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Lunchtime in the mess hall. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Lunchtime in the mess hall. Photo: Natasha Haverty

Alternatives to Incarceration: into Shock prison

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This week as part of our Prison Time Media Project, producer Natasha Haverty is looking at some of the approaches cash-strapped states are taking to try and cut prison their populations.

Yesterday, we began the story of Jeff, a young man from western New York who fell into serious drug addiction and broke into a pharmacy to feed his habit. After spending years cycling through drug courts, unable to stay off drugs, he was sent to prison here in the North Country.

"It's very true to say that I as given a great opportunity at drug court and I failed. I failed at drug court. I failed. I'm going to prison, for years. That's the lowest of the low, that's the lowest I can think of before death."

But unlike many other inmates, Jeff was sent to a shock prison in Moriah, in Essex County, which focuses on life skills training and rehabilitation. Part two of our series takes us to Moriah Shock and finds Jeff at the middle of his prison sentence.

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Life in Moriah Shock - Photo slideshow by Natasha Haverty

 

It's lunchtime in the chow hall at Moriah Shock Prison, and the room looks like a high school cafeteria.

There are fifty men sitting in their seats, eyes straight ahead or locked on their trays of food. When the prison captain Boyce Rawson walks in, one inmate breaks discipline: He turns his head to look, and gets dressed down. 

Life here is so regimented that even a turn of the head is against the rules. Shock incarceration is just what it sounds like: a shock. The prison is set up like a boot camp. Most of the guys inside Moriah were drug users like Jeff, who arrived two and a half months ago.

"This is my first state bid. I came to the shock program because I got involved with drugs. Before that I had a presidential scholarship to Alfred University and because of the drug use I fell out."

Lunchtime in the mess hall. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Lunchtime in the mess hall. Photo: Natasha Haverty
In New York state, nonviolent offenders under the age of 50 with a sentence of less than three years are eligible to swap prison time for the six-month shock program. Jeff says the opportunity is "kind of a double-edged sword."

"I got myself into a situation where normally, if shock program wasn't available I'd be in prison now, one to four years. On the other end of the sword, I'm a felon, in prison. So I keep it in the positive. I accept what I've done in the past, but now I'm in Shock and I spend every moment trying to figure out how to not ever come back here." [image2:right]

Shock as an alternative

Moriah is one of three shock prisons in New York. In the late eighties and early nineties, the number of people in prisons around the country soared to an all-time high. The surge came from tougher laws and mandatory sentencing that put more low-level drug offenders behind bars. States couldn't build prisons and find beds fast enough. So they needed to come up with alternatives.

The time served in Shock is short, just six months, but it's severe. Everything is in military bearing: men don't walk, they march; they stand at attention and don't fidget or slouch; they only speak when they're spoken to and every statement begins and ends with sir or ma'am. Every morning the men are up by 5:30 and out by 5:45 for two hours of physical training. And every weekday the inmates put in at least six hours of manual labor. 

Drill Instructor Juleigh Walker is in charge of the 1st platoon at Moriah. She says she works to "break 'em down enough so that you work on the discipline piece first, and then you can begin to build again."

Inside her platoon's squad bay, the sheets on each bed are stretched and folded so tightly every corner looks pinned down. Every white t-shirt is folded in a six-by-six inch square. 

"Shock is the type of program where there are consequences," Captain Boyce Rawson says, "but there is also positive reinforcement when they do something right." Photo: Natasha Haverty
"Shock is the type of program where there are consequences," Captain Boyce Rawson says, "but there is also positive reinforcement when they do something right." Photo: Natasha Haverty
Walker says these kinds of things are "self-esteem builders, all of that is 'wow look at that, I just ran five miles, I've never done that before in my life.'"

Does Shock work?

For Jeff, this is his second experiment in alternative sentencing. He already spent years in drug court programs that offered counseling and support. That didn't work, so he wound up here.

“The truth is if they had let me go I would be in a horrible state right now.”

But not everyone buys the idea that this kind of discipline and military regimen helps inmates stay clean after they're released.

The last report by the National Department of Justice showed that about 30 percent of shock graduates find themselves back in prison after two years. That compares with 36 percent of regular prison inmates. 

And in some shock prisons around the country, there have been serious problems. According to press accounts, some officers haven't been well trained and have been accused of abusing their power. One inmate's death in Florida led to the closing of all of the shock prisons in that state. 

Martin Horn teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He used to be commissioner of New York City's Department of Corrections, and before that he headed up Pennsylvania's entire state prison system. 

"Any time you impose that strict military discipline without a larger philosophical framework, that pays attention to the importance of the individual, which is what New York's does, pays attention to the important of the individual, you run the risk of abuse. And a lot of those programs have been subject to abuse, a lot of them have proven ineffective, and a lot of them have been closed down."

A regimented smoke break, looking over the Adirondacks. Photo: Natasha Haverty
A regimented smoke break, looking over the Adirondacks. Photo: Natasha Haverty


According to Horn, it's the focus on the individual that sets New York's Shock Program apart. Horn says the program here has been successful because it focuses on treatment. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation, group skills building in sessions they call Network, and GED classes take up almost half the inmates' time. 

Horn say it's "the untold story that New York's boot camp program is really a star, a national star."

Jeffrey Butts directs the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College. He says that Moriah Shock may be a well-run program, but that's not the same as being a successful program. He says it makes perfect sense someone that some men would feel better, even calmer, while they're at Moriah, but that may not help them when they land back at home.

"We don't have the resources to replace community life for every single person who lives in a stressful violent community. What we have to do is change those communities. But you can't solve these problems by taking people out: it's like vacation you say 'boy this is nice,' but it doesn't change the factors that caused you to feel stress in the first place." 

Captain Rawson, the guy who was chewing out that inmate at lunch, agrees that men like Jeff will face their biggest challenges after graduation, "because if you take a person out of that environment, where a lot of that stuff is going on, and then they're released back into that environment, they have to make some tough decisions." 

When we talk, Jeff has three and a half months before he graduates from Moriah. He says he knows life will be very different outside, but he thinks he's learned things here that will help him beat his addiction.

"I mean obviously I'm not going to walk around, I'm not going to march around and call cadence, but it helps establish certain discipline that's essential through the program, and this is from the heart, I'm not just speaking to build up the program because I know whatever I say is going to be fine." 

Tomorrow, Jeff's story continues.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

 

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