Prisoners allege abuse at ‘shock’ camps

On March 10, the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in upstate New York closed its doors. Opponents to the closure said that the Moriah Shock facility provided essential jobs for the community and that the military bootcamp style of the program at so-called “shock” camps helps inmates recover from issues with alcohol and drug abuse. But is this true? What are “shock” camps? What goes on there? And do they actually help incarcerated people? In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa speaks with Keri Blakinger about the closure of the Moriah facility and about her recent article on “shock” camps, ‘‘A Humiliating Experience’: Prisoners Allege Abuse at Discipline-focused ‘Shock’ Camps.”

Keri Blakinger is a staff writer for The Marshall Project whose work focuses on prisons and jails. She writes “Inside Out,” a regular column published in collaboration with NBC News. She previously covered criminal justice for the Houston Chronicle, and her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, VICE, the New York Daily News, and The New York Times. She is the The Marshall Project’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her memoir, Corrections in Ink, comes out in June 2022.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


TRANSCRIPT

Charles Hopkins:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting for Eddie Conway. Moriah correctional prison, shock camp, is one of six prisons that’s closing upstate New York. According to the State of New York, $1.7 million will be saved from this prison and others closing. Opposition is saying that closing this prison would decimate or devastate the economy in upstate New York. Here to talk about this and other things is Keri Blankinger. Keri Blakinger wrote the article with the Marshall Project outlining what shock camps are, how they function, and what they’re doing to the people that are incarcerated there. Thank you. Welcome, Keri, to this edition of Rattling the Bars.

Keri Blakinger:    Hey, thanks for having me.

Charles Hopkins:    Shock camps. A lot of people might not know what they are. Can you explain what they are, how they are operated, and how they came into existence?

Keri Blakinger:  Yeah, sure. So, the shock camps in New York are some of the last in the country, but not the very last. But shock camps came about as a way to theoretically reduce prison populations after several states… Well, after lots of states built up prisons and didn’t have room for all the prisoners. The idea with shock camp has generally been that people who are in prison for addiction-related crimes or certain other subsets of crimes can complete some program that’s sort of a military bootcamp style program. Something like a 90-day or a six-month program, where you’re doing a lot of running and maybe cleaning toilets with toothbrushes and dealing with some very confrontational therapy. In the best case scenario, that’s how these programs would work. You would endure that for a set period of time, finish, and when you finish the program, you usually get some amount of time shaved off your sentence.

In New York, the way it works is you do this six-month program, you can go home up to two and a half years early. The problem is that these programs have really lent themselves to abuse over the years. And we see that especially in New York, where time and again prisoners have reported beatings and abuse, and there’s been some amount of sexual abuse, and on a somewhat daily basis people say that they’re being called crack heads and junkies, being made to shovel snow with spoons, having shoes thrown at them as a punishment. There’s a lot of degrading treatment, being made to eat off the floor like a dog. And these are not one offs.

I’ve been reporting on these sorts of programs in New York for a few years, and these are things that we routinely hear out of several of the facilities that have had these kinds of programs. But over the years, many states have closed their shock camps. In some cases because they’re not effective, they’re prone to lawsuits, and I think there’s a growing understanding that traumatizing people is not therapeutic. New York has some of the last few programs left. And one of them, Moriah, the one that I was writing about here, has been earmarked for closure and has recently closed, actually, in upstate New York. And now there’s only one of these programs remaining in upstate New York, and that is Lakeview Shock Facility.

Charles Hopkins:   And let’s flesh this out. We’re talking about mental health issues in terms of people that’s suffering from substance abuse, and it’s known throughout the world now that substance abuse is a disease. The disease model is prevalent in terms of evaluation. Where is the connection between the mental health and the torture that these people are receiving? Or is it purely torture, and to try to torture a person out of wanting to use drugs? What’s your read on that? And why?

Keri Blakinger:  Well, I think there’s a few things going on. I think that first of all, a lot of these started during the war on drugs. And I think that the whole idea of a military inspired program really played into the visuals of a war on drugs. If we’re having a war, it makes sense that you’re wanting to engage in military style programs as a way of combating it. So, I think part of it was that it really appealed to the ethos of the era in which it was created. But I also think that there’s a lot of people, and I think some of these people have a significant overlap with the population of people who are running and working in prisons, but I think there’s a lot of people that think the military teaches discipline. And they think that, oh, the military cleans up people’s lives, troubled teens get old enough and they go into the military and they turn out all right.

And I think that there’s some belief that transferring that treatment to an addiction, to dealing with an addiction would be an effective way of dealing with addiction. And you can understand the thought process behind that. Like, oh, the military straightened out my troubled cousin, maybe it’ll straighten out these troubled prisoners. But the problem is that prison is not the military. Prison doesn’t have any vested interest in your health or wellbeing or success. Whereas the military does need you to be healthy to do your job. And the military, also, this treatment you know is a means to an end and you end up with some skills and a respected career coming out of it.

None of that is true in prison. You are not getting some job skills or some resume credentials from surviving this shock incarceration. And I think fundamentally, beyond all that, you really can’t traumatize someone into wanting to be sober. And a lot of the people that are coming into these programs are dealing with a lot of existing trauma. And especially when you’re talking about women in the women’s facilities, a lot of them are coming in with trauma at the hands of men. So in those scenarios, you can imagine that having drill instructor type male screaming at you may actually undermine what you might need to have a sober and more stable life.

Charles Hopkins:   And in your article, you spoke on how it’s an incentive-based program and that you have to have a substance abuse problem. Talk about the attitude of the people in these facilities that choose to go in these areas and some of the stories they told you about, the ones maybe that didn’t complete the program. And if you got any insight on the ones who completed then recidivate, if you could talk about these things.

Keri Blakinger:    Yeah, sure. So, I actually did time in New York prisons before I became a reporter. So this was actually a choice that I was faced with in that, when you go through reception, which is what they call it when you get to prison and they do tests and they figure out what prison they’re going to send you to and what programs you’re going to be required to do. When you go through reception, you know that one of the possibilities is shock, if you qualify. Typically, that means that you have to meet some sort of age requirement. You usually have to be at least 18 at the time of your crime, and you usually have to be under a certain age, although the exact age that you have to be under has changed over the years. And at the time that I was going through, you also couldn’t be on any mental health medication.

So you couldn’t be on Prozac. You couldn’t be on anything for, I don’t know, bipolar. There’s all sorts of pretty necessary psychiatric medications that would be in and of themselves disqualifying. Not because the program was so rigorous that they were worried you couldn’t make it through if you needed mental health care, but more because the facilities were all considered low security facilities. And if you were on any psychiatric medications, they simply didn’t have the mental health staff at those facilities who would be able to give you those medications. Recently, like in the past two years, this has theoretically changed, and the Department of Correction says that now people who are on mental health meds can qualify. I don’t actually have any evidence as to whether that is happening or not, because just because they say a thing is permitted by policy doesn’t mean it’s something they’re doing on a widespread basis.

So, the verdict’s kind of out on that one. But for years, one of the decisions when you came into prison was if you knew that you otherwise qualified for shock, you had to think about, did you want to go off your mental health medications in order to qualify for this program that would allow you to get home earlier? You can imagine that’s a very powerful incentive. If you’re talking about like, geez, I struggle with depression, I’m on Prozac. But if I go off it for six months, I can get home to my kids two and a half years early. That’s a pretty coercive situation. So, I think that this is one of the things that people think about a lot when they’re coming into prison and trying to figure out if they are going to go to shock or not.

And then of course when they get out they’re now off mental health medications that were helpful to them. Now, the exact impact of that and how that influences recidivism numbers is really difficult to understand because there isn’t data on this specific population that has been released in terms of recidivism and the degree to which changes in mental health medication did or didn’t play a role in that. But it’s also difficult to look at the success of these programs, because frequently the Department of Correction says these programs have lower recidivism than the rest of prison. And that is true by the numbers, but it is also misleading in a few ways. First of all, you’re only having a narrow segment of the population that qualifies. For years, people with mental health medications didn’t qualify. That’s a demographic that’s at high risk of recidivism.

So there’s that, but also a large percentage of the people who go to shock fail out and don’t complete. And those people are not included in the recidivism numbers. So what you end up with is only the most determined, most motivated prisoners are the only ones who are graduating from shock to even be considered in these recidivism numbers. So, it’s really hard to measure the success of these programs, and it’s really hard to measure the impact of these programs on people’s lives. Also, of course, as is often the case with prison, we’re just not getting good data, reliable data, or trustworthy data. So a lot of what we find ends up being anecdotal and hearing about what people tell us. And as you can see from the story, what people say has often been pretty shocking.

Charles Hopkins:  Talk about the… Because I’m looking at the mental health of substance abuse, and I’m also looking at relapse. And I’m a recovering addict, and I’ve been through the NA, and I understand the NA philosophy. Talk about this aspect of it from, okay, we are acknowledging that you cannot quantify the numbers in terms of the success of the program. But in terms of relapse, to your knowledge, has this program been successful in creating a mindset where a person would not be inclined to go back and use drugs? Because in essence, the program is supposed to be designed to, wherever their methodology is, to stop a person from wanting to use drugs. That’s how they got where they were.

Keri Blakinger:   Right. I think, again, that’s a pretty complicated question. I think we do know, for instance, that there’s been some studies around the fact that confrontational therapy is not the best option. It simply… There’s a lot of studies around this, because this idea of the confrontational therapy where they yell at you and call it treatment, this is something that’s been tried before, especially when there were those troubled teen boot camps where they’d send troubled kids out into the wilderness that were real big in the ’90s and then people started dying. Those also were based on the tough love, confrontational therapy idea. And that generated some research around the success of that as a method. And it’s not, it’s not successful. It’s not the best way to treat people.

Of course, actual relapse data would be even harder to come by than just recidivism data. Because recidivism data, at least you can know whether someone is in or out of prison. But when you’re talking about relapse, somebody may, if they’re not on parole, you have really no way of knowing what they’re doing. And even if they are, it’s pretty spotty because it’s dependent on whether the parole officer is testing or not. But we can look at these methods and say that it is using a method that is not considered the gold standard, for sure.

And it is not using what is considered the most recommended practice at this point in addiction treatment, which has been medication-assisted treatment. Clearly, it’s not for everyone. I didn’t use medication-assisted treatment in getting off drugs, and a lot of people don’t. But it is considered the standard evidence-based approach at this point, and it is not allowed in shock incarceration facilities. If nothing else, there’s solid data that medication-assisted treatment using things like Methadone, Suboxone, Vivitrol, significantly reduces the risk of death by relapse. And again, this is something that these shock camp programs do not use.

Charles Hopkins: Right. And that’s really why I asked that question, because when you look at substance abuse and you look at a program that in fact uses torture to round to try to stop a person from having the desire to use drugs. And that’s what got me where I’m at, the desire to use drugs, and your program has nothing in there to try to get me to understand that part of my disease. Then I’m asking the question. Because I’m asking, well, if you are not having a mechanism to do that, and then you’re not utilizing the prohibitors to help with that, then really you’re just saying that I’m going to shock you out of wanting to use drugs. Which leads me to my next question.

In your article, you say that saving the state, the state alleges that these programs, which have been in existence for over 35 years according to your article, have saved over $147 million. Have you found any truth to that? And what percentage of this, when you say $147 million and you’re talking about upstate New York, and basically you talking about the camp system versus the other systems, you’re saying $147 million in lieu of…?

Keri Blakinger: Yeah. I think that it stands to reason that there’s probably some money saved on these programs in New York in the way that they run. And I say that because I think part of what they’re counting, and they haven’t given us a solid accounting as to how exactly they’re arriving at that number, but I can imagine that they’re probably including fewer days spent in prison as part of that metric. For instance, if you did shock camp and you got out two and a half years early, I imagine they’re counting that as two and a half years of incarceration money saved. And those are significant saving., But of course this is not the only way to arrive at them. If you think that someone can safely be released after six months of being yelled at and made to shovel snow with a spoon, then presumably they could also be safely released after six months even if you didn’t traumatize them. And then you would also save the state that same amount of money.

I would imagine – And again, they haven’t given us a detailed breakdown of this – I would imagine that part of the savings could also be in the cost of running a facility like this, because typically low security facilities cost less to run than higher security facilities. If that’s something they’re counting, I’m not sure that would necessarily be a fair metric. Because if someone can qualify for a low security shock camp, they could also qualify for another kind of low security prison, which would also be cheaper than a higher security facility. So I’m not sure if that’s something they’re counting or not. But the point, the overriding point regardless, is whatever cost savings are coming from this program could also be realized in more productive ways.

Charles Hopkins: And I’m going to be inclined to question the cost saving because unless everybody is released unconditionally, you’re not on parole or probation and you’re not in the collateral aspect of the system, then the money is just being deferred there. Can you address the opposition’s views on why the prison should not be closed? And we did a thing on small town America, rural America, where the major industry is prison. Can you talk about that? And what type of information did you get from your research and your interviews [crosstalk] to that?

Keri Blakinger:   Yeah, sure. So, I’ve actually done a lot of reporting on prison towns in general. And I do think that, obviously, as you’ve alluded to, we hear a lot about prison towns who would oppose the closure of prisons because it will decimate the local economy. And that is real. Yes, there are people, even people that don’t work in prison and never plan to, who will be harmed by this closure. I’m not saying that means you should keep prisons open for that purpose, but it is a reality that we need to grapple with as prisons are closing. A lot of these towns were promised this economic boom decades ago when mills closed down, when factories closed down. When other means of stimulating small local economies began closing and prisons came in, they were heralded as something that would save these towns. And how much they delivered on that promise is subject to debate.

But in many cases, it did at least sort of keep these towns bumping along. And now when they close, even the people who’ve never worked in the prisons are going to be harmed. Because in some cases this means that utilities won’t be able to be provided. There are some towns that end up losing their sewage and water systems because of prison closures. In some cases, it harms local hospitals who are now not getting supported by the prison and the prisoners being sent there. I actually just talked to a community college president in California who is not opposing prison closures, but simply pointed out that the closure of a prison near his community college will mean that they lose about 200 students who were at that prison and were completing coursework behind bars.

So, I think there’s a lot of ripple effects out into the community. And again, that should not be a reason to not close prisons, but I do think it’s something that we’d need to seriously consider, that we don’t leave behind these rural towns. And what else can replace a prison. Because that is one thing that I don’t think I’ve seen many satisfactory answers to. What do you do to salvage a local economy in the absence of a prison?

Charles Hopkins:    And in that regard, that’s really why I asked that question because I was wondering if the town was looking at some innovation outside of relying on torture and relying on all this misery to be the source of their livelihood. I was thinking that maybe they would try to attract a business or different things, and whether or not this was something in your research or in your article, that you had actually somebody saying that they like, we’re trying to attract business from international community, we’re trying to develop some type of manufacturing model, or we’re trying to track tax credits. I was wondering if you, have you seen that coming out in your article, in your interviews?

Keri Blakinger:     Yeah. So, I actually, until yesterday, heard no real viable or good-seeming ideas as to what you do in the absence of a prison. Because first of all, most of these places that we’re talking about, the places that are going to be decimated by the closures, are in such rural remote areas that don’t have big workforces. It’s not a great incentive to be attracting new industries or businesses. But this community college president that I was talking to pointed out that he thought a national cemetery would actually be exactly a perfect fit for that area. Because again, it’s rural, there’s…

And this is, to be clear, in California, although I think many of the same things would apply to this area in upstate New York. But it’s rural, there’s a lot of space, you’d have the ability to have the space for a cemetery. And also if it’s a national cemetery, then you’d have people coming in and making use of the businesses, staying at hotels, you’d have funerals occurring there, you’d have apparently more jobs than I would’ve thought. It didn’t really occur to me that a cemetery would generate quite so many jobs. But a lot of these prisons are also the ones where a single remote prison in a small town are typically not huge prisons with thousands of employees. These are typically small and midsize prisons. So, these are things that the jobs could be replaced by something like a national cemetery. And I haven’t seen that done anywhere. I think it’d be interesting to see what happens if it is. But honestly, that is the only real viable alternative that I’ve heard floated in the time that I’ve been reporting on this.

Charles Hopkins: And before we close, you were very candid in the article, talking about your own substance abuse problems though. Talk a little bit about that and where you are at now in terms of your views on substance abuse and drug addiction.

Keri Blakinger:    Yeah. So as I mentioned in the story, I did heroin off and on for about nine years. I also did pretty much any drug you would put in front of me. And then I got arrested and did about two years in prison. And I cover prisons a lot, I’m sober now. And I write a lot about addiction issues and mental health issues. And I also have a book coming out in June, which is a lot about addiction. It’s my memoir, and it’s about how I got into drugs and how I got off of them in prison, because I think that one of the things that a lot of people not familiar with this may not understand is that there are drugs everywhere in prison. And you can get high in prison. I could get heroin delivered to my bedside along with a needle while I was in prison. So getting sober in prison is not necessarily the easy task that people assume it is. And this is one of the things that I grapple with in that book. And yeah, I think it deals a lot with addiction and life after addiction.

Charles Hopkins: All right. Thank you, Keri. And thank you for this enlightening and engaging conversation about shock camps. We recognize now that it is a continuation of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, we recognize that rural America is benefiting from mass incarceration. We are not insensitive to people working, but we definitely don’t have no sympathy towards nobody working and benefiting from slavery and the labor that’s coming out of that. But at the end of the day, we’re thankful for you and what you’re doing in terms of educating us about these torturous activity that’s going on in prison. We’re thankful that you were able to give us some insight into this disease model that’s taking place in New York, upstate New York prison. And do you have any last words?

Keri Blakinger:    No. Just thank you for having me.

Charles Hopkins:  Okay. And there you have it. This is another edition of Rattling the Bars. We want to encourage everyone that views, that listens to Rattling the Bars to support The Real News, because it’s not an alternative news, it is actually the real news, as you just saw Keri as the example of real news.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.