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.

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

  1. All I have to say is I’m glad my parents raised me properly. Throwing me down flights of stairs, beating the crap out of me, throwing me out of the house by age 12… yeah, there’s nothing like constant verbal & physical abuse, neglect, and abandonment to make a kid STAY “Scared Straight”!

    (Note: I just finished a study on the efficacy of the DARE program. Like the SS program, it’s been scientifically proven that not only does DARE not work, it actually makes kids who would never use drugs go out and try them out of curiosity. And the US government spends 750 *MILLION* dollars a year on DARE. Oh, and for those who think, “Oh, he wrote a paper, big whoop”, the Psychology department at my school found my paper so well done and factually backed up that they are now including it as a teaching tool in Psychology 223 classes at the University.)

  2. i am 56 and i am raising my 15 year old grand daughter and her mom has been in and out of prison all her live and she is going out to partys and staying ut all night and smokeing pot i thnk she need this so she dont go down the same rode her mom did

  3. i am 56 and i am raising my 15 year old grand daughter and her mom has been in and out of prison all her live and she is going out to partys and staying ut all night and smokeing pot i thnk she need this so she dont go down the same rode her mom did and she has been suspended from school to many times to count for fighting with other girls that just look at her funny

    • Your granddaughter is going down the same road as her mother, because she has been living the same way. CONSISTENCY in parenting is what she needs. Offer kids limited choices from the time they are first able to communicate. Too many choices are overwhelming, and kids will later use them to control you. It starts with them only willing to eat certain things, refusing all others. They learn life is about choices, and when given too many from the beginning, think they have a right to do anything they want, just like picking out what they will and won’t eat. Children need structure. Children need consequences for actions, though violence isn’t the right remedy. If you do use corporal punishment when they are small, make it a rare thing, a last resort kind of thing. And no beating with objects, no excessive force.It’s DISCIPLINE you want to give them, not abuse.Also, why is she allowed to go out to parties? She is too young!There should be responsible adults there, and you should take her and pick her up! Going unescorted to parties is for adults only, she is a child. I have raised 5 kids as a single Mom , and I know how tough it is.I tell kids this: I am your MOM, not your buddy. I don’t care if you like me right now or not. I am the one person in the world who truly loves you unconditionally.And I love you enough to sit on you for the bad things you do. HARD.

  4. After seeing multiple episodes of the show, and after reading this article/posts, plus reading some other the articles against Scared Straight/Beyond Scared Straight, I can see merits from both sides. I am a FIRM believer that children of incarcerated persons NEED to be reached, and the earlier the better. All kids who are in danger need to be reached, but studies have shown that children of incarcerated persons are much, MUCH more likely to go into jail than others.

    The problem is that the kids need continual support. Parents who are in the right mind about raising their kids (which the numbers of those are dropping year after year) can only do so much support when the entire culture of the school and or neighborhood is pressing in on these kids. The parents who only care about themselves and their next fix, (or their million dollar job) are as effective at changing their kids as a lightpost. At their heart, all kids are good. Some just get ideas about this world and their place in it embedded in their minds at such, such earlier ages. I am talking about 3 and 4 years old. I volunteer and am a member at a church that as part of it’s mission statement reaches out to the forgotten neighborhoods of our city. We have kids all the way from 2 to 22 that we minister to, and for every one that become part of our church, we have 20-50 or more that are irregulars and use us for food and fun. We love them anyway, and are always there for them to love and minister to them but what breaks my heart are the thousands of other kids in our city alone that we are not reaching. Constant support and constant teaching about the right way to live is what what we try to give, but we don’t reach them all. If we reach one, however, then we are doing what God has called us to do.

    I think where the detractors are coming from is from a broad overview of the entire system. As the A&E program shows, multiple states have this type of experience for youth. It should be noted, because I haven’t seen anyone note this yet, that the show is going into prisons where the youth programs are ALREADY AT WORK. If it was that ineffective, would the wardens allow it at all??? I can see how the programs (with or without the cameras) would encourage the children (who are already so set in their “evil” way and wrong choices) to do more. I can also see how the programs may benefit the inmates more than the students.

    Taking kids from middle class, upper middle class, or ever higher class neighborhoods into the prisons probably had more effect because those kids have never experienced some of the things they see and hear while there. However, the arguement could be made that the kids would not learn anything because their privledged minds would constantly be saying, “This isn’t me, this is the poor culture.” Having inmates from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds might help this.

    For the kids from the “poorer, forgotten, passed over” neighborhoods: agression, attitude, yelling, anger, cursing, tatoos, smoking, drugs, etc….are commonplace and usual. And it is important to say that most kids see this so early in their lives that they view it as commomplace as a lemonade stand or trampoline jumping is to other kids. “Scaring” them with the realities of prison probably won’t do much. However, I believe, after working a camp called Angel Tree Camp (for kids with parents in prison) and talking with the kids about their relationships with their parents when they are in prison, and when they get out–I believe that the thing that will help the kids who come from the neighborhoods where prison life is what is expected would be to have the inmates keep in touch and follow up with the students after they go through the program. Get the inmates who HAVE changed more in these kids lives. Get the inmates who are released and living productive lives in these kids lives.

    Ok, I kinda feel like I have been rambling. Let me sum up. BOTH arguements are right. However, both are ignoring something. They should work TOGETHER. Use the “youth inside” programs as a way to begin an indepth attack on the culture.

  5. law makers do not agree with this show and dont want to fund these scared straight programs but what other help or options are they giving us parents to help are children. NONE!

  6. how a man can spend 50 years to life in prison for stealing 40$? never killed anyone but 40$? hearing him say all the things hes been through makes me feel so bad, theres people out there that have done worse and yes what he did was wrong but i dont think he deserved 50 years; his wife left him, he hasnt seen his child, makes me feel so bad i wish i could help em.

  7. The show is interesting, but most of these kids come from low income homes, parents having kids even though they cant afford to support them then expect them to be good, maybe if they kept their legs closed they would have a better outcome instead of living poor and having to work twice as hard for their parents mistakes. And no I don’t think scaring kids to make them act right will work honestly maybe if they had people they could talk to without yelling or judging them \ and parents that can say I love you to their children instead of calling them names and a home without so much negativity and ignoring them they would be more well rounded. And having inmates who screwed up their lives telling and some who have harmed others to be able to yell in your face like being in prison gives them a upper hand its crazy. You dont even have to commit a crime to end up in jail it could be a wrong place at a wrong time you just dont know there are so many actually innocent people in there who turn into criminals because of bad luck. You hear basic stories teens doing drugs and stealing but do we really know the full story and that’s what upsets me about parents who aren’t involved with their kids life they could have been abused and nobody would know at all but all they do is sit their complain and show the world just a bad teen and say they’ve done everything they could even though they sat there for years doing god knows what, I think people need to get to wait until they are stable enough to have kids and learn as people to respect their bodies because some end up with their kids and just don’t care. They should be in their lives and the kids should see their parent as someone they can talk to when they are in need instead of brushing them off because their mad at their ruined lives they created for themselves.

    • POVERTY is NO EXCUSE for poor parenting! I take offense at your remarks, as I struggled to raise all of the 5 kids I had when my husband drained my savings, literally cleaned out both my accounts and his, took off and left me to fend for myself and our children. The law did NOTHING to him, except for maybe a week in jail. He was ordered to pay alimony and child support, which he rarely did, and I was forced to take extra work on, and I still parented my kids, all of which are doing very well! One even has a complete scholarship, Governors Award, and he EARNED it. He is a Comp Sci Major. Another is a Walmart Manager, great salary, big job at 26. He worked his way up. Another works for a large firm as a administrator.I could go on and on, all of them are achievers. You just have to be consistent as a parent, love them, give them all you have. Make sure they can READ. Shop the ads, buy the best quality food at the lowest prices. Most of all, be there for them. Put them before your “man”, if you have one. Because they need you the most.

  8. I thought this was awesome, seeing the inmates talk to these youth with the passion was very inspiring. Makes me feel guilty for every day i just waste lying around watching tv. They also speak to the kids about parts of prison that the average joe does not think about. Not just rape, but shower allotments, the food, etc. I think these are good programs. I believe the inmates when they talk to the kids and give their testimonies. I believe these inmates when they tell the kids they do not want them to end up like they did. If it can save a kid, and our tax dollars, I am for it. We need to put as much money keeping kids out of prison as we do housing the ones we already have.

  9. My 16 year old son needs it bad, ‘Beyond Scared Straight’. He is going out to partys and staying out all night and smokeing pot I thnk he need this so he doesn’t go down the same roads his father did. I’m a single parent that gets no respect. I really think he had no respect for himself so how can he respect ANYTHING??? He’s also been arrested for minor things and gotten off with a slap on the hand so to speak. How do you get on the show?