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New York Prisons Offer ‘Tough Love’ Boot Camp Programs. But Prisoners Say They’re ‘Torture’ And ‘Hell.’

Prisoners can shave time off their sentences by participating in shock incarceration programs. More than a dozen former shock prisoners say that comes at a steep cost.

Prisoners at the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility stand in formation. Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Mike Groll/AP Images.

They were called crackheads and bad parents. They were forced to wear cones on their heads with humiliating signs. They shoveled snow with spoons, and stood stoically as drill instructors forced them to fill their pockets with wet food from the mess hall when they couldn’t eat it all.  Sometimes they were hit or were sexually abused. Afterward, they were sent home from prison, ostensibly cured and no longer a threat to society.

In New York’s shock incarceration programs, prisoners with three years or less left on their sentences can spend six months doing drills, learning military discipline and taking substance abuse classes in a strict “therapeutic community” environment in exchange for an early shot at freedom.

Such programs are largely unknown to the public. But people in county jails and drug courts, and in prison reception centers and on the streets, are well acquainted with them.

The decades-old programs in the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) are some of the last in the country. The “tough love” programs claim a lower recidivism rate, and they have long been a darling of the tough-on-crime upstate Republican lawmakers who court corrections officer union support and tout the possibility of cost savings from early releases.

“The program works, it’s successful,” said Philip Palmesano, a member of the State Assembly whose district includes one facility that houses a shock-style program.

But interviews with more than a dozen former prisoners tell a different story. They told The Appeal that shock programs are “torture,” “hell,” and like “Guantánamo Bay.”

Some said they were forced to go off psychiatric medications to participate, and others recounted daily name-calling, humiliation, and physical abuse by corrections staff. Former prisoners interviewed—even those who said the program helped instill discipline and kickstart their sobriety—consistently offered similarly harrowing stories about their treatment.

Claims of abuse at the controversial programs aren’t new, though the facilities housing them rarely make the news unless a prisoner dies or an officer is arrested for abuse or misconduct. In recent years, staff there have been accused of raping prisoners, forging papers, falsifying time cards, and having an inappropriate relationship with a prisoner.

“While these programs are strict and rigorous, the Department has zero tolerance for any incident of harassment or assault, claims of which are vigorously investigated,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey told The Appeal.

In other states, now-defunct programs faced similar allegations of abuse, along with mounting evidence  that they are ineffective at rehabilitating people who commit crime. In New York, state officials closed two of the facilities. Three such facilities remain: Lakeview Shock Incarceration near Lake Erie; Moriah Shock Incarceration near the Vermont border; and Willard Drug Treatment, a 90-day version of the program geared toward parole violators. All told, the programs currently hold roughly 1,200 prisoners, with capacity for about 1,800.

They are some of the last in the country.

Shock roots in drug war escalation

New York’s first shock incarceration program launched in 1987. The war on drugs was ramping up, thanks to high-profile tragedies like the June 1986 death of 22-year-old University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, who collapsed in his dorm room and then succumbed to a heart attack triggered by “cocaine intoxication.” Eric Sterling, assistant counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee from 1979 until 1989, later called Bias’s death the “9/11 of athletics.” Criminal justice policy then underwent a shift from more rehabilitative approaches to more punitive ones. Paramilitary-style programs fit the new mold.

Typically, the programs promised to reduce recidivism and prison overcrowding, but they also appealed to America’s tough-on-crime ethos. Symbolically, their military sensibilities meshed well with the war on drugs analogies, as criminologists Faith Lutze and Jenny Lau detailed in an examination of the facilities published in 2017.

Politically, shock programs provided powerful images of reform. Shock prisoners wear ties or bow ties and parade around campus with buzzed heads and shiny boots. They make neat beds, stand at attention, and move in formation.

Initially, shock programs focused almost exclusively on military discipline. But later a second wave of shock incarceration added education, treatment, and life skills. More recent iterations involve increased attention to aftercare to help with re-entry.

By the mid-1990s, there were at least 65 programs inspired by military boot camps nationwide, according to Lutze and Lau. The Federal Bureau of Prisons opened some as did states and counties from Texas to Florida. The sentence-reducing alternatives were particularly attractive at a time when many states were under court orders to crack down on prison overcrowding.

At one point, New York boasted five military-style boot camp programs. Four were dubbed “shock” facilities and the fifth, Willard, was called a drug treatment campus. But all relied on the harsh discipline, military methods, and therapeutic community approach typically associated with shock incarceration.

Thanks to the promise of early release, shock didn’t just free up prison space; state officials said it also saved taxpayer money. In 2015, DOCCS officials said shock saved the state nearly $1.5 billion in incarceration costs since its inception in the late 1980s. Initially New York only included men under 23 in the programs, but over time the offerings expanded to include women (at least at Lakeview and Willard) and the age limit was raised to 50.

By 2000, there were 95 boot camp programs across the country. But the initial proliferation outpaced research about them and, amid growing concerns about their efficacy and a string of deaths and lawsuits, the programs began falling out of favor. Now, the number of such programs appears to be in decline, although there hasn’t really been a full accounting of them in nearly two decades.

Amid falling enrollment—possibly due to reforms that keep low-level drug offenders out of prison— New York made the move to shutter some of its shock facilities starting in 2011, sparking pushback in local communities and from the lawmakers representing them. Despite concerns from outside experts and researchers, the programs still have strong support among state legislators.

“I am a firm believer in shock,” Assemblymember Palmesano said. “It teaches discipline and respect and I think those are important things to teach those individuals who are in there.”

No other state lawmakers with shock programs in their districts responded to The Appeal’s requests for comment. The guards union, New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, initially responded to an email but ultimately did not provide comment. Prison officials declined interview requests.

Heavily restricted rights

For new prisoners, the abuse begins on the bus.

Shackled and handcuffed, fresh recruits arrive every week, sometimes shipped from other prisons after years behind bars, other times sent in straight out of intake.

“When you get in on that bus they come in screaming at you, slapping you,” said one man who graduated from Lakeview Shock Incarceration last year. Like many of the former prisoners interviewed by The Appeal, he asked to remain anonymous because he is still on parole and fears retaliation from parole officials.

“They’ll put their hands on you,” he said. “And there’s nothing you can do about it. They don’t care.”

Screaming is part of the daily routine. It starts before dawn. Sometime around 5:30 a.m., as soon as the lights are turned on, prisoners are expected to leap out of their bunks shouting. Then they have three minutes to get dressed before heading outside for group exercise, where they run in 90-degree summer heat or do push-ups in the winter snow.

“They’ll scream in your face and call you all types of names and belittle and intimidate you as much as they can to get a reaction,” the former Lakeview prisoner said. “I’ve seen people give it back to them—just being a smartass—and get handcuffed and sent to SHU [Special Housing Unit, or solitary confinement].”

When they come inside for breakfast, they march in a military-style parade line. Prisoners can take as much food as they want, but if they don’t clear their trays in the allotted time—typically five to eight minutes at the most, according to former prisoners—they risk humiliating consequences.

“You’d have to eat everything or they’d make you carry it with you in your pockets,” said Samantha, who was in the program at Willard seven years ago, and asked to be identified only by her first name.

Sometimes, in retribution for alleged infractions committed earlier in the day, drill instructors make prisoners kneel on the mess hall seats, stand to eat, or make the whole platoon squat.

The daytime hours include programs like GED or vocational training, or work assignments. On “confrontation days” in substance abuse classes, one prisoner sits in the center of the room in a military position and is forbidden to respond or react as others aggressively confront negative behavior, according to multiple program graduates.

In their limited free time, shock attendees can shine their boots, write letters, iron their clothes and make their bunks. Shock alums said that except when they are in school or drug treatment, prisoners are not allowed to sit down without permission. Until recently, both male and female prisoners had their heads shaved upon arrival, though at Willard that is no longer required for women, a DOCCS spokesperson said.

The few perks that exist in regular prison are generally not permitted in shock: There’s no TV, books are largely restricted to self-help, commissary buys are limited, packages are not allowed, and prisoners only get one phone call home every other week.

And then there are the punishments, or “learning experiences.” Most commonly, prisoners are made to carry around logs for days at a time.  But in some cases former prisoners recalled more humiliating punishments. Some said they had been made to stand and stare at a flagpole for hours, while others said they had been forced to wear embarrassing signs and sashes around the facility.

In one instance, a woman recounted watching another prisoner run around a bush in circles as drill instructors threw shoes at her, a punishment meted out after she was caught staring at the men across the yard.

One former Lakeview employee, who asked not to be named because she still works for the state government, said such punishments were common.

“There was a lot of humiliation and embarrassment and I know that’s part of boot camp,” she told The Appeal. “But I think there’s a difference between training someone to kill and training someone to succeed after being behind bars.”

In some cases, degrading treatment wasn’t even in response to a specific misdeed. Cathy—who did the programs at both Lakeview and Willard and asked that her last name not be used—recounted being called “disgusting” and a “water buffalo” because of her size. She said that once after she asked for permission to speak, a drill instructor told her: “You don’t need my permission, you ate my words.”

Other program graduates and participants offered similar details about routine name-calling and degrading comments ranging from drill instructors insulting their mothers to being called crackheads, as well as inconsistent treatment. “It’s like being in an abusive relationship,” said Marge, who completed shock in 2012, and asked to be identified only by her first name. “You never know what’s going to happen next.”

A shock success

Coss Marte is one of the program’s shining success stories.

The Manhattan native started selling drugs in the late 1990s as a teen on the Lower East Side, then a neighborhood where illicit narcotics were plentiful and crime was frequent. At first, he said he hustled outside a corner store, but later he turned to large-scale sales, and pulled in millions. Marte’s run on the streets ended in the criminal legal system.

In 2006, he did shock for the first time at the the now-shuttered Monterey boot camp. After completing the program, Marte caught another charge and went back to prison, where he went through the boot camp two more times.

But after his release from Lakeview in 2013, Marte launched ConBody, a Manhattan gym featuring prison-inspired workouts like those he learned in shock. Currently, he manages dozens of clients, with multiple classes a week and a stable of trainers, many of whom are formerly incarcerated, working for him.

In some ways, Marte said, shock helped him.

“I definitely liked the discipline factor,” he said. “You wake up, you work out, you make your bed and you get into the routine of doing day-to-day what you should be doing out in the streets.”

But Marte said Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment, the six-month drug treatment program commonly referred to as ASAT, is “pretty much bullshit.” His substance use history consisted of smoking marijuana daily and he said that many of his fellow shock prisoners didn’t have significant substance use histories, either. And Marte said that although he appreciated the shock regimen as well as the discipline the program instilled in him, it was also highly abusive.

On a near-daily basis, Marte said, he watched the guards hit male prisoners. Then Marte himself got hit and thrown into “the box”—solitary confinement—in retribution for allegedly putting up a fight.

That outcome wasn’t unusual, Marte said. Claims of prison abuse are notoriously hard to corroborate, given the secrecy of prison administrations, the scarcity of releasable video footage and limited outside oversight. But several prisoners told The Appeal that they witnessed similar abuse, as did the former Lakeview staffer who expressed concerns about prisoner treatment.

During an incident in 2018, the ex-employee said she watched a drill instructor punch a prisoner three times because he rolled his eyes. Three other current and former employees who spoke with The Appeal did not recount seeing such treatment, but two said they were not in stationed in an area where they would have been likely to witness it, and the third said she had only heard rumors about abuse.

In some cases, prisoners may file grievances—a legally required first step before filing a lawsuit—but many said they were scared to do so because they feared being kicked out of the program.

“You just didn’t, you knew that you couldn’t,” said Samantha, the former Willard prisoner. Samantha said she once complained to officials about mistreatment but later worried for her physical safety after prison staff pulled her into another room and pretended to shoot her.

“The only thing going through my mind was, ‘Are they going to take us out to an abandoned building and like, I don’t know, kill us?’” she said.

In 2013, one woman told the Albany Times-Union that a guard raped her at Lakeview.

When another prisoner informed authorities about the alleged assault, she was tossed in solitary for four days.

‘You can’t treat mental illness by beating it out of people’

Critics say that the premise of boot camp incarceration—using military basic training-style discipline to rehabilitate prisoners—is flawed.

“The reason boot camps were started,” said Christine Tartaro, a criminal justice professor at Stockton University in New Jersey, “is because we all heard of somebody who was a screw-up and went to the military and it worked out.”

But military boot camp graduates finish basic training with the guarantee of a job, housing, pension, healthcare, and food. And their post-boot camp career prospects are likely to be bright.

“Released inmates have none of those things,” Tartaro said. And even the military has made efforts to curb abusive techniques associated with basic training.

Ojmarrh Mitchell, a University of South Florida associate professor who has extensively studied shock incarceration, says there’s no empirical evidence supporting the programs’ effectiveness for rehabilitation.

“They’re problematic in a number of ways,” he said. “It’s not just the abuse that goes on but another big problem is that they don’t deter crime. They were touted as these programs that would lead to reductions in crime because they’re so onerous that they would basically scare inmates straight.”

Research shows that shock programs do not significantly reduce recidivism. Some prisoners report positive shock experiences just because the programs are less boring than regular prison, Mitchell said. And, typically, there’s less prisoner-on-prisoner violence and some positive prosocial change, even though researchers Lutze and Lau noted that shock prisoners report more feelings of conflict, helplessness, and isolation.

“The bottom line is when you have people with addiction, there’s an enormous amount of mental illness in this population,” said Maia Szalavitz, a journalist who examined boot camp incarceration in her 2006 book “Help at Any Cost.” “Screaming at them, hitting them, doing all these things to break them down is traumatizing.”

She also criticized shock programs for refusing to give prisoners medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone or suboxone.

“The idea that we’re treating addiction in places that refuse the standard of care is ludicrous,” she said, adding that there is “no data” suggesting boot camp programs are helpful in treating substance use disorder.

“You can’t treat mental illness by beating it out of people,” she said. “Depression doesn’t get cured by forced marches.”

Aside from the questionable treatment approaches, multiple experts told The Appeal that shock programs are a breeding ground for abusive treatment. While one of the former workers who spoke to The Appeal framed “abuse” as a subjective term, another said the culture that fostered such treatment was so problematic that  “no amount of pay or benefits or anything” was worth it.

“I remember coming home in tears one night,” the worker said, “and telling my husband six months from now, I could really think and act like these people and I don’t want that to be me.”

A few weeks later, she quit.

An impossible choice

In 2012, Julie Sharp was arrested in Herkimer County, New York, for drunk driving and hoped that shock would give her a chance to go home early. She had children who missed her. But she also had bipolar disorder, anxiety, and dissociative disorder.

Sharp quickly learned that one thing would automatically disqualify her from her earlier chance at freedom: the psychiatric medication she took daily to treat her mental health disorders.

When she arrived at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility before going to shock, she was taking an array of medications that seemed to work in managing her mental health. But at reception, Sharp watched an introductory video for potential shock candidates and was told that she wouldn’t qualify if she continued medication.

So she stopped.

“I had anxiety, it was terrible,” she said. “It was like choking.” For weeks, she suffered through it as she waited for a space to open up at Lakeview. Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore and went back on medication.

She was then sent back to general population in a regular prison to finish out her sentence.

Other former shock prisoners recounted similar stories; some toughed it out without medication, while others decided their medication was more important than the promise of freedom. Although the Willard Drug Treatment Campus allows prisoners to take psychiatric medication, Lakeview and Moriah do not. In some cases, those who are court-ordered to complete shock can stay on their medications in an alternative program, but that’s available only when a judge orders it.

Meta Moore was incarcerated in Lakeview in 2012 and went off medication to qualify for shock. She fell into a deep depression, she said, spending days and nights plotting to kill herself, hoping to get time alone in the shower with a razor.

“I wanted to take myself out,” she said. “Like this is my life right here, this is all it’ll ever be. They talk to you like you’re shit—like this I’m ever gonna fucking be.”

For some, the mental strain and harsh treatment of shock was so daunting that they chose to stay in prison months or years longer to avoid the program.

Katelyn Morton, a Lakeview graduate who ended up back in prison on a parole violation, said she stayed on her medication to render herself ineligible for shock; she thought doing 30 months in prison was better than six months in the grueling program.

“Sure it gets you out early,” said Edgardo Estrada, who went through Lakeview and later Willard, “but it damages you more than the state prison does.”

Shock’s future  

In 2018, just under 1,500 prisoners enrolled in the shock programs at Lakeview and Moriah, down 35 percent since 2004, according to state data obtained through an open records request. Willard currently holds around 600 parolees, but it’s not clear how that compares with years past.

Despite such significant declines in enrollees, Assemblymember Palmesano told The Appeal he would oppose any push to close shock programs, or any prisons at all. The upstate legislator said he recalled being “angry” when the state closed Monterey Shock Incarceration in his district, which covers portions of Chemung, Steuben, and Seneca counties, and all of Yates and Schuyler counties. He said he hadn’t heard of abuse at any of the boot camp facilities, but acknowledged that it’s a “tough regimen.”

“I saw former participants come back and hug their drill instructors saying, ‘This man saved my life,’” he said. “‘This man helped me become a better man.’”

One staffer, who asked not to be named because they are still employed at one of the boot camp facilities, acknowledged that it’s not therapeutic to call prisoners derogatory names but said yelling in an inmate’s face could yield benefits.

“This is going to give you the opportunity to stand with your head held high and stare at that person and not let them break you,” the staffer said. The experience teaches prisoners to “not lose their dignity” while being screamed at, especially if they have a history of abuse.

“You have to understand, there are people in the world who are like that and that are going to treat you that way,” she said. “If you can’t handle someone saying something sideways in here where it’s safe, how in the world are you going to handle it on the outside?”

Boot camp supporters like Palmesano highlighted DOCCS claims regarding lower recidivism as proof of the programs’ successes.

About 80 percent of those who complete the six-month program are released on parole immediately after, the department said in 2015; others are either “recycled” or sent back to regular prison. A three-year recidivism study found that of those released, only 28 percent returned to prison on new charges or parole violations versus 40 percent of prisoners statewide.

Experts said those numbers aren’t entirely comparable, though, because boot camp program enrollees aren’t representative of the prison population as a whole, and those who complete it are likely to be among the most motivated prisoners.

Willard is already under review for possible changes to the program, a DOCCS spokesperson confirmed. It’s not clear what those changes might look like and officials would only say that the review is in an “exploratory” phase and includes a closer eye to substance abuse treatment and trauma-informed care.

But a DOCCS spokesperson said shock is a different story: Shock is not being reviewed for programmatic changes at this time.