Shock Treatment in Prison

By Rhanie Mae 06/03/15

There were substance abuse classes, strenuous physical training, and a strict set of rules and regimens. But shock won’t take anyone who is being treated for a mental health issue.


If shock camp is our best hope for reforming incarcerated addicts, then New York State has a big problem. 

I cannot speak for everyone. Perhaps, there are a few people who have benefited from the program (although I doubt it). All I can speak for is my own experience. 

I received a sentence of 21/3 to 7 years for a drug-related crime in 2012. After winding my way through county jail, and through the reception and classification phase of prison, I ended up in Brocton, NY, at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Center. It was mandatory in order for me to be released. 

The program is supposed to be geared toward people with addiction problems. There were substance abuse classes, strenuous physical training, and a strict set of rules and regimens. In exchange for abiding by those strictures, eligible inmates served just six months instead of whatever their sentence may have been. You just have to survive shock. 

Running, drug treatment—that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Not so fast. The whole premise seems flawed.  

Although shock is geared toward treating addiction, many addicts—and many inmates in general—have mental health issues. However, shock won’t take anyone who is being treated for a mental health issue. Now, the problem with this picture is that shock is the only program that can get you released early. That’s a pretty strong incentive. So what do we do? We stop taking our mental health meds. As it turns out, you don’t have to not have mental health issues, you just have to not be in treatment for any mental health issues.

This was the case for me and for countless other women who also went to Brocton. The result is that the state ends up taking inmates with depression, debilitating anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress and putting them into a mentally and physically demanding military-based training program. 

Like a lot of the women I met there, I didn’t need a military-based training program to break me. I was already broken.

Zero weeks wasn’t so bad. That’s the two weeks at the very beginning designated for physical torture. That I could handle. It was the mental and psychological aspect of it that got me. 

The drill instructors, who are supposed to be responsible for your safety and rehabilitation, are sadistic. They will judge you and humiliate you based on your appearance and whatever information they have in their records. They give everyone the same cookie cutter treatment, aiming to break you down in order to build you back up. 

I was told that I was a privileged little white girl who manipulated the judge into giving me shock because of my rich family. None of that is true. What’s more, none of it is productive for recovery. 

I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment until my mother met my stepfather, and shortly after that we watched him die of cancer. It could have been worse, but my life was not the cushy, privileged existence the drill instructors strangely threw in my face, like a cookie cutter insult. (I am white and I am female, though, so at least they were right about the basics.)

The worst part is that you cannot stand up for yourself. If I were to open my mouth at all, that would be considered feedback and I would be punished. So I had to suck it up and try to do my program with the drill instructors relentlessly trying to “teach me a lesson.”

Our substance abuse counselor was worse than the drill instructors. She would belittle us loudly. And publicly. If we ever so much as sighed or shrugged, we would be punished for weeks with a so-called “learning experience.” I—like many of my peers—would sit in class and think, “This is the person guiding me in my recovery? I need to be high just to tolerate being in the same room as her!”

The officers are controlling, demanding, and maliciously rude, just for the sake of exerting their authority. Their behavior often reminded me of an abusive ex-boyfriend—except, unlike shock, at least my ex didn’t have control over my freedom. 

While it’s the judge who puts you in prison, it’s the COs who can put you in the prison within the prison—solitary confinement. At one point, I was put in solitary confinement for a brief time. I had a hearing and was found not guilty, but even so, I had to forfeit my place and graduate with another platoon at a significantly later date. 

All in all, I’d say the only thing about the shock program that would successfully keep me sober is the fact that I really don’t want to go back. But as an addict, I know that’s never enough. If not wanting to go back to an unpleasant situation were a sufficient deterrent, we’d have almost no recidivism in this country.

Did I mention I’m writing this from prison? Shock didn’t work at all—I’m back behind bars on a parole violation. This time, though, I’m in regular prison—not shock camp. 

Rhain Mae is the alias for a woman currently incarcerated in the state of New York.

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