This isn’t Thomas DiSilvestre’s first stint in prison. At 23 years of age, he’s already been inside New York’s Rikers Island and the Ulster Correctional Facility for felony drug charges. His arms are scarred, and his almond-shaped eyes are downcast on the table in front of him.
“You have to always worry about people running around, cutting you,” he says, talking about his previous times in prison. “You don’t feel safe.”
DiSilvestre is incarcerated again. In May 2016, he was caught breaking into someone’s home stealing, according to the police report. Being his second offense, he took a plea deal with the Queens County, N.Y., district attorney for attempted burglary and received another three years in jail — a terrifying prospect.
But DiSilvestre didn’t end up in the same prison environment as before. He’s currently held about an hour south of the Canadian border near Lake Placid at the Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility.
To be clear, inmates at Moriah do not receive shock therapy, as its formal name seems to infer. Rather, non-violent felons, like DiSilvestre, are “shocked” by therapeutic social programs and military-style schedules designed to lower recidivism rates.
At their height, shock programs were in more than 50 prisons nationwide, but most have been shut down over the years due to inefficiencies and poor outcomes.
Still, there are two shock programs in New York that have proven effective and have drawn praise from state department heads, academics well-versed on military-style prisons and inmates. The prisons boast both lower recidivism rates and lower costs. Advocates say it’s because of their focus on social programs and therapy, rather than just military drills and discipline.
Luis Tena, a 43-year-old Bronx, N.Y., resident, was caught dealing drugs in 1994 and sent to Lakeview.
“I actually learned about the people I was hurting. The same people I was selling to, I was hurting, and I was victimizing my own people,” he says, adding that the boot camp training is what gave him the discipline to walk into a job interview post-incarceration.
NEW YORK’S UNIQUE SHOCK INCARCERATION PROGRAM
At a time when there’s bipartisan support for the overhaul of America’s prison system, alternatives to traditional incarceration are being examined — especially for low-level drug offenders. Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to reform the state’s prisons by providing more education and keeping youth offenders out of jail. But little attention was given to New York’s shock program.
Two prisons in New York house shock programs: Moriah, in Mineville, and Lakeview, in Brocton. The facilities can serve more than 1,000 inmates combined, including women. During sentencing, judges give some felons a choice to go to Moriah or Lakeview in exchange for a shorter prison sentence.
“Before I went in, I couldn’t hold a job, I was an ignorant prick,” says Mike Semar, a former inmate at Lakeview’s shock program. “But when I got out, I wasn’t the old me I was before. That guy is dead and buried, he’s in the past.”
Cheryl Clark, a doctor in health and human services, developed the shock program in New York in 1987. By the early 1990s, its popularity increased as the crack epidemic (similar to today’s widespread addiction of opioids) swept through poor cities and neighborhoods across America.
NationSwell repeatedly asked to speak with Clark about shock incarceration and New York’s program, but she was unavailable for comment.
Interviews with current Moriah inmates, people formerly held at Lakeview and Moriah, and incarceration experts reveal that there are several factors that make New York’s program different. For one, the facilities themselves are unique. Unlike other prisons with towering three-story-high walls and guard posts with armed corrections officers, there’s very little of that at Lakeview — and none at Moriah.
“At other prisons, you’ll see a more physically hands-on policy with inmates when they act up or misbehave or throw them in a cell,” says Kim Schaefer, program administrator at Moriah. “We don’t even have cells here.”
Secondly, the New York prisons operate what are considered “second generation” shock programs, according to a report by the Department of Justice. New York shifted the focus from boot camp prisons, which were proven ineffective in the mid-1990s, to incarceration facilities that focus on therapy and education. Moriah and Lakeview’s success, even when others have failed, seems to be how they merge discipline with education and “self-based treatment,” which is different from typical prisons, which offer very few — if any — therapy programs.
According to shock’s prescriptive routine, a quarter of inmates’ time is spent in boot camp-style training and discipline. The remainder of their schedule is divided as follows: 25 percent on education, about 33 percent on therapy and group programs and the remainder on hard labor.
“When you teach people about self development, self knowledge and self awareness, you build those cognitive skills that are imperative to go back to employment and be part of their community,” says Katherine Vockins, founder and executive director of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, which uses art in prisons to teach felons how to make better decisions upon release.
Research shows that programs focusing on education are more effective in preventing felons from committing crimes in the future.
“It’s not a matter of contention among the department, this program works,” says Martin Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission and a distinguished lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “The program has proven its utility and is now integral to New York’s prison system.”
LIFE BEHIND (NONEXISTENT) BARS
When inmates look out their windows at Moriah, where the prison has taken occupancy of a 19th-century former iron mine, they see ponds filled with geese and mountains in the distance.
It feels more like a camp, says Boyce “Bud” D. Rawson II, who at 5:15 a.m. is barreling through Moriah’s front door gleefully.
“Hey boys!” he hollers to the staff. The man is enormous; he stands above six foot and has the build of a linebacker.
Rawson jaunts up the hill behind the administrative building passing by a flock of geese that he calls the prison’s “jailbirds.” He walks into one of the prison’s barracks where more than 40 felons are sleeping and picks up a touch dial phone.
“Ready,” he says, and within a minute, the speakers blast a crackled version of “Reverie.” The inmates jump out of their beds, count off and rush to the shower. They’re given 15 minutes to shave and get dressed before lining up outside for the morning drill, which is a grueling two hours of military exercises followed by a two-mile run.
The boot camp format isn’t for every inmate — even Rawson admits to that. “You have to really buy into this. You have to make that connection that what you learn here you can use outside this place.”
Schaefer, who was hesitant about working in corrections before seeing the atmosphere at Moriah, acknowledges that it’s unique. “It’s still a prison — we never forget that — but the goal here is different than other prisons. At other prisons upstate, they carry batons. Our officers carry whistles.”
A SUCCESSFUL MODEL
Other states have modeled the shock program, focusing heavily on the boot camp aspect, but prison advocates regard those as detrimental.
“Some of the people who are in prison have suffered a tremendous amount of abuse in their past, be it physical or mental,” says Vockins. “I can’t imagine these military programs could work for everyone because it could reacquaint them with that old trauma.”
Dave Allen, an officer at Moriah, says that the boot camp portion of shock is simply a way to get inmates focused. “The point isn’t to degrade them — that’s not why we’re here. But we need to make everyone understand that you can’t talk back, and you can’t be disrespectful, and if you do that, you can really do well in everything else we have here.”
Older studies conducted by the Department of Justice have also found that boot camp prisons aren’t effective in reducing recidivism rates. In June 2003, the department released a report that found boot camps — though effective in the short term — didn’t have positive effects in the long-term with inmates reoffending.
And recidivism rates are tricky to analyze, says Vockins, as there are a handful of ways to cherry pick data, which can produce different results. Agencies, for example, can track recidivism as re-entry into the prison system after three years due to a new crime, but could also not take into account parole violations that would put them back in the system after they are released.
Moriah and Lakeview stand apart from other programs that have seen cuts in funding or closures. The facilities cost less to operate than other New York state prisons — about $20,000 less per inmate per year. And they have some of the lowest recidivism rates in New York, according to data from the New York State Department of Corrections. Recidivism rates for New York prisons average around 65 percent after three years. For the shock program, they hover around 31 percent every year during the same time period.
But a change in New York’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws (which required mandatory minimum jail sentences) also means that fewer people are filling beds at Moriah.
“There really aren’t many low-level offenders in New York’s prisons anymore,” says Horn. “Because of [the changes in the law], those who are in prison are those with fairly serious crimes.
Currently, Moriah houses just under 200 inmates, but could accommodate around 100 more.
“If we ran at full capacity, we could save the state $90 million a year,” Rawson estimates.
The problem comes down to exposure to the shock program. Interviews with department officials say that many judges and district attorneys are unaware of Moriah.
“People say we’re the best kept secret,” says Schaefer. “Problem is, we don’t want to be a secret.”
Horn, for one, is skeptical of this and says that he goes to attorneys’ offices regularly to speak about the program.
LIFE AFTER SHOCK
It’s been almost 20 years since William Schoch was released from Lakeview, yet he still remembers the five steps to make better decisions that he learned while incarcerated.
“See your situation clearly, know what you want, expand your possibilities, evaluate and decide, and act,” he rattles off over the phone. “It’s become second nature to me.”
Two years ago, Semar, of Perry, N.Y., had a wife and child. On his 37th birthday, he was jailed for drug usage and ordered into Lakeview’s shock program.
“About three months in, I got served divorce papers. When those papers came in,” he says, “my [corrections officer] came over said, ‘Look, I’ve been there. A divorce isn’t something that you look forward to. But everything you’re doing right now will make you better, stronger. You’ll be able to deal with a lot more stuff,’ he told me. After that, I bought into the program.”
Rawson receives numerous letters and calls from former inmates and their parents with positive feedback about the shock program. He says that it’s those messages that convince him it’s working.
DiSilvestre, who was caught stealing, is less than a month away from graduating from Moriah. When that time comes, he and his platoon of inmates will dress in their best. Then, in front of their family and friends, they’ll walk in formation across the grounds to receive a diploma listing their achievements.
“There is a lot of pride from the guys that leave this place. They’re changed men,” Rawson says. “It’s a great feeling, knowing that these moms and dads have their kids back.”
Let’s fix this country together.