In January, A & E televised the first episode of a new documentary, Beyond Scared Straight. This series highlights four U.S. programs that take at-risk juveniles into a prison setting for a real-life experience of what it might be like if they continue to misbehave. The children, and I use this word to remind readers what these individuals are as they are aged between 10 and 17 but can be as young as 8 years old, enter the adult prison, get a tour, listen to personal stories and sometimes spend some time integrated into the milieu. The idea behind these types of programs and why many gained popularity after the original documentary Scared Straight! aired in 1978, also produced by Arnold Shapiro, was these children would experience the ugly, reality of what prison was like by being verbally assaulted and listening to indirect threats about what would happen to them when they were incarcerated, including physical and sexual violence.
Soon after, the A & E airing, Laurie O. Robinson, assistant attorney general for the federal Office of Justice Programs and Jeff Slowikowski, acting administrator for the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention co-wrote, Scary - and Ineffective in The Baltimore Sun. Robinson and Slowikowski joined a list of professionals, including those from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Surgeon General discouraging these programs. Robinson and Slowikowski state even the U.S. Department of Justice discourages funding scared-straight-type programs and that if programs don't comply with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, States could get their federal funding cut. So, as a criminologist working with at-risk children, many of which have extensive trauma histories, as well as, a mother of two appropriate scared straight aged boys and being myself of the scared straight generation, here are some issues this program presents for me.
The Scared Straight Generation
I don't remember if the first time I saw the original Scared Straight was while I was still in school, but I believe it might have been. I was one of those kids. One of four children from a military family, we moved frequently and lived at poverty level. Growing up, we were only stationed in one place where we lived on base, so the rest of the time we lived in areas we could afford. Even when we lived on base, in Fort Lawton, Seattle (WA), as military children, we were bused across the city to Queen Anne's Hill to go to school in an effort to diversify. It was at this elementary school my brother and I began participating in a University of Washington study of at-risk children. We definitely would have been a target for at least showing the documentary to if not being chosen to participate in a scared straight program. Trying to channel, the teenage Michelle, I'm grateful I wasn't chosen because re-watching the documentary, I can imagine the anger and defensiveness this type of tactic would have encouraged within me. The fear created during the interaction would have quickly faded, been filed away under unrealistic and therefore become a non-issue when I made bad choices. My mom did threaten to send me on a jail tour once, and I remember thinking, "That'll never happen to me." Thank goodness, I chose to study the criminal justice system as I matured, instead of becoming part of it.
Traumatizing At-risk Children, Seriously?
Scared Straight programs are designed to be shocking and brutal. In all the documentaries, (Scared Straight! - 1978, Scared Straight! Another Story - 1980, Scared Straight! 10 Years Later - 1987, Scared Straight! 20 Years Later - 1999 and Beyond Scared Straight - 2011), children are brought into prison, complete with the gruff corrections officers, the clanging doors and the sights, smells and sounds of incarcerated people. The prisoners are allowed to be physically and verbally threatening in an effort to produce fear. Within this fear is supposed to be deterrence.