Scare ‘Em Straight

scared straight

In 1978, Arnold Shapiro directed a documentary called “Scared Straight!” which followed at-risk teens who had been in trouble for everything from fighting, theft, and  drug use to promiscuity, gambling and gang affiliation, as they spend a day in jail with actual inmates. The teens are confronted, yelled at, and verbally harassed by the adult inmates, as they experience the harsh realities of life in prison. The goal of this “project” was to frighten the young delinquents into “scaring them straight,” so as to prevent the teens from reoffending, and thus, hopefully, avoiding a life spent in prison. The end of the film features a “roll call” of the children, revealing that the day with the convicts had, in fact, “scared them straight.”

However, a few of the delinquents were said to have reoffended, although that fact seems to be altogether forgotten and instead the idea of “scaring children straight,” is glorified as a successful endeavor. Even though the recidivism rate might have been lower under these circumstances, it is important to remember that this “project” was created by a filmmaker and not a psychiatrist specifically trained in juvenile delinquency, rehabilitation of felons, or even the longterm effects of using scare tactics experimentally.

A study done in 2002 and updated in 2003 by Anthony Petrosino et al. revealed that programs like the one the documentary seemed to be promoting “are not effective as a stand-alone crime prevention strategy.” Further, the researchers went on to explain that:

“…these programs likely increase the odds that children exposed to them will commit offenses in future. Despite the variability in the type of intervention used, ranging from harsh, confrontational interactions to tours of the facility converge on the same result: an increase in criminality in the experimental group when compared to a no- treatment control. Doing nothing would have been better than exposing juveniles to the program.”

In 2011, A&E introduced the new series, “Beyond Scared Straight,” which, according to A&E’s website, follows “derailed, defiant and disrespectful teens as they enter immersive jail programs aimed at deterring them from a life of crime.” Each episode focuses on a different inmate-run program in the United States and follows several at-risk teenagers before they attend the program, throughout their day immersed in the prison, immediately afterwards, and then a few weeks later. In addition, each episode ends with updates of the teen participants since the taping of the program, citing both successes and some failures in their post-prison behavior. Season 4 “Highlights” include:

-In Georgia, returning audience favorite Deputy Jonathan Lyle takes on a “buckwild” partying runaway, a drug-dealing Jekyll-Hyde and a young teen who threatened his pregnant mother with a knife.

-Returning inmate “Hustle Man”, a ferocious incarcerated killer, is dragged away from the teens after he tries to attack.

-12-year-old petty thief Alissa sobs uncontrollably at the sights and sounds of jail life, but, more shocking, her fourteen-year-old brother, himself having committed armed burglary and grand theft, refuses to comfort her amid the chaos.

-An explosive giant, Joseph, assaults his little brother and his adoptive parents until he comes face-to-face with menacing convicts and deputies.

-Maura, a privileged suburban shopaholic who steals just for the thrill, experiences the gritty consequences of her crimes.

-Cody sports tattoos indicating affiliation even though he doesn’t claim a set–a dangerous circumstance on both sides of the bars, especially since he fears gang retribution for getting into a fight with a gang member at school.

-A beautiful cheerleader, Kristin seems set on following her mother’s criminal past by running the streets, stealing and using drugs.

-Aaron, a feisty habitual liar, initially confounds deputies by easily overcoming physical challenge during an exhausting all-night jail stay (returning fan favorite Richland County, SC) until deputies set their sights on getting inside his mind.

To be honest, I cannot say one way or another whether these programs truly do help the participants or if they (like the research above indicates) serve to increase the likelihood of the young offenders to reoffend. I can say, however, that I am uncomfortable with the idea of using children as lab rats and throwing them in this “scientific” experiment and hoping it helps them. I do not like the concept of using at-risk youth to serve our entertainment needs. It’s as if the producers of the show are outwardly saying, “This is going to help the kids!” but then privately whispering, “And if it doesn’t? Oh well, it made for great TV!” I think the psychological effect of having a child (and I do mean a “child,” given the participants are all under the age of 18) thrust into a situation like prison life is relevant to the discussion and that even if a child does not reoffend after participating in one of these programs, the program is not necessarily a success. The previously mentioned study says it best:

“Policymakers should take steps to build the kind of research infrastructure within their jurisdiction that could rigorously evaluate criminological interventions to ensure they are not harmful to the very citizens they aim to help.”

Photo courtesy of: A&E

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  1. Hi Ashley— I happen to be one of those producers who worked on BSS. While I can imagine from an outsider’s perspective you might think we were just cynical non-caring tv folks not invested in the outcome or the teens, but that is far from the truth. We often bonded with the teens featured, continued contact with some and often for those few days with us they actually glimpsed a life outside of what they thought was possible. We often helped parents talk with their teen and as a mom of two sons, I sometimes offered advice. The programs we featured were often created by officers of color in response to the alarming rate of young people of color entering jail.
    Do these programs work. After visiting jails and filming with a variety of teens across the country, in my humble opinion they are a tool and work most successfully for children who have a support system in place.
    Believe me, our crew was forever changed by this experience. You can’t go into our country’s jails week after week and into the home of families who lack proper resources to make significant changes in their lives and their children’s lives and not be impacted.

    What is true, more than whether we as TV producers had some hidden agenda, was that America has turned it’s back on somany children and have shown them through police harassment, zone tolerance and draconian school disciplinary polices that their lives really don’t matter. Perhaps for a few days we let them know they did matter to us. Many of us on the show were parents, uncles, aunts, sisters and brothers. What you saw on TV was 45 minutes of days and hours spend with these children, not only by us, but with officers and the inmates. Often the officers continued contact with the children afterwards/

    For myself, I know we can all do more– I started a free yoga program for teens and their families in a local underserved community and currently I’m teaching writing at a program for ex-offenders. What I know is that what separates a lot of us from those behind bars is opportunity and the color of our skin. We all learned that while working on this show. We are human, after all.

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