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What is Shock Incarceration?

By Elizabeth West
Updated: May 16, 2024

Also called boot-camp prison, shock incarceration is a structured short-term alternative sentence given to first-time convicts in an effort to get them off a criminal path. The program exists at both state and federal levels in the US, and is geared towards rehabilitation rather than punishment. Participants in the program are generally nonviolent offenders under 30 years old, but many programs accept older participants. Shock incarceration has been criticized over its effectiveness and incidents involving abuse of inmates by staff.

Shock incarceration accepts inmates who have been convicted for the first time and face a sentence of 12 to 30 months. The program can last anywhere between 90 to 180 days, and includes military-style physical training and discipline. Inmates also take classes to help them get their high school equivalency if they don’t have it, or boost weak skills in math and reading. They participate in anger management courses and substance abuse counseling if necessary, and do manual labor on the facility grounds or in the community.

Eligibility for a shock incarceration program depends on an inmate’s age, the length of sentence, and whether the offender is considered a danger to others or self. Minimum-security, nonviolent inmates are typically the only ones considered. Some programs only accept young adults or adolescents, and some state and federal programs have been expanded to include inmates up to age 50, recognizing that older first-time offenders are less likely to return to prison. The inmate is typically sent to the program by a judge as a form of alternative sentencing.

Pre-release programs at the end of shock incarceration emphasize life skills, including employment seeking and financial management. Some programs release to temporary facilities known as halfway houses, where the inmates are gradually reintroduced into the community. The inmates receive closely supervised parole with mandatory drug testing and home visits. They get counseling and guidance on obtaining assistance to continue the program’s objectives of self-esteem and personal responsibility.

Some states have embraced shock incarceration programs as a means of clearing prisons and saving money, in addition to helping inmates stay out of trouble. Critics have said the programs show potential for abuse by staff, and although there have been incidents at several camps, defenders argue the same risk exists in traditional incarceration. Studies have shown that shock incarceration programs are less effective for inmates who have substance abuse issues than those who do not, implying that some problems are larger than a short-term program can handle.

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Discussion Comments
By Reminiscence — On Mar 06, 2014

@Buster29, I've been thinking the same thing for years. Some inmates may prefer to spend their time under the supervision of the US military instead of living in draconian prison cells. I realize there would be some major trust issues to overcome, but I've heard of judges "sentencing" young offenders to military service in the past. The military already has a criminal justice system of its own, so if any recruit commits a criminal act while on active duty, he or she would still be punished.

By Buster29 — On Mar 05, 2014

I have to wonder if the possibility of being assaulted by a fellow prisoner outweighs the possibility of being abused by an overzealous boot camp instructor. If I were a non-violent prisoner serving a relatively short sentence in a minimum security facility, I'd have to think long and hard before signing up for shock incarceration. If the prison system is going to go this far with military-style training, why not encourage graduates to join the National Guard? Real military instructors could teach classes and decide if any of the inmates are rehabilitated enough to serve in the armed forces.

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