Boot Camp and Therapeutic Wilderness Programs: Part 1: History, Myths and Reality

Ahhh, the boot camp. Good ‘ole fashioned behavior modification through discipline, intimidation and fear. It was the era of Tough Love. The boot camp’s sordid history stems from our collective belief that all kids need when they’re acting out is an experience more like what the military provided (past tense is key here since the military no longer uses ‘boot camp’ tactics in basic training – They found it to be counterproductive). What may come as no surprise is that these bastions of verbal ballistics just were not (…and continue not to be) effective.

Once associated almost exclusively with the initial weeks of military indoctrination, the term “boot camp” has, in recent years, come to be adopted by programs that want to emphasize the rapidity and intensity of their experience.

From computer boot camps (become a certified systems engineer in one week!) to fitness boot camps (10 sessions to a Bigger, Stronger you!) to weight loss boot camps (shed those pounds in a fraction of the time!), the boot camp phenomenon seems to be particularly appropriate for the members of today’s overscheduled, not-a-moment-to-waste society that need their butt kicked.

But while many so-called boot camps are actually little more than sped-up seminars, the intense, intimidating, and “in your face” philosophy (think the first hour of the film “Full Metal Jacket”) still permeates at least one type of non-military boot camp: the juvenile boot camp for troubled teens.

A Rigorous Road to Redemption?

The boot camp approach began to cross over from the military world to the civilian population in the early 1980s, when boot camp programs were created as alternatives to incarceration for certain adult and juvenile offenders.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the first boot camp for adult offenders was established in Georgia in 1983. Two years later, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, became home to the first juvenile boot camp.

According to information on the OJJDP website, most juvenile boot camps (and the majority of boot camps for adult offenders) feature the following components:

• Boot camps almost always include rigorous physical conditioning and other forms of physical labor.
• An emphasis is placed upon discipline, which is usually enforced through a military-like code of rules and regulations.
• Teen boot camp participants usually have been convicted of nonviolent crimes, or have been referred to the boot camp by parents in an effort to curb unhealthy and illegal behaviors.
• Teen boot camps are usually intense short-term experiences (rarely lasting longer than six months) after which the troubled teen is returned to the community.
• Depending upon the nature of the boot camp, the teen may be required (or encouraged) to submit to a post-camp supervision program or enroll in an aftercare program.

More Boot Camps for Teens in Trouble

In the early part of the 1990s, OJJDP provided funding for a pilot program consisting of three juvenile boot camps – one each in Cleveland, Ohio; Mobile, Alabama; and Denver, Colorado. Information provided by the National Criminal Justice Reverence Service (NCJRS) indicates that these three OJJDP-funded teen boot camps were “designed to address the special needs and circumstances of the adolescent offender.”

The NCJRS website provided the following details about these three juvenile boot camps:

• The OJJDP’s juvenile boot camps were designed for a target population of adjudicated, nonviolent offenders under the age of 18.
• The pilot boot camps for teens included highly structured, three-month residential programs that were followed by six to nine months of community-based aftercare.
• During the aftercare period, youth who had completed the juvenile boot camps were to pursue academic and vocational training or employment while under intensive, but progressively diminishing, supervision.

Though the juveniles who completed these pilot program boot camps were found to have improved in certain academic areas, an OJJDP “Lessons Learned” document reports that the teen boot camps had no impact on reducing recidivism rates (that is, decreasing the odds that a juvenile would re-offend after completing the boot camp):

The pilot programs, however, did not demonstrate a reduction in recidivism. … In Cleveland pilot program participants evidenced a higher recidivism rate than juvenile offenders confined in traditional juvenile correctional facilities.

It should be noted that none of the sites fully implemented OJJDP’s model juvenile boot camp guidelines, and that some critical aftercare support services were not provided.

This observation was echoed in a 1996 report (Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders: An Implementation Evaluation of Three Demonstration Programs) that was prepared for the National Institute of Justice:

What appeared to be a promising prognosis at the conclusion of boot camp disintegrated during aftercare. All three programs were plagued by high attrition rates for noncompliance, absenteeism, and new arrests during the aftercare period. …

In all fairness to the programs, aftercare was particularly affected by unexpected cuts in Federal support. … However, at this juncture it does not appear that the demonstration programs solved the problem that typically plagues residential correctional programs: inmates who appear to thrive in the institutional environment but falter when they return home.

‘Therapeutic’ Boot Camps for Troubled Teens?

Though the boot camp model appears to have been less than successful in its efforts to effect long-term positive change among adjudicated young people, this failure has not stopped the concept from spreading. For example, a number of private programs continue to market teen boot camp services to parents who are concerned about their children’s behavior.

Why do boot camps remain an attractive option for some parents? The National Institute of Justice’s 1996 Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders report indicates that this popularity may be due in large part to certain media-fueled attitudes about the power of “getting tough” with troubled teens:

• In addition to their considerable popularity within the correctional system, boot camps have demonstrated extraordinary appeal to the general public.
• Experts on boot camp programming nationwide note that boot camps are a “natural” for media coverage, which tends to focus on the programs’ disciplinary aspects and appeals to “get tough” sentiments.
• In a culture where many people view military service as a formative experience, the public also seems to intuitively grasp the rehabilitative rationale for the programs.

An alternative to the juvenile boot camp approach can be found in therapeutic wilderness programs for troubled teens, which emphasize non-abusive techniques while still providing a series of challenging opportunities through which struggling teens can develop valuable skills, communication strategies, and self-esteem.

Emphasizing responsibility to oneself and one’s family and community, and providing a significant therapeutic component, strong family involvement, and considerable aftercare support services, wilderness programs for troubled teens are founded upon the philosophy that teen mental health challenges are not “quick fix” problems.

Unlike the top-down control that is a hallmark of the juvenile boot camp approach, wilderness programs for troubled teens help participants identify their own problems, take responsibility for their past failures and frustrations, and decide that they want to make healthy changes.

New Generation Using Wilderness – Not Brutality

Thanks to visionaries that saw the benefits of using wilderness and adventure as a context, strategy, metaphor and intervention for behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues, we have seen a significant move away from the Boot Camp to the Therapeutic Wilderness Program. Some of the big names in the field started with Kurt Hahn (1886-1974) who started Outward Bound, then decades later we saw the influence of Larry D. Olsen and Ezekiel C. Sanchez at Brigham Young University; Nelson Chase, Steven Bacon, and others at the Colorado Outward Bound School; Rocky Kimball at Santa Fe Mountain Center.

This pivot away from Boot Camp and towards therapeutic intervention led many programs to adopt the very successful recipe of a series of tasks that are increasingly difficult in order to challenge the patients; teamwork activities for working together; the presence of therapist as a group leader; and the use of an evidence-based (eg. CBT) therapeutic process such as a journal or self-reflection.

Next Time: A look at some of the types of therapeutic wilderness programming being offered and what the research says.