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News & Views - Aug, 1993 Issue #23 


(On May 7, 1993, The Huntsville Times reported a nineteen year old boy died at a young adult "boot camp" in Alabama from heart failure during physical training. The following is a copy of a letter sent to President Bill Clinton on April 5, 1993. Mr. Burns urges all professionals to contact President Clinton on the matter of "Boot Camps" as a part of juvenile corrections.

(As we go to press, President Clinton has just announced his proposed Crime Bill which includes boot camps for juvenile offenders as a significant part of his proposal. - Lon)

President William J. Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Clinton:

As a professional in the field of child and adolescent treatment, I am very concerned about administration considerations to expand utilization of "Boot Camp" programs within juvenile corrections. It appears this interest is growing more due to the potential economic and political benefits rather than the realization of their potential. In fact, I am aware of no reliable evidence which supports "Boot Camp" effectiveness, while I am aware of a considerable body of research which shows such approaches and techniques used by "Boot Camps" are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, harmful.

These programs rely on aggressive confrontation, harsh discipline, extreme physical exertion, and strict obedience to those with power. The basic beliefs are these methods will 1) "scare" these kids "straight" 2) improve self confidence and esteem (pride over having survived the experience) and 3) punish them for their criminal behavior. I think such programs certainly punish, but little else. In fact, it is highly likely such treatment increases the probability of antisocial behavior and decreases self confidence and self esteem. Reports on these programs reveal that as high as forty percent (40%) of the youth "wash out" and, that for those who finish, recidivism rates are the same as for those who complete the typical corrections program. Based on this information, one has to ask exactly what has been accomplished?

Also of importance is the question of humane and non-abusive care and treatment. Quite frankly, the harsh verbal and physical aspects of these programs would not be permitted by state licensing authorities in other child care, treatment or custodial facilities. I can tell you emphatically such practices would be regarded as abusive and actions would be taken against the facility. While we still have a long way to go in terms of providing quality treatment and rehabilitative care to youth in this country, I certainly think we should not regress to the point where we think that verbal abuse, mindless and/or extreme physical exertion, and humiliating consequences for rule infractions (i.e. wearing baby bottles around the neck) are suitable practices which produce positive results. Such an environment will generally only become more and more abusive. This was the case for the "Boot Camp" opened in Birmingham, Alabama. The camp was closed in 1992 after it became clear to external authorities that youth were being emotionally and physically abused by their "instructors". Unfortunately, I think this facility may recently have been allowed to reopen. From a child protection and civil rights viewpoint, such treatment is not compatible with our public policy and laws for the protection, care and treatment of children and adolescents.

Finally, I wish to point out some of the characteristics of the youth most likely to be placed in these programs. First, these are not the hardened, dangerous, violent juvenile criminals. These are excluded from participation due to their offenses. The youth enrolled are those which have generally committed non-violent property crimes or drug offenses. The participants typically will come from economically and socially disadvantaged homes with histories of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Educationally, they will be significantly behind with little or no usable job skills. Psychologically, many will show clear symptoms of a variety of diagnosable psychiatric disorders which are often the result of the brutal treatment they have already received in their young lives. Are these youth who will benefit from such a program? If anything, this experience is simply more of the same. I think many of these psychologically impaired youth will only be further damaged, traumatized and lost.

In closing, President Clinton, I want to urge you not to support or encourage the continued development of such programs. I and other professionals, I am sure, would gladly give of our time and expertise to provide assistance and consultation in this area. While we don't have all the answers about what works, we do know about some things which clearly do not work. "Boot Camps" do not work and cross the line between firm guidance and discipline to abuse.


Christopher Burns, MA
Vice-President - Operations
Three Springs Treatment Programs.
Huntsville, Alabama

Copyright 1993, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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