The state of Illinois has a problem with its prison boot camps: too many empty beds.
The Department of Corrections runs two military-style programs in DuQuoin and Dixon Springs. But the facilities are at just 12 percent of capacity. Illinois lawmakers are trying to boost that number.
It’s rise and shine at 0530 hours for men in the DuQuoin Impact Incarceration Program.
By 0600, they’re outside doing drills — scissor kicks. jumping jacks, and pushups. Then it’s time for a mile-long “motivational” run.
These exercises are just one of the ways Illinois’ correctional boot camps look to instill military-style discipline. Offenders march to and from assignments. They can only speak when spoken to and must address everyone as “sir” or “ma’am.”
Every aspect of their day is structured — straight down to the way they must lineup ketchup packets on their lunch tray.
Jason Henton, the program’s superintendent, said it’s meant to correct a lack of self-discipline that can lead to crime in the first place.
“That’s an important part of the process — to give up, for lack of a better term, control to someone else,” Henton said. “We’re going to tell them when they can eat, when can sleep, when they can use the restroom — whatever the case is, we have very strict guidelines that they follow.”
On the bright side: they get out sooner. The program in DuQuoin is designed to last 120 days.
But not a lot of offenders are getting sent to boot camp. In early May, DuQuoin had just 28 men. The facility can hold up to 300.
DuQuoin’s dorm is split into two wings. The current population doesn’t even come close to filling one. In the other, mattresses are piled head-high in the corner.
Henton said it’s been like this for a few years.
Getting Sent to Boot Camp
Under current law, a judge must recommend an offender for boot camp. The number of recommendations dropped by nearly half from 2016 to 2017, and by another third the next year.
Some argue it’s because not many people know the programs exist in the first place.
“For a long period of time, whoever the superintendent of the boot camp was would make a trip to Chicago, talk to a bunch of judges and tell them how great the program was, and then a few of the judges would get on board with it and send the offenders there,” said state Rep. Terri Bryant, a Republican from Murphysboro. “Some of these folks who opened the boot camps have retired. Under [former IDOC Director John] Baldwin, he wasn’t really letting them go to Chicago to do that.”
Illinois lawmakers want to fix that by requiring a judge to say “yes” or “no” to boot camp in all cases where the offender is eligible. The legislation, House Bill 3168, is awaiting action by the governor.
But criminal justice experts say low participation has more to do with who qualifies in the first place.
Offenders can only go to boot camp if they’re between the ages of 18 and 36, convicted of a nonviolent crime and sentenced to fewer than eight years in prison. They must also clear a physical and mental health screening by the Department of Corrections.
The majority of men who go to DuQuoin are first-time offenders. Henton said the most common crimes are theft, driving under the influence and drug sales.
David Olson, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago, said there’s been a shift away from sending people who fit that description to prison.
Arrests for those types of crimes are down, Olson said, especially for so-called emerging adults ages 18 to 25.
Sentencing practices are also changing: When first-time offenders do go to court, they’re more likely to get probation, be held in the county jail or participate in some other prison diversion program.
Olson said the popularity of paramilitary punishment peaked in the ‘90s, after the Gulf War.
“It was based on a false premise that what criminals need is the kind of discipline that you’d get in a boot camp,” Olson said. “You know, we’re going to humiliate them, we’re going to shave their head, we’re going to yell at them … which appeased the public, because at the time that’s what the public wanted was punishment and retribution.”
Olson said we now know offenders’ needs are more complex, and their success upon release mostly hinges on the services they receive while incarcerated.
The Evolution of Boot Camps
At DuQuoin, Superintendent Henton says his boot camp has evolved with the times.
“We have kind of a therapeutic treatment community now, and I promise you in 1998 when I was an officer here, we did not have that,” Henton said. “We were drill sergeants and security was first. You didn’t have any feelings and it didn’t matter what you were going to do on day 121.”
Offenders now spend hours each day in programs — on substance abuse, anger management, fatherhood and more. The rest of the day is spent in classes, on a work assignment or completing service projects in the surrounding community.
Twenty-year-old Andrew Metz, who was sent to DuQuoin for burglary, said boot camp has been nothing like he expected.
“To be honest with you, I thought of the movie ‘Holes,’” he said, referencing the 2003 film in which a wrongfully accused teen gets sent to a juvenile detention camp. The teens are sent into the desert armed with shovels in search of a mysterious treasure.
Instead, Metz recently earned his GED. Others at DuQuoin take a college course geared toward job preparedness.
Metz said the hardest part of boot camp has been being told what to do all day, every day.
“Once you get a good head on your shoulders, these people, these officers, aren’t here to harm us,” Metz said. “They are here to push us to do better, to be something better in life so that we can be something that our family could be proud of.”
Dustin Michels, 36, is at DuQuoin for meth possession. He said the physical training is helping his body recover from drug use and, for the first time, he’s getting addiction counseling.
“Being with people that have been in the same situation helps out a great deal,” Michels said. “When you haven’t been through, you just don’t know. You kind of feel isolated, alone. To know that there’s other people with the same feelings and to see how they get through it helps out a lot.”
Criminal justice experts argue it’s these kinds of services, not the paramilitary structure, that reduce the likelihood someone will commit another crime.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, with the nonpartisan prison watchdog group The John Howard Association, said it’s time to recalibrate who gets access.
“For so long, we geared programming toward people who met this description of ‘low-level, nonviolent’ offender,” Vollen-Katz said. “The reality is that the people who most benefit from intense programming are the people with intense needs.”
She said the best way to fill beds at the boot camps would be to lift rigid restrictions on low-security facilities, which would also clear up confusion at sentencing.
“Judges who were aware of the [boot camps] and wanted to utilize the program weren’t necessarily looking at statutory eligibility, requirements or restrictions when they were including a boot camp recommendation in their sentencing orders,” Katz said. “What we saw a lot of were people that were very disappointed or accepted a plea deal because the judge was going to recommend that the person be sent to boot camp, only to be admitted to the Illinois Department of Corrections and find that they were ineligible.”
Still, Olson, the criminologist, said research shows the benefits of boot camp are short-lived. Long term, recidivism rates stay almost the same.
The most recent Department of Corrections data show a three-year recidivism rate of 38.2% among boot camp graduates. The recidivism rate across all Illinois prison facilities was 39.9% the same year.
“If it doesn’t reduce recidivism or anything like that, what it does do is it shortens the length of time in prison, and that has value to a prison system that’s crowded,” Olson said. “But selling it as a way to reduce crime really doesn’t hold much water anymore.”