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.