazines, and recreational activities. Punishment is designed to be aggressive and demeaning, generally meted out to entire groups for the transgressions of one. An incident recalled by prisoner Ciera Saxby-Smith ended with a dorm full of women walking in circles for ten hours with their mattresses on their heads, scalps rubbing raw until they bled.

 “They say shock breaks you down to build you up,” she said. “But there was no build-up. It was a humiliating experience.”

After a series of deaths, sexual assaults, and physical abuse, shock programs fell out of favor in the past decade. Some experts found shock therapy did not help rehabilitate prisoners. Now, few shock camps remain in the country’s prison systems. “There is no evidence that these programs are a superior way of dealing with people with addiction,” said Maia Szalavitz, a journalist who authored the prison boot-camp book Help At Any Cost. “Research shows that confrontation and humiliation do harm. They do not escalate recovery.”

At its closing, Moriah Shock held just 74 prisoners, down from a 1996 high of 299, almost at its 300-bed capacity. DOCCS promised to repurpose the facility, and it offered transfers to its 107 employees. 

Sources: Albany Times-Union, The Marshall Project, Real News Network

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