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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Boot Camp Blues

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People who don’t know anything about corrections think boot camp programs for the incarcerated are really terrific.

The only thing more satisfying to some people than sanctimoniously sermonizing about miscreants who haven’t led proper lives is screaming it right in their faces, calling them maggots and vermin.

We’ve seen the model in films like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket where boot camp instructors put military recruits through dehumanizing and degrading drills to prepare them for rewarding jobs as cannon fodder.

These questionable methods of training and discipline don’t transfer well to civilian life because the people who get coerced into such programs are usually those who already have had far more brutality in their lives than anyone needs.

The last thing we should want is to dehumanize them further.

Unfortunately, some incarceration facilities are not controlled by corrections professionals, but by posturing, tough-guy politicians such as Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, attempting to avoid any county responsibilities that could interfere with his race for governor, recently transferred administration of the county’s House of Correction to Clarke, who is elected separately.

Attacking Successful Programs

Clarke, a former police officer with no background in corrections, immediately demonstrated his lack of knowledge by attacking education, drug and alcohol treatment and job training programs under his jurisdiction.

Because his own department’s statistics showed offenders who went through such programs had lower rates of recidivism than those who did not, Clarke could only try to discredit those programs by counting arrests for minor offenses that never went to trial or resulted in acquittal.

District Attorney John Chisholm and Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers, county law enforcement professionals who care about reducing crime, diverted money from their own budgets to continue successful education and treatment programs.

If Clarke cared about community safety, he would celebrate and expand such programs instead of trying to discredit them.

Studies show 60% or more of offenders released back into the community without such programs commit new crimes while the recidivism rate for offenders who receive drug treatment or job training can be less than a third of that.

Having failed to shut down programming that reduces crime, Clarke is trying a different tactic. Counting on his right-wing talk-radio friends to support treating people at the bottom like dirt, Clarke is beginning a brand-new boot camp program he hopes to expand to replace other programs.

Clarke calls it DOTS for Discipline, Order, Training and Structure. Like Arizona Sheriff Arpaio, Clarke likes to experiment with different humiliating patterns of jumpsuits for inmates. An appropriate new uniform for this one might be clown suits with polka dots.

Instead of staffing the unit with professionals trained in education or treatment, Clarke seems to consider experience as military drillmasters the most important qualification for deputies assigned to prepare offenders for success in the outside world.

After all, most jobs in the real world require marching in step and counting cadence.

Although Clarke has been extremely vague about the details of his boot camp, he’s indicated it will include 5 a.m. wakeup calls, early morning runs, fitness training and work details.

Clarke also mentioned education and job training, but it’s not clear who would provide such classes since those are the programs he would prefer to see phased out and replaced with boot camps.

Clarke’s emphasis on physical fitness is admirable, but he seems to forget who it was who eliminated fitness programs for the incarcerated in the first place.

It was conservative politicians like himself, egged on by right-wing radio, who swept through corrections facilities and removed gyms and weight-training equipment.

They said they didn’t want offenders to develop bigger muscles than the guards. Seriously. That was the public justification.

There are very good reasons why most boot camp programs around the country have been discredited. By emphasizing yelling at people and harsh physical treatment, they are an open invitation for abusive personalities in authority to cross the line.

But, most important, they show very little success. Most studies show little difference in recidivism between those who go through boot camp programs and those who go through no programming at all.

What does work is drug and alcohol treatment, G.E.D. education and job training, the positive programs Clarke disdains.

Before the recession brought most hiring to a screeching halt, Wisconsin Community Services had an amazing record at the county of connecting hard-to-employ incarcerated offenders to real jobs.

Boot camps provide far less positive support and tools for people who want to successfully change their lives, but Clarke knows it will be several years before poor results demonstrate that.

In the meantime, it will be such fun to shout in people’s faces that they are disgusting insects.

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