New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for Female Prisoners Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

New York State attempted to reform and rehabilitate female prisoners by placing them in an incarceration camp where they were subjected to intense physical and mental discipline.

Summary of Event

Female prisoners have tended historically to be a neglected and negligible group. Women have made up but a small part of the prison population in all countries. Because they have tended to be such a minority in the criminal justice system, their special needs as a specific group have not been met. Although nonincarcerated women have sought to help female prisoners in various ways, the treatment of incarcerated women has gone through the same cycles as the treatment of male prisoners. Summit Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility Shock incarceration camps Correctional facilities Women;correctional facilities [kw]New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for Female Prisoners (1988) [kw]Incarceration Camp for Female Prisoners, New York Opens “Shock” (1988) [kw]Female Prisoners, New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for (1988) [kw]Prisoners, New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for Female (1988) Summit Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility Shock incarceration camps Correctional facilities Women;correctional facilities [g]North America;1988: New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for Female Prisoners[06700] [g]United States;1988: New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for Female Prisoners[06700] [c]Women’s issues;1988: New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for Female Prisoners[06700] [c]Social issues and reform;1988: New York Opens “Shock” Incarceration Camp for Female Prisoners[06700] Bennett, William Cuomo, Mario Mega, Christopher J.

One of the ways in which female prisoners in New York State attained equal treatment with men occurred in 1988, when the first group of women entered the “shock” incarceration program in Summit, New York. The program was aptly nicknamed. Run on the model of armed forces boot camps, such incarceration camps were designed to break down the spirit of the inmates, thereby presumably also “shocking” them out of the bad habits and antisocial conditioning that led them to crime in the first place. The concept involved first breaking the inmates down and then rebuilding them with strict discipline, rigorous physical exercise, and some educational and vocational training.

In a lengthy feature story published in the Village Voice in May of 1990, reporter Jan Hoffman Hoffman, Jan vividly described the experiences of a few of the one hundred women who were sent to the Summit camp in 1990. The women were relatively young, for the program was limited to first-time, nonviolent felony offenders sentenced to prison terms of at most three years. In 1989, the program accepted women from the ages of sixteen to twenty-six, but the age limit was later raised to twenty-nine. The overwhelming majority, more than 80 percent, were drug offenders. Other prisoners had been convicted of embezzlement, forgery, and burglary. If the inmates given the option of this six-month camp took it and made it through to graduation, they were immediately eligible for parole. If they were kicked out of the program, they started their sentences in prison all over again.

Some who were given the option chose not to participate. The discipline at such camps was severe. As Hoffman described it, the women’s hair was trimmed severely, to within two inches of their heads. They were not allowed to use the pronoun “I”; instead, each was required to refer to herself as “this inmate.” Inmates rose at 5:30 a.m. for one round of calisthenics, then spent several hours at hard labor, such as cutting down trees and transporting bricks. In addition to learning hundreds of new rules detailing every aspect of their daily routine, the women were subject to all sorts of mental and psychological discipline. Meals were to be eaten in silence, at breakneck speed, in eight minutes. If a woman did not consume all her food, she had to carry the remainder with her for three days in a bag suspended from a cord around her neck.

The drill instructors and the facility’s superintendent noted that degradation was the point of such rules. Discipline was intended to help the inmates overcome the greater problems they would face when they were again out on the streets. All of the workers at the Summit camp, including the secretaries, were put through one month of such shock training so that they would have an understanding of what the inmates endured.

Such so-called boot-camp-type programs were not unique to New York. Fourteen other states had them at the time, and others were considering them. New York’s program was the biggest. In 1988, the Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Summit accepted its first group of sixteen women. New York’s program had some features to recommend it over others, such as an emphasis, backed by resources, on rehabilitation. Inmates received individual drug and alcohol counseling as well as group therapy; they also attended high school classes. New York also had a follow-up parole program, After-Shock, that provided for continued drug testing, established curfews, organized weekly group meetings, and gave parolees help in finding jobs.


Community leaders were divided in their opinions concerning such shock camps. William Bennett, the “drug czar” of President George H. W. Bush’s administration, supported such incarceration camps as one solution to the crime problem. Politicians in general tended to have positive opinions of the camps. According to an article in The New York Times (June 8, 1989), it was Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration that proposed raising the age limit for the camps to twenty-nine and allowing the participation of inmates who had already been in state prison. The same article reported that the New York State legislature was told in January, 1989, that it could save $1.59 million for every hundred shock camp graduates, because the program so drastically reduced time spent in prison.

Although the financial saving was a prime attraction, supporters of such incarceration programs also cited humanitarian reasons: They argued that the chance to change the destructive habits of the inmates, to teach them self-respect and show them that they could succeed, was more constructive than simply locking them away for a time and then returning them to the poor economic and personal conditions that had led them to criminal behavior in the first place. Other community leaders were more cautious, pointing out that such severe discipline tactics are prone to abuse. They also suspected that the human urge for revenge, rather than more humanitarian purposes, may have been at the root of the humiliating treatment of camp inmates.

Broader issues were also at stake. In the group followed by the reporter from the Village Voice, a majority of the inmates were African American and Hispanic. The majority of the women in the New York State penal system as a whole were single mothers with children. Many incarcerated women were themselves victims of domestic violence and suffered from low self-esteem. Finally, breaking a long historical pattern, women seemed to be committing more crimes and entering the criminal justice system at an alarmingly high rate. It seemed urgent to study the needs of women prisoners and to pinpoint their differences from male prisoners. Women as a group, and therefore female prisoners in particular, tend toward culturally conditioned behavior that is submissive, dependent, and self-doubting. With so many of the inmates at a place like the Summit camp being women of color as well, the issue of treatment that assaulted human dignity became doubly acute.

On the positive side, the shock incarceration camp for women in Summit, New York, seemed to be intended as a therapeutic and rehabilitative program, giving inmates a chance to change and improve their lives, first by changing and improving themselves through personal discipline and a sense of accomplishment. Among the women tracked by Jan Hoffman in 1990, for example, one woman lost 56 of her 215 pounds. She was also, to her pride, made the leader of her platoon in the camp. Unquestionably, given the societal values prevailing at the time, for women especially, the opportunity to look better and feel good about herself was an important first step for this woman in gaining control over other areas of her life. More problematic are the reasons this particular inmate lost the weight: She was required to do hard physical labor, and she was subjected to degrading sessions during which she would step on a scale and be yelled at for being fat.

Critics of shock incarceration programs have noted that the lack of human dignity in the process, no matter what ultimate human dignity is intended in the long run, may prove to be counterproductive. For women prisoners, who most often come from homes where they were humiliated and degraded, or who must abandon their children for six months to go to a shock camp, such severe treatment may be particularly ineffective in the long run. Summit Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility Shock incarceration camps Correctional facilities Women;correctional facilities

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adler, Freda. Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. Traces the changes in patterns of crime committed by women in the United States and discusses psychosocial perspectives on female criminal behavior. Useful introduction to the topic. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowker, Lee H., ed. Women and Crime in America. New York: Macmillan, 1981. Collection of essays leans toward a feminist perspective in presenting theoretical discussions, reports on experiments, and data summaries. Intended as a basic text for college-level courses on women and crime; useful as an introduction to the topic and as a tool for further research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freedman, Estelle B. Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981. Provides historical background. Three major sections cover the responses of white, middle-class women to female prisoners in the nineteenth century, the history of state prisons for women run by women, and the work of female criminologists. Includes illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Girshick, Lori B. No Safe Haven: Stories of Women in Prison. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999. Draws on interviews with women inmates to argue for particular policy changes that the author asserts would improve prison conditions for women and prevent further incarcerations. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffman, Jan. “Shock Sisters: Female Convicts Tackle Boot Camp.” Village Voice, May 22, 1990. Interesting article follows a particular group of inmates during their time at the Summit camp.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watterson, Kathryn, and Meda Chesney-Lind. Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996. Insightful account of the experiences of women in prison. Readable and well researched. Includes glossary and bibliography.

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Categories: History