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

Print More

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. I have a 15 year old son who in the past year has went from a quiet, well mannered, well liked child to a stranger to me. He hasnt went to school in about 2 months and before that it was hit and miss to what he attended. He cant seem to hold a job for more than a week. He comes and goes as he pleases, he will not respect the cerfews I set for him and sometimes is gone for days on end. He has started smoking and he has admitted to smoking weed. I am scared he is also using other drugs. He doesnt listen to anyone and if we try and talk to him he just leaves. I dont want to throw him out of the house but just dont know what to do. I have asked the police and school what I can do and they all tell me there is nothing legally I can do. I cant make him do anything they tell me. His behavior is taking it’s toll on me. I just dont know where to turn. Is there something out there to help parents in my situation who do not want to give up on their child.

  2. My 5year old daughter is the devil she hits me and doeznt eat her food …i cant control her shes outta her mind …she carrys guns and has just joind a gang they call her the pupett master …help me plz

  3. My daughter is 15 years of age. She is very smart and is an all around athlete. However, she is very troubled, withdrawn, angry and defiant. She has gotten a tatoo, tongue and belly button piercing all w/out my consent. She is skipping classes and her grades are slipping, she is in all honors classes, but acts like she doesnt care any more. She is very mean to her little sisters. Its like she doesnt love them at all. She has also keyed my stepfather’s car, threw away all his meds in the toilet, as well as spiked his hawaiin punch w/windex. Please help me out w/scaring her straight.

  4. to whom it may concern:
    i have a 13 year old daoughter who thinks she growner than me she doesnt listen to any thing i tell her to do,she curses tell me she hates me and that i get on her nerve shes rude and disrespectful, i think yhis show could really help her.PLEASE PLEASE HELP MY WITH THIS TROUBLED LITTLE GIRL

  5. To whom it may concern,
    My little brother is 17, and in desperate need for help. He is 17, drinks, smokes weed, has sex, disrespectful, and gets in a lot of fights. My mom is a single parent who tires to control him but is very busy trying to support him and her and pay all the bills. My dad recently had another frequent overdose that lead him to the ER which he almost died. My dad is seeking help now in another state staying with his sister. My brother even has a tattoo that he got without my mom’s approval at the age of 17 in texas. ( illegal) He is very smart, but has a barely get by attitude. I believe that he will really hurt someone one day and go to jail, and get a record. He does want to go to college to be a mechanic. Since my mom is not home often he does what he wants most of the time and no one knows where he is at. He gets in trouble with school for missing too many days. I have tired to talk to him ( I am a older sister with my own family and moved out long ago) but he seems to brush it off. I hope you consider him for his safety.

  6. please help me my son has been putting me through this out of control roller coaster for six years now. he is always getting in trouble at school,getting suspended for not serving his detentions due to getting to classes late. says he only goes to school cause i want him to,wont listen to authority,pretty much thretans me by saying i’m not gonna go to school anymore,i know what i’m gonna do,you’ll see. i’m scared of him what he may do to hisself and someone else,he thinks there should be no discipline for his wrong doings cause he see’s no wrong being done. he’s been in and out of counseling since he was seven. i’m really worried what he may become. i really need your help this is my last resort i’ve run out of ideas. been in trouble with the law for fighting, i think he may even be smokind weed. try’s to leave every weekend to hang with friends i dont approve of but of course say’s it’s not them he’s hanging with. PLEASE HELP ME TO HELP HIM.

  7. i need help with my son he do not listen to anyone he think’s everything is funny and talk’s back to everyone..

  8. To whom it may concern, I live in Baltimore, Maryland. I really need help with my son, he is rude disrespectful to me and his sisters, his dad. He curses. I tell him to be home at 9pm and he comes in the house whenever he feels like it. He tells me that I’m getting on his fxxxxx nerves, I’m annoying him. It just goes on and on, he gets high and thinks it’s ok. Please help me. He me era says thank you until I make him. I really think that your program will help him. Please scare him straight for me, please help me I love my son very much. I don’t want him dead or in jail. Thank you for taking the time to listen.

  9. I also need major help with my three nephews. One lives here in Jonesboro, GA (age 9yrs old) and two who lives El Paso, Texas (ages 11 & 13 yrs of age) Please help!!!!

  10. i truly believe that “Scared Straight” is a great program with great intentions, a lot of people say that the inmates yell and scream harsh things to the children,children hear a lot worse things these days on the street, and sometimes children need a wake-up call, i know in some neighborhoods in the philadelphia area, these children think jail is something to be proud of, parents need to have a way to get thru to these children that JAIL should not be an option in their life. I like the fact that the scared straight program gives parent that kind of outlet.

  11. These programs are the best thing their is for these kids. I spent my teen years partying,getting arrested and it led to a serious drug addiction. I had every kind of counciling possible. Sending a troubled kid into a room with a person who has degrees of child psychology plastered on their wall thinking they understand why a kid does what they do, doesn’t help. A child/teen cannot relate to someone without any life experience whatsoever. If I had gone into a program like this and been able to see the enviroment of a prison and sit down and talk with a prisoner who understood my life,had gone through the same things I had and understood my feelings… life would have changed alot faster. Just because someone has experience behind a desk and in college it NEVER makes up for true life experience. These prison programs have already proven to do more GOOD than Harm from watching the show. 9/10 these kids get the message. I think it is wonderful and I am fully happy to pay for it with my tax dollars. Buerocrats need to realize they don’t understand the heart of the problem…those who ahve made the mistakes do, they are the only ones who can truly connect.

  12. For all you folks that think this show is so bad, you guys should take all these bad ass kids into your homes and raise them and then come back to us parents and tell us that we should not try every tactic we can to get our children on the right track. As I hear most of these kids have no respect for authority inside or outside our home because our system protects them for getting a simple spanking when they do wrong. Then I say drop off all the bad asses on the folks door steps that think this is not a good move.

  13. I totally dont agree fully with the show either.. but I do feel like some trouble children especially at real young age should at least take a tour threw a Correctional facilty just to witness the living conditions. That alone with deter them away from crime. I feel like if America allowed parents to bring back some Traditional values back in the home,,Kids would be different.If my kids mess up major or minor they get in trouble. It also starts with the parent,If the parent actually plays the parent role and contributes 100% into their childs life, the child should be fine.If a parent raises their child by example instead of acting like children themselves(drinking,drugs,partying,not caring what there child does,etc…) then what do parents expect.Children these days,just like we did growing up need someone to show us that they care even if sometimes it is tough love. Why do you think your child chooses to run with gangs and the wrong crowd..because these groups show them attention and make your child feel like they are wanted!!!

  14. This show has to be 100% fake because if it’s real it’s a PURE LAWSUIT waiting to happen. The way they SCREAM in these kids faces is 100% ILLEGAL and WRONG. The ACLU would have a FIELD DAY with the people behind Beyond Scared Straight IF it was real… This show HAS to be FAKE… There is no way a GOVERNMENT AGENCY would allow themselves to be filmed performing ILLEGAL ACTS against minors. Threatening Minors with violence and personal harm and even RAPE of a minor… GIVE ME A BREAK!!!

    These shows are going TOO FAR. This is 100% ILLEGAL and needs to be STOPPED NOW.

    • It’s not fake. It’s 100% real. You ahve made it apparent you aren’t truly an attorney. do a little more research into parental consent and the laws and regulations passed to support these programs. idiot

  15. are you kidding, have you seen this? threatening children with beatings and rape is clearly abusive..wth? if i did to my own child what they did to those kids, they would be removed. I agree that kids are blase about consequences, give them real consequences, not a show they are well aware is being filmed and is a great educational experience (for how to survive in prison). By the way, the heart warming moments where the prisoners bond with the kids will only further serve to make them comfortable and build affiliation with those in the system.

    • Tougher kids than you have said the same thing and broken down in tears in this program. You are no different. You think you can do it….contact the show

  16. I wish I was on this show that way I could show how much what y’all do don’t work. I’ll show them how real I really am.

  17. I have a 15yr old Daughter that thinks she is bullet proof. She is in a violent relationship and hangs out with people that make her belive they are her bff’s. She has been sexually active since she was 11yrs old.Has got caught skipping school just enough not to get kicked out of school, but munipulates everyone around her to feel sorry for her.She smart and knows how to work the system. She got caught stealing today and basiclly smerked at the employee as if she didn’t even care. Shes laughed in cops faces, and thinks what she get away with is funny.. I’m at the end of my rope, and don’t know what else to do. She’s still a young girl and could still have a second chance at life, but i just don’t think i could do this alone.

    • Ms. Thompson, Why do you think your daughter is doing the things that she is doing? Have you tried taking her to therapy first?

    • I was somewhat like that as a teenager. I wasn’t sexually active and didn’t have any “BFFs”, but I did have a similar mindset where everything was vaguely hilarious and I couldn’t just put my finger on why. Though it most likely was a coping mechanism I adopted due to my less-than-stable home life. Respect for others based upon their position of authority was nil.

      Fear tactics won’t yield any positive results. An attempt to provoke fear will be interpreted as a challenge to her bravado and will only strengthen her commitment to what’s been deemed undesirable behavior.

      Therapy can be a great tool. As could medication alongside it if there’s something more behind the behavior than typical teen angst.

      It may be a slow process and there may be unwanted relapses, but change can occur.

    • If you’re actually giving your real first name, don’t you think you’re compromising your family’s anonymity? Wow!

    • I became a widow in 1999 and raised 3 children on my own. My middle child which is a boy who became notorious as a juvenile delinquent for all of his childhood 10 through age 20 and mind you he came from a very supportive family of positive role models. During his delinquency I was stood in his corner not condoning the behavior but reinforcing the importance of how the behavior has consequences. The problem I had with juvenile system was they set him up for failure, continuing to just slap him on the wrist for his behavior, for example, at age he started to run away so he could hang out, he started with the drugs and robbed people, stop going to school and the final straw was when he cut off the electronic leg bracelet order by the courts and they did nothing but talk with him which was an insult and a let down for me as a parent, until finally at the age of 16 I was done with him and the judicial system. . My son academically exceeded beyond his class but he is so smart that he is stupid because he has all the answers and he is invisiable when it comes to danger, he never graduated and continues to come in contact with law enforcement.
      I say all of this to say, if those power that be feel that beyond scared striagth is not effective and create psychological effect I disagree and I am an advocate for the program because of the world we live in which consist of reality, for example, 9/11.
      I work with youths in education and find them to react first before looking at the consequences of their action, then it is to late, leaving them to suffer the consquences of prison or death. So once again I appauled A&E on taking the first step in a reality approach which addresses delinquency of our youths. Can anyone suggest another reality which hit home in the minds of our youth which can intervene before its to late?

      Thanks again for sharing