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Military-style camps put the boot in for America's young offenders: Square-bashing for drug pushers and burglars is not an effective alternative to prison, Peter Pringle writes from New York

A DECADE ago, with prisons bulging, politicians, social scientists and the American public thought it would be a fine idea to send young first-time, non-violent offenders to military-style boot camps. Drill sergeants were hired to march dope peddlers and burglars up and down a barrack square, and if the youths survived they could go back to life beyond the wire. But despite a planned expansion of the camps the experiment is not working as well as many had hoped.

In the camps, which now house 8,000 inmates in 30 of the 50 states, half and sometimes more of the youths have been unable, or unwilling, to live up to the required spit and polish. Among those who graduate, the level of recidivism is barely lower than among the convicts released from regular jails.

Even so, many politicians in Washington still like the image of young offenders getting in shape rather than sitting in a prison cell all day and Congress is about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to open more camps. 'Intuitively, it makes sense,' said Charles Schumer, a Democratic member of Congress from New York, which has the largest boot-camp programme in the nation, with five camps and 1,500 inmates. Mr Schumer is a sponsor of the boot-camp bill passing through Congress.

Other supporters of the camp concept include the die-hard drill sergeants in their combat uniforms and their famous wide-brimmed Marine Corps hats with the strap at the back. They soldier on, believing implicitly that there is no wayward human condition that cannot be overcome by order, in-your-face discipline and rigorous physical activity.

The state with the largest number of camps - Georgia, which has nine - has a former marine, Zell Miller, 61, as governor. A Democrat, he blasted the academics who are expressing concern that the programme does not seem to be producing results for the money spent. 'Nobody can tell me from some ivory tower that you can take a kid, kick him in the rear end, and it doesn't do any good,' he told the New York Times recently. 'I don't give a damn what they say, we're going to continue to do it in Georgia'.

When the camps were first opened, they had widespread support. They appealed to both conservatives, who have long opposed what they see as the coddling regime of regular US prisons, and to liberals who saw a programme that gave a young offender the chance to mend his or her ways in an open environment without having to mix with older criminals.

Now, however, some social scientists note the potential for physical abuse (five drill sergeants in Texas were indicted last year on charges of beating and choking camp inmates). Academics note that military-style shock therapy can be fine for army recruits who are stripped of their self and then moulded into another that fits military life. The recruit then becomes a member of a huge and supportive team.

Young offenders in boot camp may have their persona successfully altered by the camp regime, but despite post- camp monitoring by probation officers, the cure may be just temporary. Once the inmates are outside the camp gates, there is no team, no support system to continue the reform, and, because the change has been achieved through shock therapy, it may disappear more quickly than if the inmate had been brooding over his or her mistakes in a prison cell.

There is no significant difference in the number of camp graduates and regular prison parolees who become recidivists. In Louisiana, for example, 14.3 per cent are back in custody within six months, as against 15.4 per cent from regular prisons. Results in New York show 11.4 per cent of boot-camp graduates fail to make it on their own within six months and 15.5 per cent within a year. In addition, these figures are only for graduates and do not count the young offenders who fail the course or drop out. In New York, 37 per cent never complete the six-month programme; in Wisconsin, 80 per cent.

A study by a Massachusetts research firm, Abt Associates, concluded that boot camps were 'more likely to increase prison population, crowding and total correctional costs than to decrease them'.