Over a decade after its publication, Louis Sachar’s Holes remains a riveting story. The tale of a teenager wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of sneakers and sent to a remote boot camp to dig holes in a dry lakebed won the 1998 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Five years later, the Disney Company made it into a movie.
Sachar’s unflattering portrayal of the detention camp matches up with the social scientific literature. According to a systematic study by David B. Wilson, Doris L. MacKenzie, and Fawn Ngo Mitchell published in 2005, “the military component of boot camps is not effective in reducing post boot camp offending. Discipline and physical exercise by themselves do not appear to be the solution to our crime problem.” This is true for both adults and juveniles, the authors concluded.
Wilson, MacKenzie, and Mitchell left open the possibility that effective treatment components could conceivably be added to boot camps. Research has not yet established “whether effective
correctional programming is more effective within the boot camp environment than when provided within a prison or as an adjunct to probation.”
In other words, a lot depends on the design of the camp and how it is operated. It is possible that participation in a boot camp could lead to improved prosocial attitudes. But the camp setting can also become rife with abuse. Both of those aspects of reality are very much in play in Holes.