Correctional “boot camps” have existed as part of the U.S. penal system for the past quarter century. In most states, young, first-time offenders participate in lieu of a prison term or probation; likewise, in certain jurisdictions, an adolescent can be sentenced to serve time (ranging from 90 to 180 days) in a boot camp instead of being given a prison sentence of up to 10 years. How the offender serves his or her time (either in jail or at a penal boot camp) differs among facilities and individual states. Prisoners not finishing a program must serve the original prison sentence.

Although still considered punishment, being sentenced to a boot camp became accepted as an alternative sentencing choice because many pundits felt it offered a better outcome (for adults and adolescents) than did traditional sentencing. It was hoped that by inserting nonviolent, low-risk offenders into a highly disciplined environment for a short time, these perpetrators (as envisioned) would learn new skills that would help prevent them from returning to a life of crime. Depending on the specific program, a boot camp’s composition involved inmates learning discipline, experiencing regimentation and drill, physical conditioning, hygiene and sanitation, work, education, treatment, and therapy.

The average individual thinks of the military model when hearing the term boot camp, though other approaches exist as well. To recognize the wide range of methods, the definition expanded to include “work-intensive correctional programs” that did not technically qualify as boot camps but had related features: for instance, a 16-hour workday filled with laborious work, arduous physical training, studying, and counseling. Experiential programs (camps providing young offenders with a mixture of physical activity, athletic contests with fellow detainees, and challenging outdoor experiences) were the norm, not the exception. However, when the public thought about boot camps, the concept centered on military discipline to generate respect for authority while emphasizing good support services once an inmate was released—with an overriding purpose of reducing recidivism.

Boot camps were referred to as “shock incarceration” (someone becomes so frightened that he or she voluntarily obeys the law). Usually, drill instructors forced inmates dressed in army fatigues to perform push-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups for breaking any of the many rules. The program’s primary goal was to give young offenders a “taste” of prison for a short period and then release them back into the community under supervision.

Even at the beginning, boot camps’ success was guarded. Evaluation research produced mixed results, suggesting that the boot camp approach did not achieve its objective as originally hoped. Evaluations in Louisiana and Georgia indicated that boot camp graduates did no better in terms of re-arrests than inmates freed from prison or on probation and were, in fact, more likely to have parole revoked for technical violations. More serious, however, were deaths that were caused by drill instructor negligence, for example, thinking an adolescent was “malingering” when he or she was dying from dehydration.


  1. Benda, Brent B. and Nathaniel J. Pallone, eds. 2005. Rehabilitation Issues, Problems, and Prospects in Boot Camp. New York: Haworth.
  2. Cromwell, Paul, Leanne Fiftal Alarid, and Rolando V. del Carmen. 2005. Community-Based Corrections. 6th ed. Florence, KY: Wadsworth.
  3. Langan, Patrick A. and David J. Levin. 2002. Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  4. MacKenzie, Doris L. and Eugene E. Herbert, eds. 1996. Correctional Boot Camps: A Tough Intermediate Sanction. New York: Diane Publishing.