Boot Camps Essay

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Boot camps became a politically popular option, especially for imposing punishment on young offenders and particularly in the United States, but there is no evidence that they are effective in reducing rates of recidivism. Concerns have been raised that the overemphasis on authority in a correctional boot camp can in fact inhibit efforts to rehabilitate offenders and lead to instances of abuse and brutality. Although the initial public enthusiasm for boot camps has eroded, the physical activity element remains prominent in criminal justice settings.

The perceived function of sport and exercise in prison has varied and evolved in line with associated fluctuations in policy and societal perceptions of the primary purpose of incarceration. Furthermore, just as the contrasting notions of punishment, containment, and rehabilitation are being separately constructed and contested in characterizations of the primary purposes of imprisonment, there are also substantial differences in the competing concepts of prison directed physical activity. Physical instruction, which is most closely aligned to the concept of the boot camp, is embodied by military style drills and underpinned through a focus on being physically exhausting. The physical instruction model contrasts with concepts of leisure (and its associations with free time, autonomy, and enjoyment), play (being characterized as freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated), and exercise (recognized as structured, repetitive, and aimed at improving or maintaining fitness or health). An inevitable result of combining these two layers of diverging assumptions in contemporary understandings of boot camps in prison is that exercise may be characterized as a way of containing or physically managing prisoners as much as it is increasingly recognized for its rehabilitative function, a contradiction that continues to be balanced and negotiated within policy and by those responsible for the running of prisons.

Synonymous with penal reform more widely, although physical activity may traditionally have been most closely aligned with the punitive element of incarceration, it is increasingly recognized as contributing to a rehabilitation agenda within prisons, as reflected in prison rules and operational guidelines. For example, current British Prison Service directives state that physical activities should have a structured approach which can support prisoners in tackling their offending behavior, impact upon individuals’ attitudes and behavior, enable prisoners to gain vocational qualifications, link effectively with reentry policy and community provision, and even encourage the purposeful use of leisure time after release.

The benefits of regular physical activity to psychological and physical health are well understood and participation in physical activity is recognized as an important contributor to well-being and quality of life for people of all ages. Alongside the obvious benefits to physical health, social and psychological benefits include improved opportunities for social contact and the promotion of social inclusion and community cohesion. Increasing or maintaining physical activity, particularly among those who are sedentary, is therefore a major goal of health and fitness professionals, psychological services, and health care providers, and as communities that house those with an increased likelihood of significant health needs, prisons represent an especially important target population.

Physical Activity in Prison: International Standards

Prison-based physical activity may be classified in different jurisdictions under the responsibility of recreation, health, or education, but provision and access are generally considered part of the basic principles of prison laws and policies of many countries, and along with health, culture, education, and work opportunities, access to sport and exercise is now widely recognized as a fundamental right of all prisoners. Key legislation includes that from the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, where the standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners prescribe that “every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if weather permits.

… Young prisoners, and others of suitable age and physique, shall receive physical and recreational training during the period of exercise.” Principle XIII of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (2008) stipulates that, “Persons deprived of liberty shall have the right to take part in cultural, sporting, and social activities, and shall have opportunities for healthy and constructive recreation.”

In a European context, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (2006) recognizes the importance of exercise and recreation with a set of rules, including 27(6), which states that: “Recreational opportunities, which include sport, games, cultural activities, hobbies and other leisure pursuits, shall be provided.”

Activity-Based Interventions for Young Men in Prison

Well-designed and delivered sports initiatives can evidently have a positive effect on prisoners’ well-being and the wider prison community, but evidence of their impact on rehabilitation (or “re-entry”) and successfully reducing reoffending is less clear, with only a handful of studies addressing these issues. Contradictory findings have emerged from activity-based interventions targeting behavioral and attitudinal changes alongside efforts to reduce reoffending. For example, one study by British researchers presented evaluations of two controversial boot camp regimes for young offenders introduced in England: Thorn Cross High Intensity Training Centre in the north of England and the Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre in the south of England. Both regimes were based on military activities, such as drilling and physical training and Outward Bound courses. The Colchester center operated for only 13 months in the late 1990s and was run partially by military staff and overseen by an army commandant governor. The Thorn Cross regime combined military activities with a rehabilitative element, which included educational, life skills, and vocational training; programs designed to address offending behavior based on developing thinking skills; and prerelease work placement in the community. In addition to studying reconviction rates, the researchers’ evaluation assessed changes in cognitive patterns relevant to criminal behavior, the ability to control aggression, and attitudes to staff and inmates. The psychological assessments showed mixed findings, with those participating in the Thorn Cross regime displaying improved attitudes, self-esteem, and control of aggression, along with reduced reoffending rates. However, the same offenders displayed increased pro-offending attitudes, and responsibility and behavior assessments did not improve following participation.

Although the Colchester sample displayed improved attitudes, self-esteem, and physical fitness, there was no improvement in attitudes toward offending, control of aggression, or self-control. Fewer reconvictions were observed in the Thorn Cross sample, which was attributed to the cognitive-behavioral skills element of the program and the considerable efforts made to find work placements for participants in the final weeks of the program and after release, rather than to the boot camp element of structured exercise. Such findings highlight the challenge of locating the effective component in holistic activity-based interventions and demonstrate the difficulties faced when trying to draw conclusive evidence from a range of highly diverse sports initiatives. Indeed, further independent evaluation of the Duke of Edinburgh Award (a program encompassing volunteering, physical activity, the development of life skills, and orienteering techniques) delivered in the young offender secure estate (14 to 21 year olds) in England and Wales offers more promise in terms of the role of physical activity interventions in rehabilitation.

Despite the incontrovertible benefits associated with physical education in prisons, it would be at best naïve and at worst dangerous to assume that such activities will inevitably confer positive outcomes. While there is a rationale and plenty of evidence that sport can be successfully utilized within prisons to encourage desistance from crime (by, for example, improving skills, instilling values, increasing employability, promoting positive peer networks, and providing a more constructive use of leisure time), empirical evidence concerning the relationship between sporting involvement and subsequent criminality does not wholeheartedly support the notion that sport alone is a protective factor from later offending, and a primary concern about boot camps serving to facilitate staff on prisoner assault and brutality, as has been observed in U.S. settings, remains paramount.

Further, despite research suggesting that sport can have a cathartic effect in reducing aggressive behaviors in prison and in promoting social control, one 1996 longitudinal study showed that high involvement in individual sports was actually associated with increased delinquency, and others have found associations between participation in contact sports and an increased perceived legitimacy of aggressive behavior. The ultimate impact of boot camp-inspired initiatives will be largely down to how activities are set up, the skills of delivery staff, and the philosophical emphasis with which they are delivered.


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