Seventeen 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 JJIE.org
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.