“Camp Green Lake is a camp for bad boys. If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy. That’s what some people thought.” -- from “Holes,” Louis Sachar’s 1998 young-adult novel.
It is this kind of thinking that made boot camps popular in the late 1980s in response to an upsurge in youth crime – that hard work, physical exertion and a strict routine could turn around dangerous or troubled teenagers. Boot camps hit their peak in the mid-1990s, with both government and private camps operating in most states.
Since then, though, their popularity has waned – according to the National Institute for Justice, nearly one-third of state correctional boot camps had closed by 2000. Two reasons account for most of these closings: Their recidivism rates were no better than most other correctional methods, and abuses were uncovered, which resulted in death in some cases.
Boot camps generally fall into two types: those based on shock incarceration, which often employ military-type structure and drills, and those based on a shock-wilderness model, like that depicted in “Holes,” which are generally privately operated.
Camp Summit is the only Indiana Department of Correction boot camp in Indiana. It is located in LaPorte County and admits about 85 boys a year as an alternative to prison. It operates like a military boot camp, with strict discipline and routines.
On the other end of the spectrum is the wilderness camp offered by the Anasazi Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Mesa, Ariz. Though explicitly not a boot camp, it offers an immersion experience in the Arizona desert. For $395 a day plus a $750 admissions fee, it takes teens struggling with substance abuse or behavioral problems on daylong treks where they are responsible for meals and all of their other needs on the trail.
“The children are always hiking, they’re always moving,” explained Ezekiel Sanchez, Anasazi camp director, who says a typical stay is 42 days (about $17,340). “So in the morning, they get up and nobody cooks for them. They have a stainless-steel cup in which they cook three meals a day. They have a seven-day food pack that they carry with them, and they are taught how to mix those ingredients so they can get the best nutrition out of their meals. And nobody lights a fire for them.”
The youth at Camp Summit get up early, too, with reveille at 5 a.m. They wash up and have breakfast, then clean around their bed area. School starts at 7 a.m. and goes until 2 p.m., followed by group therapy. “They would go into their respective groups with their counselor, which would be restorative thinking, life skills, substance abuse. They might do some community service during that time,” said Superintendent Cecil Davis.
Physical training begins at 4 p.m. and dinner follows an hour later. Afterward they clean up, have a little free time, then it’s lights out at 8:30 p.m.
Both camp directors believe their methods help troubled teens reinvent themselves. At Anasazi, the dawn-to-dusk hiking on rough terrain allows youth to become self-sufficient and self-reliant, according to Sanchez.
The hiking worked for Jake Nahom, 18, from Scottsdale, Ariz., who asked his parents to sign him up when his life started to unravel last year. “I was in a very bad place in my life. I was depressed. I was suicidal. My grades were dropping in school. Basically I wasn’t going anywhere in my life,” he said.
Six weeks of walking gave Jake the skills and outlook to get his life back on track. “You really kind of have to look inside yourself while you’re on the trail, and you learn a lot about yourself and the people that you’re with. You learn to appreciate what you have at home, and you kind of learn to appreciate the people around you a lot more,” he said.
“The walking itself is a spiritual walking,” explained Sanchez. “When you’re out there, you see all the creations, the pretty flowers and everything. You can’t help but feel that somebody greater than you and I created them.”
At Camp Summit, the physical training and strict routine help boys to focus, too. In addition, they learn new ways to deal with the pressures and aggravations of life. “The big emphasis in the facility is respect, responsibility and honesty in everything you do. You can typically tie anyone’s good behavior or bad behavior back to pretty much one of those three principles,” Davis said.
Those principles have made an impression on Tate, 17, who was set to be released soon after spending about five months at Camp Summit for an array of drug charges.
Tate, whose full name cannot be used because he is a juvenile, was sent to Camp Summit in a last-ditch attempt to get his life together.
“I got a nine-month-old kid, see, and I was drug dealing and doing all that crap before I got locked up,” he said. “And this place helps you to be able to get your life straight. They make you get a job before you leave, and they make you get schooling set up and everything.”
But while Tate and Jake are pleased with how things turned out, the first weeks took a lot of adjustment.
Jake explained that for most Anasazi youth, any kind of camping comes as a culture shock, and this was really remote camping. “I went through the program in the dead of winter. It was freezing cold. It was hard. It was emotionally challenging. It’s physically challenging. We’re hiking with 40-pound packs that aren’t even backpacks. We’re making shelters with a tarp; we don’t even get a tent. Half the time it rains, we end up soaked in the morning,” he said.
It was a bit of culture shock for Tate, too, with the early hours, strict routine and high standards. “If you just do something little, like your bed’s not made tight enough or your shoes are messed up, you might get a minor and you might have to do a few push-ups,” he explained. “If you’re fighting, you’re automatically gonna get 14 to 21 days extra time.
“You got to maintain a military bearing at all times. Pretty much you got to respect all staff. You got to have your courtesy, dignity and respect for all staff and students.”
The hardest thing for both youth was being away from home. The second hardest thing was dealing with the constant presence of strangers.
“There are people who are like my brother and there are people who are like my brother whom I hate,” explained Jake. “We become a family no matter what. We love each other, we help each other, but we fight. We argue. We argue about the stupidest things. We end up arguing about like who stole the onion.”
Anasazi walkers get a little break from the crowds because they break into “bands” of four to eight on most hikes. But at Camp Summit, the boys are always there, and that can be hard.
“There’s bad days and there’s good days,” said Brandon, 17, another Camp Summit youth who was incarcerated “for some stupid stuff.” He explained that “some of the kids like to crap talk each other, a lot have just tension ’cause they’re always around each other. We take showers together, use the bathroom together, we brush our teeth together. We do everything together and we get on each other’s nerves a lot. But we get through it.”
Helping them get through it at both at Camp Summit and Anasazi are therapists and support staff trained to teach the boys to cope with a range of self-defeating behaviors and attitudes. At Camp Summit, each staff member serves as a mentor to one boy. At Anasazi, Sanchez and the other counselors offer similar support.
All three youths are ready to try life anew after their placements.
“I have a whole new respect on life,” said Brandon. “I’m never going to throw away food ever again. I’m going to think before I act. It just gave me a whole new outlook on life and how to be a better citizen.”
Jake had more trepidation than Brandon or Tate about going home. He wondered if it would reawaken his depression.
“One of the hardest parts of leaving the program is coming home to people who have no idea what you’re talking about. They try to understand, but they’re never going to,” he said.
“You know, there are times when I’ve been worse off than I was before I went on the trail, but Anasazi’s teachings have been there for me in my head and they’ve helped me get through it.”
Assistant editors: Keenen Brannon, 16; Madison DaBreo, 14; Shaimelle Harris, 14; Izabella Robinson, 12.
Reporter: Sameer Kumar, 13.