"Scared Straight!" After All These Years: Bad Policy, but Good TV?

6 years ago

Remember Scared Straight!, the original 1978 documentary directed by Arnold Shapiro and narrated by Peter Falk? This documentary was a groundbreaking television special about a group of young and cocky juvenile law offenders who, as part of a juvenile rehabilitation program, got to come face-to-face with hardened criminals who told them about the harsh realities of prison life … in the most graphic of terms.

Inmates in a New Jersey jail, some lifers, didn’t just describe their prison lives for the youngsters. They also screamed at, threatened, berated and belittled them, all in an effort to scare them straight.

When this Academy Award-winning show aired, it didn’t just scare the kids straight! I, like many of my adult friends, had never before been exposed to the inside of a prison and the scary people who are incarcerated there. We had previously only heard distant rumors about prison life. And those distant rumors were terrifying enough. But with this documentary, the inmates, both victims and victimizers, openly explained the truth. And their truth was excruciatingly hard to hear and yet undeniably captivating. The captivating part, harsh and intense footage, was undoubtedly why Scared Straight! became a cultural phenomenon and a household term.

The power of the original Scared Straight! program inspired dozens of inmate-run intervention programs in men's and women's prisons across the country and in at least nine other countries. And it garnered a great deal of scrutiny, debate and study.

Those who watched had no doubt that the Scared Straight experience would do what it was supposed to do -- keep kids out of jail. But the experts were not so sure. According to the producers, the film made a huge impact on the participants. The documentary’s follow-ups and updates -- Scared Straight: Another Story (1980), Scared Straight! Ten Years Later (1987) and Scared Straight! 20 Years Alter (1999) -- indicate that not all but most of the original kids straightened out and became law abiding citizens. None of them were ever tried for a felony.

On the other hand, there is a considerable body of evidence that indicates these programs are not effective. Controlled studies suggest that though they may intuitively seem effective, Scared Straight programs do not deter crime in youth, and may, in fact, increase delinquency and be detrimental to the juvenile participants.

This is curious given the proliferation and persistence of these programs over the years. It is evident that the Scared Straight intervention model has long been popular among policymakers and funders. For example, despite the studies’ findings indicating that the programs don’t work, the governor of Illinois signed a bill into law requiring that at-risk high school students tour a state prison. Even now, Scared Straight programs continue to be funded and run nationwide.

Regardless of their apparent real-world ineffectiveness, there is no doubt that in our current reality-show-driven media, Scared Straight programs make for tantalizing TV … still. A&E Network is planning to air Beyond Scared Straight, a new series executive produced by Arnold Shapiro (the original Scared Straight director), that will profile similar Scared Straight programs and other approaches to juvenile crime prevention in prisons around the U.S. The four-part series premieres Thursday, January 13 at 10PM ET/PT with a special 90-minute episode at a women’s prison in central California.

I’ve previewed the premiere episode which features the Crossroads Program at Valley State Prison, Chowchilla, California. And I must say, the women showcased therein (both the troubled girls and the prison inmates), deliver the expected shock and drama we’ve come to associate with Scared Straight programming.

This female group of juvenile delinquents start out talking tough and seem quite proud of their legal entanglements. Some of them are looking forward to the day in prison, they say. They think it will be “fun.” At one point, when the girls are touring the open prison yard, one girl comes face-to-face with her mother, who, unbeknownst to her, is an inmate. In all, the program has the same impact on me as the original. The inmates are scary, the conditions are harsh and there is still nothing about prison I ever want to experience first-hand. With regard to what happens to the girls, I don’t want to be a spoiler. But suffice it to say, it’s not pretty.

The Beyond Scared Straight episode opens with this statement:

Girls, when they commit their crimes, they think because they are female, they are going to get away with more. They don’t recognize the consequences that can come to them until it’s too late.

Perhaps this is why the Scared Straight approach has been chosen for them. Honestly, given the studies on these programs and the life circumstances of some of the girls, I wonder if their circumstances can support a change for the better should they choose to make it. One girl had a very dysfunctional relationship with her mother. She was convicted of misdemeanor vandalism and had violated her probation. She had a history of violence and physically abusing to her mother. You could see in the interviews that their relationship was deeply troubled. So even if she decided to make a positive change, could she be successful in the same home environment? As one researcher points out in a Journal of Correctional Education article, "Another Look at Scared Straight", there is no program that can end juvenile delinquency. He says:

To expect a two-hour program to combat a condition that involves inner city schools, poverty, and dysfunctional families was unrealistic…[U]nfortunately the Scared Straight program was effective with those that didn't really need it, but remained ineffective for kids that had already been in juvenile correctional facilities.

All of the girls in the Beyond Scared Straight episode are facing jail time for their offenses. The girl who was convicted of vandalism has already spent more than forty days in juvenile hall.

I was also disturbed by the racial make-up of the girls versus the inmates. The group of delinquent girls are all Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon. The majority of the inmates who were featured -- those who did the most talking and threatening -- were African-American. If the justification for this choice of “cast” was that the majority of the inmates were African-American (which is not apparent from the episode), then certainly African-American girls are at greater risk and should be included in the Scared Straight program, no? The contrast between the girls and the inmates and the "victimized" inmates versus the victimizers was conspicuously stereotypical, I felt, reinforcing and playing on stereotypic notions of Black aggression and White fear.

The Crossroads Program had some different components that distinguish it from the original. One such component was that each girl was matched with an inmate for a one-on-one talk. During these talks, the inmates shared more of their personal stories and showed more compassion and concern for the girls. This seemed to have a meaningful effect on them. The inmates were clearly interested in helping the girls stay out of prison. Their stories were profound cautionary tales about repeatedly being in the wrong place at the wrong time and making the wrong choices. Ultimately, the girls admitted that the inmates’ histories mirrored their own.

If these programs are not keeping young girls out of trouble, perhaps at least they are helping the inmates find purpose and a way to give back. Historically, inmates have found the interaction and purpose of Scared Straight efforts so rewarding that often prison facilities use programs like the Crossroads Program as part of an inmate reward system. In one program, male inmates who participated in the Scared Straight program had earned, through good behavior, the right to speak to a group of teens for one morning. The inmates believed this was a privilege and enjoyed the time spent speaking to the boys. They felt they were making a “meaningful contribution.” Perhaps the longevity of the Scared Straight approach has more to do with the benefits to adult inmates than the kids. Certainly, there is value in creating positive incentives for incarcerated adults.

I’ll be interested to see what other programs the Beyond Scared Straight series showcases. I think this premiere program offers a little more than just provocative television programming. I’m hoping when I tune in for the other three segments, I don’t just find high drama and race-based fear baiting. I’m hoping I hear about actual positive outcomes and somebody getting meaningful help. Otherwise, I can just watch old episodes of Oz or Prison Break, to be reminded of the horrors of prison.

author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers

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