What Is Shock Incarceration?

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Shock incarceration, as stated in criminal law, is a punishment that may be used for defendants with a term of imprisonment of at least 12 months but not more than 30 months.

This alternative punishment is only given if the defendant has no prior incarceration record and has given consent.

Shock incarceration is one of the ways a prisoner convicted of nonviolent crimes has an early release.

So, who is eligible for shock incarceration, and what processes are involved in this type of punishment? What are the objectives of this so-called “boot-camp prison”? Is this short-term prison program effective?

This article tackles shock incarceration and the benefits and risks of this type of punishment. Furthermore, this piece shows how shock incarceration helps resolve the growing problem of overcrowding in United States prisons.

People subjected to shock incarceration may be released early into community supervision compared to regular imprisonment. If your loved one is part of the shock program, you may want to prepare for their eventual release.

If you need information on a loved one currently imprisoned in one of 7,000 U.S. correctional facilities, visit LookUpInmate.org. Our website gives you information about inmates, their arrest and court records, and release dates.

What Are the Types of Shock Incarceration?

Different boot-camp prisons have been created to provide shock incarceration, and each has its take on how to “shock” inmates into rehabilitation.

The National Institute of Justice has stated the types of programs shock incarcerations must have. The programs are further classified as regimentation, physical and disciplinary programs, and rehabilitation programs.

  • Regimentation, physical, and disciplinary programs
  1. Physical training
  2. Physical labor
  3. Drill and ceremony activities
  4. Regulations and punishments
  • Rehabilitation programs
  1. Vocational education
  2. Life skill training
  3. Treatment programs
    1. Drug and alcohol treatment
    2. Reality treatment
    3. Relaxation treatment
    4. Therapeutic community

Who Is Eligible for Shock?

To be eligible to participate in a shock program, an offender should meet the requirements stated in section 865 of the New York State Correction Law. However, note that requirements may differ depending on the state laws.

  • The offender must be less than 50 years of age
  • The defendant must be between 16 and 50 years old when they committed the offense.
  • The eligible participant has no previous violent felony convictions.
  • The candidate has three years or less remaining in their sentence until eligible for parole or near completion.

Aside from those mentioned above, the people must not be convicted of any of the following:

  • Violent felony offenses
  • Class A-I felony offenses
  • Any homicide
  • Any felony sex offense
  • Any escape from an offense

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has boot camps called Intensive Confinement Centers or ICC. 

According to ICC’s six basic requirements, participants must be:

  • 35 years old or younger when they enter the program
  • Serving a prison term of 12 to 30 months
  • Serving the first prison incarceration or having no lengthy prior incarceration
  • Willing to volunteer and participate in the “shock” program
  • A minimum security risk prisoner
  • Without medical restrictions

Shock Incarceration Program and Boot-Camp Prisons

Shock incarceration programs are called boot camps. Boot-camp prisons appeared in the early 1980s as an alternative to conventional correctional programs.

Prisoners spend a short period of time in a program that looks more like a military boot camp. The program involves drills, physical training, manual labor, and strict discipline.

Boot-Camp Prisons As Intermediate Sanctions

The prison population in the United States is growing, and overcrowding is one of the major concerns in many correctional facilities.

Judges allow alternative sentencing to specific offenses to reduce the strain in U.S. prisons and allow the convicted to undergo rehabilitation and correction.

One type of alternative punishment is an intermediate sanction or a lessened criminal penalty that doesn’t involve incarceration. An example of intermediate sanction is the shock incarceration program, which involves sending offenders to boot-camp prisons.

Geared towards rehabilitation, these military-style camps for eligible defendants are alternatives to long imprisonment. In addition, boot-camp prisons provide financial benefits to the state because of shortened sentences and fewer prisoner benefits.

Boot-camp prisons are seen as one of the solutions to prison overcrowding in many correctional jurisdictions in America.

Shock Tactics

There are different types of shock programs in various states in the U.S. The “shock” comes from the strict military-like discipline to which offenders are subjected.

In New York, the intervention program lasts six months, similar to the federal system.

Entering and Exiting

Most boot camps have strict requirements on who enters the camp. Eligible offenders are evaluated before they qualify for the program.

In some states, participants must sign an agreement confirming they’ve volunteered for the program. They are given information about shock incarceration and how boot-camp prisons differ from state or federal prisons.

An incentive to enter boot-camp prison is the relatively shorter sentence time compared to traditional prisons.

A Day in Boot Camp

A typical day in a boot-camp prison starts at dawn. If you’re in the program, you and your fellow inmates must quickly get dressed and clean your quarters in the morning. Then, you all march in cadence to an exercise area.

You spend an hour or more doing physical activities like running and calisthenics. Afterward, you clean yourself up and go to breakfast.

You stand at parade rest as you wait for breakfast. You eat your portion without making any conversation.

After breakfast, you spend six to eight hours on physical activities, like cleaning parks or public roads. Then, you practice more drills and ceremonies.

Dinner follows afterward. Then, you attend rehabilitation programs up to 9:00 PM. You return to your dormitory at the end of the day, but it’s still not bedtime.

You must clean your shoes and ensure your clothes are ready for the next day. Finally, after completing everything you need to do, you go to sleep.

Similarities and Differences

Most boot-camp prisons have core components of physical training, military basic training, and hard labor. These elements are geared to target offenders convicted of nonviolent offenses.

Examples of nonviolent offenses are crimes involving drugs, theft, and burglary. Also, offenders usually don’t have an existing criminal history.

Boot-camp prisons may differ in their methods of rehabilitating their participants. Some camps focus more on hard labor, while others emphasize physical exercise or military drills to instill discipline.

Still, most boot camps focus on placing inmates in rehabilitation programs. Meanwhile, many boot-camp prisons prioritize education, group counseling, and substance abuse treatment programs.

Drug Treatment in the Boot Camps

Boot camps focusing on drug treatments use military model camps with strict daily activities like cleaning, physical exercise, regular inspections, and simple meals. Not following rules in these camps may result in getting kicked out of the program.

Getting kicked out of the program is a dismissal before graduation. These individuals are sent to prison to serve a longer sentence or returned to court for resentencing.

Boot camp participants are placed in these programs to become aware of their addiction and benefit from the treatments.

The following are some of the boot camps that focus on drug treatment.

New York’s Therapeutic Community Boot Camps

The boot-camp programs of the New York Department of Corrections use a therapeutic-community model. This model promotes abstinence and recovery.

In NY’s boot camps, offenders are grouped into platoons. They meet daily to resolve problems and discuss their progress in the shock incarceration program.

The program lasts for six months, having over 200 hours of substance-abuse treatment activities with a framework based on the models used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Illinois’s Boot Camp With Levels of Treatment

The Illinois boot camp evaluates offenders and provides education and treatment that fits the severity of the offender’s addiction.

The Illinois boot camp has three different treatment levels.

  • Level 1: The offender has no history of substance abuse and receives only education programs for two weeks.
  • Level 2: The inmates are substance abusers and receive four weeks of treatment and additional drug education. The treatment involves therapy focusing predominately on family-support issues and denial.
  • Level 3: The participants in this level are serious drug addicts who may need ten weeks of treatment and education. The offenders also undergo drug education and group therapy.

Other activities that Level 3 boot camp provides to inmates include group sessions about codependency, family addiction, family roles, and behavioral differences. 

Texas’s Voluntary Participation Model

The Texas boot camp model lasts five weeks and involves drug education, individual counseling, and twelve-step fellowship meetings. People in this program receive four hours per week of group therapy.

The 12 Steps program was created by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship composed of people aiming to resolve alcohol addiction.

The 12 Steps are guidelines to overcome alcohol addiction. The program gained enough success that other support groups adopted the steps to help people with substance abuse problems.

The Texas model makes efficient use of time to make the most of each day. For example, meetings in this camp are set during free time so inmates won’t have to skip work activities to end rehabilitation sessions.

This program focuses on developing social values and self-worth, communication skills, self-esteem, and goal setting.

Dismissal Rates

When placed in this alternative penalty, dismissal occurs by misbehavior or voluntarily dropping from the program.

Determining the exact dismissal rates in boot-camp prisons can be difficult. However, the examples given by available sources show rates that fluctuate from as low as 8%, like in Georgia, to as high as 80% in Wisconsin.

Sometimes, prison time would turn out longer than expected. Some who got dismissed might have to return to court for resentencing.

Information on the dismissal rate for drug offenders in boot camps is scarce. In Louisiana, an examination into the state’s boot camp saw that the dismissal rate for drug-involved cases is relatively low compared to people with non-drug-related crimes.

A study showed that 20% of the Louisiana boot camp sample participants were problem drinkers. However, their dismissal rates are also low compared to other non-alcoholic offenders.

Many who graduated from this intensive boot camp became drug-free and healthy. Unlike those incarcerated in traditional prisons, participants leaving boot camp felt that their time in this rigid, military-style program had been positive and changed them for the better.

Meanwhile, interviews of inmates in boot camps showed that they entered the program believing they were receiving a shorter sentence than a traditional prison sentence.

Performance During Community Supervision

Once an individual completes boot camp, they’re placed under community supervision.

Community supervision is a set of programs that a convicted must abide by in their community rather than inside a prison or jail. Common types of community supervision are probation and parole.

Community supervision can also be a combination of other programs and resources like staying in a halfway house or a transitional center for people who have cases of drug or alcohol abuse.

Other community supervision programs include mental health services, vocational training, and substance abuse education. The court may obligate a person in community service to undergo these programs as part of the requirements to avoid revocation of their community supervision privilege.

A parole or probation revocation means reincarceration with longer prison or jail time or a return to court for resentencing.

Performance of Drug-Involved Offenders

Boot camp graduates are placed under community supervision. Their activities are monitored as they complete the sentence ordered by the court.

According to a National Institute of Justice evaluation report, former shock incarceration participants reported positive experiences after they went through the program. Participants said the programs helped them “get free” of drugs and become physically healthy.

The NIJ’s evaluation also showed that while boot camps don’t necessarily improve skills, they can help participants experience a drug-free, structured life that gives a sense of accomplishment.

How Long Do Shock Incarceration Programs Generally Last?

Shock Incarceration programs or boot-camp prisons generally last for 90 to 180 days. The program aims to place the defendant, usually young and adult nonviolent offenders, in a therapeutic environment that helps people change for the better.

The Future of Boot-Camp Prisons

The U.S. Justice Department revealed that the national recidivism rate for boot-camp prisons ranges from 64% to 75%.

Meanwhile, at 63% to 71%, the boot-camp rate is relatively higher than the recidivism rate in federal or state prisons.

There are two sides of the coin regarding the future of boot-camp prisons. Those who are against this system are concerned that inmate rights may not be observed as they’re being coerced into something.

Critics say that summary punishments, staff yelling, and possible abusive behavior against inmates might result in detrimental behavior.

However, for those favoring boot camps, the benefits far outweigh the risks. Examples of these benefits are instilling discipline and accountability to boot camp participants.

Also, supporters say that the relationship between offenders and their instructors can be helpful, especially for drug-involved defendants.

Does Shock Work?

The effectiveness of shock incarceration can differ in various states because there is currently no standard program for this alternative punishment.

Because each state uses the model of the boot-camp prison that they see fit, measuring the effectiveness of shock incarceration is challenging.

Still, the results are promising. For example, in New York State, a 2015 report showed that since the inception of boot camps, taxpayers have saved nearly $1.5 billion. Also, the state showed a low recidivism rate among shock incarceration graduates.

The report states that approximately only 28% of shock graduates reenter the incarceration facilities, compared to the state-wide reincarceration average of 40%.

What Are the Drawbacks of Shock Incarceration?

The U.S. criminal justice system continually aims to implement ways to better serve the public by ensuring offenders are incarcerated.

However, fairness and leniency are also part of the justice system, which is why first-time offenders of nonviolent crimes have alternative punishment they can undergo in replacement for incarceration.

Still, despite the alleged benefits of shock incarcerations, there are drawbacks to this alternative punishment:

  • The regimen involved in boot-camp prisons is portrayed as abusive, cruel, and inhumane.
  • The program’s intimidating military-style discipline may foster aggression. 
  • The shock incarceration treatment may cause physical and mental damage and lower self-esteem

Prisoners Allege Abuse at Discipline-Focused ‘Shock’ Camps

Some boot-camp prisoners have not-so-fond memories of their prison camp. Some people say that the discipline enforced in these programs is more like abuse than treatment. Still, many believe in the benefits of boot-camp prisons.

If your loved one is in one of these boot camps or intensive confinement centers (ICCs) and you want to find a way to contact them, visit LookUpInmate.org. Our website provides access to over 7,000 correctional facilities in the United States.


  1. 18 U.S. Code § 4046 – Shock incarceration program
  2. Shock Incarceration — An Alternative for First Offenders?
  3. Shock Incarceration: An Overview of Existing Programs     
  4. Boot Camp for Prisoners
  5. Does Shock Incarceration Work?
  6. MacKenzie, D. L., & Hebert, E. E. (Eds.). (1996). Correctional Boot Camps: A Tough Intermediate Sanction.
  7. Multisite Evaluation of Shock Incarceration

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