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The Last Boot Camp

by Published on
Robin Nelson
Prison boot camp in Georgia.

Deep in North Texas stands a relic of criminal justice past.

The T.L. Roach Unit in Childress County, on the Oklahoma border, is home to the last state-run offender boot camp in Texas. Though the facility has 400 beds, just 30 are occupied now. Its inmates are all young men, age 17 to 26, sentenced directly to the camp through district courts, most of them for burglary. There, behind walls topped with barbed wire, they live strictly regimented lives for 180 days filled with physical activity and discipline. Then they’re released into a wholly unregimented world. They’re free, but are they changed?

Research says no. Correctional boot camps, whose structure of drill and ceremony is based on military boot camps, became popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a way to reform young offenders, but fell from favor when multiple studies demonstrated that they weren’t effective at saving money or preventing crime.

A 2003 National Institute of Justice analysis found that the three objectives of boot camps—reduced recidivism, reduced prison populations, and reduced costs—were in conflict with each other. Boot camps were intended to provide brief, intense experiences, usually 90 to 180 days, that would scare inmates straight. But studies showed that recidivism rates for boot camp alums were the same as those of the general prison population, and that the best ways to reduce recidivism—longer programs, therapy, and help transitioning after release—drove up costs. Camps were supposed to lower state costs by reducing the prison population, but they often admitted only specific categories of offenders, such as nonviolent first-time felons, which diminished their impact on the larger prison-crowding problem.

But the idea that rigorous military treatment can straighten out troubled youth persists in private juvenile boot camps. They proliferate in Texas despite repeated scandals and failed attempts at regulation. Congress heard appalling testimony in 2007 and 2008 that detailed beatings, smothering, and other abuses, sometimes resulting in death, at boot camps nationwide. Since 2008, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-CA) has been trying to pass regulation, most recently the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2011, introduced last October.

With the whole idea of correctional boot camp debunked by research and tarred by scandal, why is the T.L. Roach Unit still open? Maybe because it’s been forgotten. When a reporter for the Amarillo Globe-News recently asked a spokesman from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a district judge, and a district attorney about the facility, they all said they didn’t know it still existed.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.