Established around the country in the 1980s as an alternative to regular prison, the so-called "shock camps" got mixed reviews and several states dropped them. New York kept three camps going with a model they say is effective at cutting down the rate of repeat offenses and saving money.
Only prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes who volunteer and sign contracts go to the camps. Many drop out or are kicked out before completing the six months of mandatory physical training, manual labor, education and drug counseling, scrutinized by drill instructors. The prize for completing the course is a shortened sentence.
"It's a highly disciplined program. There's orders you've got to follow every day," said Steven Wetmore. He completed the Monterey program in 2002 following DWI convictions.
Some observers say the lower recidivism is predictable because it's a self-selected and motivated group of inmates who prove capable of finishing the program. They also note that the lower recidivism, far lower in the first year, starts rising after that.
"Our view is that it's somewhat mixed, but there are definitely some positive elements to it," said Jack Beck, who directs the visiting project for the Correctional Association of New York. "The regimentation is so different from what these individuals will experience on the outside, it's very hard to translate those experiences into something when they return home."
New York has 1,087 inmates at the shock camps -- Moriah in the Adirondacks, Lakeview in western New York's Chautauqua County, and Monterey in the Finger Lakes region. All are minimum-security without fences and set in rural areas. Before the state shut the Summit camp southwest of Albany in 2011 to save money, there were 1,284 offenders in the shock program. The system has about 56,000 inmates in 60 correctional facilities, down from a peak 71,600 in 1999.
Revisions in drug sentencing laws and diverting more inmates to treatment programs have reduced the available pool for shock programs. Intended for prisoners 23 or younger, they have been opened to inmates as old as 50 with less than three years left on their sentences.
Correction spokeswoman Linda Foglia said they estimate having saved $1.34 billion because of the shortened incarceration for 45,135 shock graduates, including 3,355 females, over the past 25 years.
State data show 7 percent of those who completed the program from 2007 to 2009 returned to prison within one year, compared with 19.9 percent of all inmates released from state prison. Recidivism data after three years show a 26.4 percent return rate for those who completed shock in 2007, compared with 42 percent for all releases that year.