Will implementing military-style training and order with inmates at the House of Correction lead to lower costs, lower recidivism and more employable ex-offenders in the process?

Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke seems to think so, and he plans to begin boot camp programming within one dorm of the HOC this December, shortly after the general election.

But his primary opponent, Chris Moews, questions the success of boot camps in jails and says he plans to bring back inmate assessments, increase alcohol and drug treatment programming and job training if elected. Clarke has cut back on these programs saving $350,000 in an effort to plug a $5 million budget hole.

Clarke’s program “Discipline, Order, Training and Structure” (DOTS), will run for 90 days and include a 5 a.m. wake up call, early morning runs, intensive physical training, work detail, GED coursework and job training. The inmates would be broken into teams to encourage each other to toe the line and avoid group punishments.

There would be no time for lying around in cells and watching daytime television.

Clarke said that he decided to implement boot camps after witnessing inmate activity when he took control over the HOC in 2009.

“The existing programming doesn’t work,” Clarke said. “They leave there as the same dysfunctional person as they were then they came in.”

DOTS is patterned after Michigan’s Special Alternative Program . Michigan’s program includes boot camp, but also intensive follow-up in a halfway house and supervision during parole. There are no such provisions with Clarke’s boot camp program as of yet.

Not much has been released about the program, but HOC Lead Chaplain Rev. Mark Wenzel said the program will be voluntary and will be led by correctional officers. Outside programming leaders may be invited to assist after the first group completes the training.

Wenzel leads an anger management class at the HOC and he said that course teaches inmates to take responsibility for their own actions, while Clarke’s program will focus on other’s behavior.

“The concept of boot camp – the discipline, organization and training sounds decent,” Wenzel said. “The idea of disciplining all for the infraction of one I question. The worse case scenario will increase violence against the people who don’t measure up. It will promote an angry environment.”

Clarke’s idea is popular among the public for its focus on discipline and accountability among prisoners and that it can be an effective way to change attitudes. Others fear the county will be open to lawsuits from inmates who are injured by over-zealous boot camp staff.

But the data on those public beliefs is mixed. A 1996 study in Pennsylvannia said boot camp inmates are released sooner, have lower recidivism and if they re-offend, it is often a less violent offense. This same report shows boot camp participants lose weight, improve their upper-body strength and increase their cardiovascular endurance by 40 percent.

In Cook County, IL (Chicago) the first group of boot camp participants in 1997 had a five-year recidivism rate of 30 percent. And a 2004 study in Colorado showed a rate of 36 percent for those who took part in boot camp after 12 years, compared to a 52 percent rate for those who didn’t go through the program.

Those numbers may not be relevant, according to a 2003 boot camp study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The report acknowledges boot camp shows a short-term improvement in attitude, behavior and job skills, but had little impact on the number of repeat offenders.

The study found that prison populations and the number of criminals who lapse have not fallen due to the inconsistencies between programs spread across 40 states, state mandates to lower prison populations that have taken away a boot camp benefit – early release – and, most boot camps lack followup once a participant re-enters the community.

DOJ found that the most successful camps had intensive treatment programs, last longer than the 90 days Clarke is proposing and had  post-release supervision. The report also panned the concept of using boot camps as a cost saving measure:

“While carefully structured boot camps may reduce idleness and increase safety among younger offenders, to save costs, underlying programs are cut which may lead to more violence, misconduct and management problems.”

Clarke has not received permission from the county board or other officials to implement his boot camp plan, but as a constitutionally-elected officer, he doesn’t need to.

“With my constitutional authority, if I have to, I’ll do it unilaterally,” he said.

Editor’s note: Rev. Mark Wenzel is the husband of the author of this piece, Patti Wenzel.

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