The American Jail Association has again voiced its opposition to A&E’s controversial “Beyond Scared Straight,” a reality television show that follows troubled teenagers as they are supposedly terrified out of their devious ways by rowdy prison inmates. Now in its fourth season, the show premiered to record viewership in 2011, bringing in more than 3.7 million viewers for A&E. It has remained a popular staple for the network, despite proof that scared straight programming is ineffective and often harmful to youth.
So why is this television show, one that glorifies the abuse of young people and the shameful dehumanization of some of the most marginalized Americans, still on the air? Especially given that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the federal agency for juvenile justice in the United States has formally stripped all scared straight programs of funding, and written in a scathing report that “Traumatizing at-risk kids is not the way to lead them away from crime and drugs.”
To begin with, these programs mirror nicely the false, yet firmly held, belief that “tough on crime” approaches that emphasize punishment over prevention work best. More importantly, however, they ignore the fact that the ideas of punishment and fear on which our justice system are based are completely flawed.
The reality of scared straight programs is far from the pseudo reality of television. The truth about scared straight programs is that they are often interpreted as a challenge to troubled teens and as sport to inmates under pressure to behave like monsters, especially in front of cameras. What’s more, these shows put law enforcement at serious risk of liability. Nobody benefits from these encounters, and the volumes of evidence to that effect make it particularly startling that this television show remains on the air.
Consider some of the season 4 highlights listed on A&E’s website:
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 14-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.
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.
Do any of these highlights make this program sound anything other than abusive in nature? “Ferocious incarcerated killer,” “menacing convicts and deputies,” “deputies set their sights on getting inside his mind.” It’s our new coliseum. One could easily describe it as bullying.
And although bullying might be a fun way to get back at these “derailed, defiant, and disrespectful teens” as A&E calls them, it is hardly effective. In fact, a recent study by Dr. Michael G. Turner of the University of North Carolina – Charlotte found that young people who were victims of bullying had higher rates of illegal activity later in life; so rather than being scared into submission, they were motivated to defy authority and break the rules. The study recommended that intervention programs aimed at reducing involvement in crime and delinquency address bullying victimization as a risk factor – not include bullying as part of the program!
Parents and guardians desperate to get unruly teenagers in line may look to the programs depicted in this show as possible remedies, when in reality the programs do much more harm than good. It is high time that the truth about this show be heard loud and clear so that it may be taken off the air. Answers about what works best for troubled young people should be based in sound research, like Turner’s, not in storytelling aimed to generate profits for television networks. Our young people deserve better than that.
Paige Pihl Buckley grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts and currently lives in Boston’s Savin Hill neighborhood. She graduated magna cum laude from Boston University’s College of Communication in May 2012, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Print Journalism, with a minor in African studies. She was a four year Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar, one of only twelve at Boston University, and was inducted into BU’s Scarlet Key Society her senior year. She began working as an intern for Strategies for Youth in September of 2011 and was hired full-time as Communications Coordinator upon her graduation from Boston University.
Douglas County, Ga., is about 40 miles from Kennesaw State University, where we publish the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. However, it is light years away, really light years behind, what our reporting and commentary have been saying about Scared Straight programs since 2011. Scared Straight programs don’t work. More Scared Straight kids end up as recidivists than similar kids who don’t go through these programs.
So we are perplexed why Douglas County would run a Scared Straight program and even more perplexed why officials there would agree to let the “Beyond Scared Straight” A&E TV crew tape an episode that will air tonight. It features two teenage sisters who are humiliated and intimidated in a way that if you and I did it to our own kids in public we would be the ones thrown in jail.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s office is so far out of touch with present day reality and research that officials there literally use a mace, a medieval weapon, to symbolize their Scared Straight program. I am not making this up. Right on the web page explaining what their M.A.C.E. (Making A Change Early) program is all about, is a drawing of a mace with this caption: “The overwhelming usefulness of the mace was its ability to generate enormous swinging force that could bring a tremendous blow to an opponent.”
The mace in the drawing is a club with a chain on the end tethered to a steel ball with spikes. See, you swing that club and crack your opponent’s skull open with the spiked ball. Now, we have been wielding the best practice research and our commentary as kind of a gentle club, but alas, we are apparently dealing with some very thick-skulled and thick-skinned policy makers in Hollywood and in Douglas County.
First there are the executives at the Walt Disney Company and Hearst Corporation, the parent companies of A&E TV, which produces the disgusting “Beyond Scared Straight.” It’s a program built on demeaning and threatening young boys and girls, apparently in a quest to build audience and reap profits. Why else would Disney and Hearst back the long discredited Scared Straight programs?
We are not so sure of Douglas County Sheriff Phil Miller’s motives. His mission statement for the M.A.C.E. program, which will be featured on “Beyond Scared Straight” tonight, reads: “The basic premise for this program is one of deterrence; the belief that realistic and aggressive exposure to prison life and inmates will cause youth to refrain from delinquency due to fear of the consequences of the bad behavior and ensuing incarceration.”
Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director at the Coalition of Juvenile Justice, a network of organizations dedicated to keeping children and youth out of court, told our JJIE.org reporter Maggie Lee that these tactics don’t make the kids more timid. In fact, it will “harden their bravado” and make the kids want to affiliate with the nasty talking inmates who have the most power.
In other words, it is more likely to have them pick up a mace and pop someone upside the head to demonstrate who has the power.
So, as I did two years ago, I call on the Walt Disney Company CEO, Robert A. Iger, to pull “Beyond Scared Straight” off the air because it touts a program that does not work and also demeans the very children Disney claims to shower with wholesome programing.
Here is a promotional blurb for this season’s “Beyond Scared Straight”: “Returning inmate ‘Hustle Man,’ a ferocious incarcerated killer, is dragged away from the teens after he tries to attack.” Is that promotion about wholesome programing or about greed of the worst kind? Come on CEO Bob Iger, give us an answer.
I also invite Sheriff Miller down to Kennesaw State University to meet the folks who run our Master’s and Ph.D. programs in conflict management. They can tell you a few things about how violence begets violence and why piling trauma on kids who have suffered trauma their whole lives is not such a smart approach. Ever hear of programs like restorative justice? Come on down, Sheriff Miller, and when you do, please lock the Scared Straight cell door behind you -- forever.
This week, the fourth season of the A&E TV show “Beyond Scared Straight” follows two young sisters to the adult jail in Douglas County, Ga., where one inmate tells one of the sisters how she could beat her up “and make you not so pretty no more.”
Plenty of critics pan the show, saying it publicizes a discredited, harmful practice. Neither Georgia nor the feds will fund such jail tour programs, citing both evidence that it doesn’t work and the liabilities jails take on when they invite minors to meet with inmates.
“I still break the same law that sent me there,” said Pete Thomas, 27, of Atlanta, who for that reason spoke under a pseudonym. Ten years ago in central Florida’s Lake County, deputies pulled Thomas over and found him carrying less than 20 grams of marijuana. A scared straight-type visit to the county jail was part of his sentence in “Teen Court,” a diversionary program for young offenders.
“They tried to intimidate everyone in the group as much as possible, singled me out for having long hair, and the inmates acted crazed,” said Thomas, adding that he already knew people in that jail and that they were encouraged to lay it on thick.
That illustrates some of the objections to jail awareness programs detailed by Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director at the Coalition of Juvenile Justice, a network of organizations dedicated to keeping children and youth out of court.
A kid’s response to such aggressive tactics, said Hornberger, is to “harden their bravado.”
And besides that, she said there’s another phenomenon that makes the bigger bully the winner: affiliation with the aggressor. “The group that is seen to have the greater power,” Hornberger said, “the [kids] will affiliate themselves with.”
She said there’s not a shred of evidence that scared straight-type jail tours work.
Anthony Petrosino agrees. He’s a researcher at WestEd, a research nonprofit and an author of an influential 2002 meta-analysis of scared straight studies.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“We’ve got a real serious ethical program here.”[/module]“This program doesn’t have any positive effect and it may very well hurt the kids that are in the program,” he said. Petrosino and his team revisited the topic in 2012, trying to add more studies to their analysis. There were none to add and thus no new conclusions to make. Petrosino said that’s likely because scared straight is seen as a discredited program, so no one studies it anymore.
“We’ve got a real serious ethical program here,” said Professor Del Elliott, the founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We’ve got a TV production that’s promoting a program which is doing harm to our children.”
Elliott called for the show to be taken off the air.
“No program works 100 percent, let’s be real about that,” said Elliott, but he pointed to dozens of programs that he said are proven to do good work, most especially two types of family therapy.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“What they’re telling them is the way it is … we try to make it as real as possible." [/module]Previous episodes of “Beyond Scared Straight” do move beyond the eye-catching ads that show inmates berating youth. Episodes and programs vary but in some, inmates talk calmly to the kids; some are kept a certain distance from the visitors. Sometimes the kids wear prison jumpsuits and are locked in a cell, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it shows local law enforcement following up with the kids and parents.
Petrosino said the data he saw was not extensive enough to tease out any nuances: if any particular exercises are any better or worse.
Thomas’ Lake County sentence did include plenty of other things besides the jail visit: a letter of apology to the arresting officer, more than 40 hours of community service and six months of drug counseling.
Ironically, he learned about more drugs, especially experimental hallucinogens, as part of the counseling and his assignment to research and write a paper on the uses, effects and history of marijuana.
“My long story short, I explored more drugs than I ever knew existed, possibly as a direct result of the experience,” said Thomas.
In Douglas County, kids are screened to see if they’re a good fit for their jail visit program, Making A Change Early, or MACE, said Chief Deputy Sam Copeland.
“It’s more for the person who’s on the edge,” he said, doing things like sneaking out at night, drinking or just having a bad attitude. The program serves youths aged 13 to 17 who are leaning toward delinquency, not a youth who has already been in custody.
Copeland said his inmates are probably hamming it up a little for the kids, but “what they’re telling them is the way it is … we try to make it as real as possible. You got to have a shock factor.
We want them to understand the lack of privacy, the lack of being able to do what you normally would do,” Copeland said.
After the jail tour, the kids see Magistrate Judge Barbara Caldwell. “They have to go before her and convince her that they should be released,” said Copeland.
MACE began only in 2011, so Copeland said they do not yet have a lot of statistical data, but “so far, when we go back to these parents we have phenomenal results back from the parents.”
Copeland added, to “take away a tool that is available, that might help a youth, I’ve always thought is ridiculous.”
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"What I would encourage folks to do is take a look at what research says."[/module]Georgia’s Governor’s Office for Family and Children looks in on scared straight programs when they hear of them and explain their concerns as they relate to both federal and state law.
Jail awareness tours may be legally risky for counties: Georgia’s adult jails are not allowed to “receive” accused or adjudicated persons under the age of 17.
Housing juveniles in an adult facility in contravention of state law would expose a county to liabilities that may far outweigh short-term savings.
"What I would encourage folks to do is take a look at what research says," said Joe Vignati, justice division administrator at the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
"Focus your energies and support … your choices, your dollars, your votes on things that are shown to reduce crime," he continued.
"Does this [scared straight] reduce crime? No it doesn't," he concluded.
Free Polazzo, a former teacher, and a current Douglas County activist, wants his sheriff to end MACE.
“I worry that they’re learning about how to do bad things and not get caught, and they also learn that grownups solve problems by ‘grounding’ people for years,” said Polazzo. He prefers that educators, faith groups, communities and families teach children.
He especially touts Help Increase the Peace, a Quaker-developed workshop where young people learn how to solve conflict nonviolently.
“We should not want our sheriff to be responsible or feel responsible for educating our children,” said Polazzo. “We elect sheriffs to be tough guys, but to expect a man who has to be that tough … he shouldn’t be expected to know all the ways of education.”
Beyond Scared Straight Producer Arnold Shapiro, on behalf of himself and his production team, declined to speak to JJIE.
As for Thomas, he said he no longer drives around with marijuana. He said he’s “calmed down” a little bit and doesn’t chase synthetic highs anymore.
“As far as what I recommend to law enforcement and families,” said Thomas, is “youth involvement. Idle hands are the devil’s tools. Rehabilitation is greater than incarceration. Less sugar, more books. Less reality TV, more Nova.”
The controversial A&E Network series “Beyond Scared Straight” returns August 20 for a third season. If this 30-second teaser from A&E is any indication, viewers can expect more episodes filled with inmates and prison guards yelling at, verbally abusing and intimidating at-risk teens, with the apparent goal of creating “powerful experiences” that “break down walls” so that “kids will listen,” according to the video.
But while the television show may be enormously popular with viewers – in 2011 receiving A&E’s highest ratings ever for a series premier – experts nearly unanimously agree that Scared Straight-style programs create higher incidences of recidivism and do more harm than good for teens, and they can point to nearly 30 years of research as evidence.
“It is more likely to create kids who are going to get in trouble,” Joe Vignati, national juvenile justice specialist on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, told JJIE in January 2011, when the series first premiered.
In a 2000 report by Anthony Petrosino, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino and James O. Finckenauer that examines the effectiveness of Scared Straight-style programs, the authors write, “Few programs were as popular or well intentioned as Scared Straight. Yet, despite such popularity and benevolence, there is little evidence to suggest that the program is a deterrent to subsequent juvenile crime and delinquency. In contrast, the evidence strongly suggests that it leads to more crime by program participants.” In fact, the study found that Scared Straight-style programs increased crime between 1 percent and 28 percent in experimental groups when compared to groups who did not participate in similar programs.
Based in part on these studies, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJPD) “discouraged” the use of Scared Straight-style programs.
But Scared Straight programs remain popular because “they fit with common notions by some on how to prevent or reduce crime (by 'getting tough')” and because “they are very inexpensive (a Maryland program was estimated to cost less than $1 U.S. per participant),” according to a second report authored by Petrosino, Turpin-Petrosino and John Buehler and most recently updated in November 2004.
So if Scared Straight doesn’t work what are the alternatives?
Research suggests mentoring may be the best option, according to an op-ed by Jeff Slowikowski, then the acting OJJDP administrator, and Laurie Robinson, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, published by The Baltimore Sun in February 2011.
“Mentoring programs have been found to be effective in reducing incidents of delinquency, substance use and academic failure in participating youth,” they wrote. “Research has shown that mentoring relationships that last at least 12 months or through an entire school year are most effective. Further, youth in long-term mentoring relationships tend to improve their self-esteem, social skills and outlook about their future.”
Among mentoring programs for youth, the most well known may be Big Brothers Big Sisters. But other programs focus on specific populations of youth. We Stand for Kids, for example, works with the children of incarcerated adults with the hope of ending the cycle of incarceration.
Contact with inmates or offenders isn’t always negative, however, according to research by Phillip D. Holley and Dennis Brewster. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) instituted a program called “Speak Out” that takes offenders directly to the kids in schools or churches. Speaking about their own experiences, the offenders “attempt to inform community youth/parents/adults, etc. about the evils of crime, gang involvement, and life in prison,” according to the study, and to do so without the intimidation of typical Scared Straight-style programs.
A similar program in Texas known as Operation Kick-It brings inmates – dressed in their white prison jumpsuits – to high schools and to meet with other groups to speak to at-risk youth without the “audience intimidation and scare tactics,” according to Holley and Brewster. It is estimated the groups of inmates make more than 1,000 appearances a year and have spoken with between 200,000 and 300,000 youth since the program’s inception.
According to Strategies for Youth, effective youth programs should:
- Provide large amounts of meaningful contact
- Have a longer duration
- Be “designed by a researcher or have research as an influential component of the treatment setting”
- Offer behavioral, skill-oriented and multi-modal treatment
- Be gender-specific and sensitive
Recently, I wrote about how locking up youth in juvenile hall only increased the chances that they would reoffend. This was based on the new study, “No Place for Kids.”
Another report that came out earlier this year, “Evidence-Based Interventions for Juvenile Offenders and Juvenile Justice Policies that Support Them,” takes a look at what works and what doesn’t. According to the study, only 5 percent of eligible youthful offenders are treated with an evidence-based service. Evidence-Based services are ones that have been demonstrated to be successful.
Many juvenile offender services are not effective and some methods, like “shock incarceration treatment,” such as Scared Straight, actually worsen anti-social behavior. Unfortunately, with TV reality shows touting such interventions, communities continue to support these high-profile, ineffective programs. The thinking is: ‘We will just scare them into changing their ways.’ Only by looking at the studies do we see that mixing youthful offenders with adult criminals, or with like-minded peers, only increases the chances that they will commit another crime.
What works to turn kids’ lives around?
Research shows that addressing key risk factors like improving family functioning, developing relationships with caring adults, and improving school performance in the youth’s natural environment decreases criminal behavior. Behavioral treatment such as multi-systemic therapy (MST) and Functional Family Therapy (FFT) not only improve outcomes for children but are less expensive. Unfortunately, time and time again, we see juvenile justice policy driven by communities that don’t like the idea of “coddling” juvenile offenders and want them locked up. Their focus is punishment, not change.
Digging through my files, I came across an article written by J. Edgar Hoover for the defunct The American Magazine in January 1955. In his article, “You Can Help Stop Juvenile Crime,” the former FBI director warned that the undermining of traditions, customs and a lack of respect was creating kids who did not recognize the difference between good and evil.
Quoting J. Edgar Hoover:
There are several other steps we can take to reduce delinquency at once. One of these is to stop mollycoddling juvenile criminals. It is against the instincts of most Americans to get tough with children. But the time has come when we must impose sterner penalties and restrictions on young lawbreakers for the protection of the law-abiding.
I do not mean that I would favor imprisoning every boy and girl found guilty of a minor offense. I agree with those judges who hesitate to send juveniles to penal institutions or reform schools, which neither reform nor rehabilitate youngsters. But it is imperative for those same judges to impose much stricter conditions on the release of juvenile offenders, because, time after time, those freed under slack supervision or in custody of their parents promptly return to their criminal ways.
Surprisingly, Hoover’s myths remain today:
- Juvenile crime is increasing — when the truth is that it has been dropping for years;
- Scaring kids will steer them away from crime — when studies show it only encourages them; and
- Locking kids up deters them from committing future crimes—when statistics show that 80 percent will commit another crime if incarcerated.
We need to change the focus from punishment to creating life change through evidence-based treatment. Let’s look at what really works and what doesn’t when we create systems to address youth crime.
The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system. It originally appeared in San Jose Inside.
I'm from a small town in Missouri. It all started when I was 13. I started rebelling, and I ended up stealing my dad's car.
I then got put in juvenile. Two weeks after being on probation for that, I stole another car... I was then placed in a treatment center which did nothing for me.
After I got released from there, I was still on probation. I then started smoking pot, drinking, fighting, and skipping school. So I continuously and gradually got into more trouble.
My juvenile officer had me do the "Scared Straight" program, which also didn't work at all. [The inmates] only made me mad by yelling in my face and telling me that if I didn't stop, I'd be where they were. The more everyone tried to tell me what to do, the more I felt I had to rebel.... I didn't understand why I wouldn't listen to them then, because I didn't want to be locked up, but I definitely didn't want everyone telling me what to do. I thought I was grown... But I know now that I wasn't.
My judge gave me too many chances. Finally, the last time I was in there, she placed me in Division of Youth Services custody. I no longer had a probation officer. I had a service coordinator. I was placed in juvenile [detention] until an opening at a girl's facility was open. A grand total of 7 months.
From there, I went to a girls' group in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. I could not leave there till I completed the program. You had to start as a level 1 and earn your level 4, which was really a blessing in disguise. Ever since my first day there, my life has not been the same.
I was there for well over a year... But all the staff members and the teacher there were the most wonderful, and amazing people I've ever been around in my entire life...
What changed? The staff at Sierra Osage helped me realize that it wasn't that I was just a wild child, and I wasn't just fighting people because I was mean.
I was acting out because I was a child from a broken home and I was hurt and and lost, and I felt alone. That I was angry/hurt at my family, for how I was treated and being around things and seeing things that a child shouldn't have to see. And that I just needed to talk about everything that hurt me in my life and get it off my chest. To not let those feeling of hurt build up anymore and allow them to turn into anger.
The staff helped me get through all of it and helped me with all of the social skills and coping skills that I would need to be a productive woman in society. They taught me everything I would need to know to be able to deal with the struggles that life throws at you along you way.
We did all kinds of different fundraisers and volunteer work, and it made me feel and realize I am wonderful person and don't have to end up like my family. With the level 4 system, it gave me the confidence I needed for when I came home. I'm proud to say, I left a level 4!! I knew I was ready.
Since I've been out. which is 6 years now, I have not been in any trouble. I even had a couple curve balls thrown at me one month after getting out: I lost my dad in a car accident and exactly two weeks later, I lost my best friend to suicide. If it wasn't for all the coping skills, and them teaching me that I'm a strong person, I would have been right back to where I started...
I am now 23 yrs old. I was going to go to school to be a kindergarden teacher, but recently with a change of heart I decided to become a youth specialist... I was looking further into that and I found the Reclaiming Futures page and figured I would tell my story.
Here's hoping my story helps kids in some way. I want to help kids the way that Sierra Osage has done for me! I thank God every day for putting them in my life. And for them directing me onto the path I was capable of going down!
The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.
I just watched the first episode of this season of A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight.” This was my first exposure to the show. JJIE.org has covered the details of this program and experts have weighed in about it in this space, from knowledgeable, yet slightly removed positions.
For me, however, it was a strange and personal experience. Watching the show I was flooded by memories of my own time in prison, both as a young man and as an older prisoner in contact with “at risk youth.” I felt waves of emotion, mostly negative, as I watched fear and intimidation used, along with a smattering of humane connection, to bring about change in these young people.
When I first arrived at the youth prison in Alto (a notorious prison at the time in north Georgia) in 1985, I was placed in a dorm. The officer told us that if we were fighting and refused to stop when he called “break,” he would “bust our ‘tater” with his billy club.
This same officer, after catching me in an infraction, had me squat and walk around the dorm, quacking like a duck. I did this because I feared refusing and facing more severe punishment. This memory came back to me as I watched a similar scene on the show. The use of mindless exercise as punishment seemed similarly sadistic to me. I do not recall that this experience had any positive effect on me. Conversely, I instead became more skilled at not getting caught.
I was particularly disturbed by the threats of assault, extortion, rape and sexual slavery that were used in “Beyond Scared Straight,” to persuade the children that prison was not a good place to be. Not only did the prisoners use these threats, they were reinforced by the guards and even some of the parents. I saw all of these acts carried out during my time in prison, and to imagine that they would be endorsed in any fashion seems insane to me. I cannot imagine that threatening a child with rape will ever have a good result.
It seems that these types of behaviors appeal to the people who watch the show. Perhaps they experience some vicarious satisfaction in seeing people threatened and humiliated “for a good cause.” Like in a Hollywood movie, they enjoy seeing the bad kids get their comeuppance. Then, in the end, their sadistic fascination is justified, thanks to professional editing, when the children magically become “good.”
The scenes that brought back good memories for me were when the prisoners actually talked to the kids about their lives and experiences. When this authentic human communication was happening it seemed that the kids opened up and considered their own lives.
This was my experience when I had the opportunity to talk with young people from schools, YDCs and alternative programs. In one group we met with children every month of the school year. We were able to establish rapport and trust, and when we spoke about our lives they listened. In these meetings we learned about them and the problems they were facing.
For many of them there was little parental support. Often their parents were prisoners or drug addicts. For some of them we were the first adults they felt truly connected to, and because of that I believe we had a positive influence. When I saw the prisoners in the program really talking to the kids instead of playing a role, it seemed that the youngsters were listening. Kids can sense authenticity, and in those moments when the guards and prisoners were being honest, I think there was a positive effect.
Why cloud that with threats and manufactured stress and drama?
In my experience, most people respond to honesty and empathy. When a sergeant featured in the show was sharing that her mother was a drug addict, and that she understood the temptation to act tough, she was connecting with a kid named Jose in a way that helped him see himself. When she was screaming at him, or letting prisoners threaten him with rape and assault, he was further away from change than ever. Fear can create change, but it is usually short term, and it almost always comes at the price of resentment and hardening of the heart.
As appealing as the tactics displayed in “Beyond Scared Straight” might be to some, even if their motivation to help is honest, they are not as effective as programs that foster real connection and understanding.
I believe that not only are they unhelpful, they are actually harmful in the long run.
Set to air Thursday at 8 p.m., the premier episode of the new season of the controversial reality show, “Beyond Scared Straight,” adheres to the themes that made it A&E’s most watched show: A small group of at-risk youth spend the day in prison where they are yelled at, intimidated and humiliated by sheriff’s deputies and inmates alike. The screaming and threats of prison rape are followed by emotional conversations with the inmates as they describe to the teens where they went wrong and how the teens can avoid the same fate.
The episode features Mecklenburg County, N.C.’s “Reality Program,” created by Sheriff Daniel “Chipp” Bailey.
“Our Reality Program stresses education, not intimidation,” Bailey is quoted as saying on the program’s website.
According to the website, the mission of the program is to “provide the community with a program which will help educate young people about the long-term effects of participating in criminal activity.”
After watching the show, non-violent communication and conflict management expert Dr. Heather Pincock was baffled.
“There is no coherent approach in the diversion program,” Pincock said. “Most of the episode they [the deputies] were there to intimidate the youth or break the youth down or humiliate them. Then they suddenly start saying. ‘We’re your friends, we’re here to help you.’ There are very mixed messages around their role. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The scenes with inmates were also troubling to Pincock. “The way the inmates are represented, it’s complete chaos, and it is kind of glorifying or sensationalizing this idea that the people that are incarcerated there are completely out of control or inhuman.” But later, she said, the same inmates were shown having intimate conversations with the teens. “It seems highly incoherent as an intervention or a way to communicate a message to at-risk youth. It didn’t strike me as well thought out.”
Teens applying for the program must come from local schools, according to the application for the program. JJIE also obtained a release form parents must sign when enrolling their children in the “Reality Program.” The form absolves the Sheriff’s Office from any liability should their child be injured while participating in the program.
The form also states that it is a “program of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, in cooperation with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools” and others. When asked about the school district’s involvement with the program, a school district spokesperson said they do not endorse the “Reality Program.”
Despite having no involvement with the program, spokesperson Lauren Bell said that school resource officers, some of whom are employed by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, are permitted to provide information about the program to students. Resource officers do not provide information about other diversion programs, Bell said.
“The resource officers do not endorse or discourage the program,” she said.
As JJIE reported previously, “Beyond Scared Straight” has been drawing criticism from juvenile justice experts who say the program is ineffective and a waste of money. They cite studies that show scared straight programs are actually counter-productive.
But the show's producer, Arnold Shapiro, claims those studies are wrong and too old to be relevant. He says today’s scared straight programs work better because of the added counseling portion.
The second season of “Beyond Scared Straight” begins Thursday night and with it come renewed questions about its effectiveness. The reality program follows at-risk teens as they are threatened, screamed at, and harassed by prison inmates in an attempt to get them to change their ways. The show was A&E Network’s most watched debut in its history with 3.7 million viewers.
As JJIE reported at the time of the show’s debut in January, juvenile justice experts are concerned the show may be sending the wrong message. They point to studies that say scared straight-style programs are not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.
Joe Vignati is the head of justice programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia. In January, he wrote in an op-ed on JJIE.org that “the research is clear, once the trauma of Scared Straight has worn off, meta-analysis shows that this intervention actually INCREASES the odds of offending compared to a no-treatment control group.”
“Academic studies don’t work,” Shapiro told JJIE in January. “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 National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued a statement in January claiming, “’Beyond Scared Straight’ misrepresents the effectivenesss of such interventions with youthful offenders . . . It is clear these types of interventions as portrayed are neither developmentally appropriate nor trauma-informed.”
The controversial reality television program “Beyond Scared Straight” will return for a second season on the A&E cable network. The show follows a small group of at-risk kids as they are taken inside prison where inmates try to scare them away from lives of crime by yelling at them and describing the brutal reality of prison life.
Juvenile justice experts have derided the show for advocating a program that many studies have shown to be not only ineffective, but also counter-effective, increasing the likelihood that kids will commit crimes in the future.
John Wilson, a juvenile crime expert said at the time of the show's premier last January, “The research is clear that Scared Straight is a failed program that does more harm than good.”
The show’s producer Arnold Shapiro contends the studies don’t provide an accurate depiction of Scared Straight’s success. He says the best tool to assess the programs is follow-up with the kids. Shapiro produced the original documentary “Scared Straight!” along with a number of sequels that checked in with the kids from the first film.
Sadly, not all of the kids from the original film avoided prison. As JJIE reported in February, Angelo Speziale was recently convicted of murder despite his claims that “Scared Straight!” changed his life for the better.
“Beyond Scared Straight” debuted to 3.7 million viewers in January making it A&E’s most watched debut of all time.