Beyond Scared Straight: Experts Alarmed by New Show and Impact on Kids


scared_straight_seriesSeventeen cocky teenagers are about to get a wakeup call. They’re locked inside Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, with a group of inmates who call themselves the “Lifers.” These are guys doing 25 years to life for serious crimes like murder and armed robbery. Their job is to scare these troubled kids away from a life of crime by showing them the reality and the horror of prison. They call the program “Scared Straight!” For the next few hours, the Lifers will yell and curse at these kids. They push them around and get in their faces. The intimidation tactics include physical threats and descriptions of prison rape in painful and explicit detail. The Lifers do everything they can to scare these kids into never coming back.

Now Scared Straight! is making a comeback as a dramatic and in-your-face weekly series on the A&E cable network in a new series called Beyond Scared Straight. This time the show features children and prison inmates around the country. It debuts January 13.   Many child advocates and juvenile justice experts are alarmed to see it return.  They point to numerous research studies that show the traditional Scared Straight style of intervention doesn’t work, and they are organizing to educate the public and policy-makers about what they believe is a bad program that may do more harm than good.

Some heavy hitters in the juvenile justice field are sounding the alarm.  Joe Vignati, the National Juvenile Justice Specialist on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, says the  Scared Straight approach is a waste of money. Vignati, who also heads Justice Programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia, warns, “It is more likely to create kids who are going to get in trouble.”

Vignati lays out his case against Scared Straight in his commentary at

Juvenile crime expert John Wilson agrees, calling Scared Straight programs “criminogenic.” He spent 28 years at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Department of Justice, first as legal counsel, then as Deputy Administrator.  He’s now a crime consultant to law enforcement, and serves on the editorial board for the Juvenile & Family Court Journal.

“I will watch the program with trepidation,” says Wilson. “But I hope people will get the facts and see that the research is clear that Scared Straight is a failed program that does more harm than good.”

The original Oscar-winning film Scared Straight! was a phenomenal success in theaters and on television in the late Seventies. It won several Emmy awards, and spurred the release of four sequels that checked in on the progress of the original 17 kids.  Filmed in New Jersey's Rahway State Prison, Scared Straight! inspired similar intervention projects across the country. The director and producer, Arnold Shapiro, says the programs are helping troubled kids turn their lives around.  In Shapiro’s films, 14 of the 17 kids said the experience changed them, and they vowed to stay out of prison.

Shapiro is also producing the new show, and says it is different from the original. "This is not a reality show, this is pure documentary.  You never know what's going to happen.  You get an array of reactions." He adds, “There is more talking.  Hours of talking."

He goes on to explain how children were recruited for the show. "We didn't choose the kids, they were chosen by youth counselors.  There are two kinds:  at-risk, who are beginning or entry-level criminals -- drugs, drink, shoplifting, that kind of thing.  Then there are criminally-active kids who have been arrested before."

The Washington-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), a national nonprofit group that advises federal and state policy-makers as well as the OJJDP, is not convinced of the value.  The Coalition is troubled by the apparent revival of Scared Straight! and the influence the TV show might have on local communities. CJJ Deputy Director Tara Andrews says, “There is a concern because states are in a pinch for money right now and they are looking for low-cost solutions, even if they have a low impact.  Scared Straight programs feel intuitively good but the research doesn’t bear that out.”

“The research has shown Scared Straight to be at best ineffective and at worst counter-effective,” Andrews adds.  “I’m disappointed to see this approach given such a positive profile.  Scared Straight has long been discredited.”

A review of ten studies by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) bears that out.  The review found traditional Scared Straight programs to not only be ineffective at helping kids turn their lives around, they actual “increase the likelihood that participants will commit crimes,” according to WSIPP Senior Research Associate Elizabeth Drake.

“This is the only program we reviewed that actually increases crime,” Drake says.

A similar review of nine studies by the Campbell Collaboration, an international research network that  regularly reviews research on crime and justice, social welfare, and education, also found Scared Straight interventions to be a poor choice for communities seeking solutions for crime prevention.

“What these studies show is that in the aggregate, more kids were hurt by Scared Straight than helped by it,” says Dr. Anthony Petrosino, who co-authored the Campbell Collaboration review.

A review of Scared Straight studies by Anthony J. Schembri, former Secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, adds, “Exposure to the prison/jail environment as well as to inmates themselves may serve as a desensitizing factor thus making the possibility of incarceration for future offenses less threatening, thereby eliminating any deterrent effect the thought of prison may have served.”

Wilson puts it another way. He warns the children involved in the production are at risk. “These are not actors,” he says.  “These are real kids put into an abusive and frightening setting. Many are going to be traumatized. Others, the hard core delinquents, will actually think it is pretty cool. They will identify with the prisoners. They think: I’m tough. I can fit. And then they brag about the experience to their friends.”

Shapiro, Beyond Scared Straight’s producer, isn’t buying it.  He argues that trials such as the ones reviewed by the WSIPP and the Campbell Collaboration are no substitute for the direct observation that he has done.

“Academic studies don’t work,” Shapiro says.  “It’s all about follow-up.  I’ve done more follow-up than anyone.  Scared Straight: 20 Years Later is the longest study ever done.”

“The kids in Beyond Scared Straight are chosen by youth counselors, teachers, family members.  If these people saw no results they would stop doing it,” Shapiro adds.  “The kids show an array of reactions in the prison.  But they didn’t just walk out and forget about it.”

He goes on to explain, "We talk to the kids on a weekly basis, sometimes up to a year after filming, before we lock the final edit. We checked in with them and they were doing just fine."

Shapiro also admits that Scared Straight shouldn’t necessarily be the first choice for those seeking to help troubled kids.  “It’s a last resort.  Counselors will tell you it’s a valuable tool in an arsenal of tools,” he says.

Beyond Scared Straight is getting heavy promotion on the A&E Network and online.  It is expected to draw a significant audience, despite multiple research studies and warnings from juvenile crime experts.  John Wilson cautions viewers who might try to revive local Scared Straight programs to be careful to avoid violating federal law.  Under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), kids in custody must be separated from adult inmates and removed from adult prisons; status offenders should not be locked up at all.  Any community starting a local Scared Straight program that brings kids in custody to an adult prison, even for educational purposes, could risk losing federal funding for juvenile justice programs statewide.

The A&E Network is apparently refusing to talk about the new show . Despite repeated attemps over the past week, no one has returned our calls.

Published by

Ryan Schill

Ryan Schill is the editor of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. In 2012 he wrote a comics journalism piece about the ongoing U.S. immigration debate, published in partnership with Cartoon Movement. His 2011 story about a case of misdiagnosed child abuse won first place in the non-deadline writing category of the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Awards for Excellence in Journalism. Ryan is completing his MA in professional writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and has a BS in media studies. His research interests include experimental journalism forms, journalism ethics and philosophy, theories of literary journalism and the intersections of social justice and journalism.

101 thoughts on “Beyond Scared Straight: Experts Alarmed by New Show and Impact on Kids”

  1. 5 years ago i inquired about a program scared straight with the pueblo colorado police dept. and judges for my son. i was told that programs like that do not exist any more. i was extremely disappointed because i felt my son could have profited from that experience. my son ended up spending some time in jail. he is now 20 and still says that jail is a place he does not want to be. i wish that there were programs for him back then. am glad to see this up and running again and hope more kids will get to experience this before going to jail.
    many praises to the staff and the prisoners for doing this program.
    God Bless You All,

  2. My brothers and sister need this. I’m tired of my mom struggle with they’re behavior. Please help them.

  3. I’m trying to get help with my 12 year old girl she really needs help she lies talk back fights her sister talk back to me and her mom goes online to talk to guys older guys she lies and tell them she 20 years old when she only 12 I’m so worryed that something may happen to her if she does not get help can you please help she also take things in the house and lies sayin she didin take it

  4. i have a son who need that prgram i want to know availability of clases time and fees thanks.

  5. Please excuse me but this article is just ridiculous. Oh no, you tried to contact producers and they didn’t answer so you wrote this crap to release your frustration cause someone ignored you, is that right? Now about the program itself – Who the hell cares about some dumb punks (like street fighter Ashley) who after the jail visit still think (or rather not) they can gang bang and sell drugs on the streets and have a successful life?? This program is about kids like Brandi or Cassandra or others who made the REAL change, who actually started thinking about what they’re doing to their families and themselves. It’s about saving the once who deserve – not arrogant knuckleheads with no brain who clearly don’t. This is what really matters here.

  6. I have to laugh at all the inmates that say they never had the opportunities these kids did to go to college and blah blah blah. These idiots had the same opportunities, they just chose a life of crime instead. Do you think all these kids are rich and can afford college and get great jobs right out of the gate? No of course not. So using that as a tactic is stupid and pathetic.

  7. I have a 13 yr old son and I cant take his ways and action. Ive been looking for a good and affordable boot camps to send him too. I need help asap, I dont want to loose him in the streets. He dont want to go to school but just want to run the streets. Ive tryed to reason with him even have long conversation with him and it just goes in one ear and out the other. Please help me.

  8. my 15 year old daughter is out of control. 10 times between in school and out of school she has been suspended within the first 3 months of school. she talks back and has an anger problem. she got so mad has punched the glass in my kitchen door and broke it i had to rush her to the hospital because it was so much blood. she has been in 2 fight this year. i am begging you to please help me she needs this because she keeps down this road she will end up dead or being kicked out of school.

  9. I’m a Soldier stationed in Fort Bragg, NC. I am from Raleigh, NC I have 15yr old cousin that smokes weed, get suspended all the time talks back to his mom and sneaks in and out of the house. I’m trying to find out a way to sign him up for this program. I want to get my hands on him but my aunt protects him from me so I seen this show and thought this would be the best thing for him. So if you can send me the requirements for this I will gladly bring him. Thanks

    Sergeant First Class D. Harley
    US Army

  10. I think the likelihood is that many kids in this program are one of the %1 of the population that have borderline personality disorders, and while many young people going through Scared Straight will be afraid if jail as a result, those kids who are psychopaths realize that jail is an environment they will flourish in and will be in a “jungle” environment where their violence and selfishness will be rewarded.

  11. Hi,i have a brother that is 19 years old!He really needs help.He is always fighting and talking back.My other sister,my mom and dad are tireed of it.My brother got kicked from two schools already.He needs help.He also does drugs andI worried.The whole family is.Please help me.I’m begging you.He needs help!!!

  12. My two kids are spiralling out of controll, cant go to work without worring what my son will do next, and my daughter has a direspect problem that you wouldnt even be able to handle, I recently went thru a divorce and i try to give my kids the best I can but they refuse to be civilized and NOBODY wants them around and I can not have any kind of a relationship with anyone due to the disrespect they have. My son says if I was to send him to boot camp he would just tell them to f off and he would he is only 1`2 and my daughter is 13 with a chip on her shoulder a block long!! Please can you send me some help ???

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