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.
Looked at in another context, imagine a fourth grader is struggling with class work. The teacher takes the child into the teacher's lounge (an unfamiliar, strictly-adult environment), gets up in his face and screams at him telling him all the horrible things that are going to happen if he doesn't complete his coursework. Now imagine this is done within the earshot of other adults and peers. Most educators and child mental health workers would agree this would not be an effective way of getting the child to do his work, and quite possible, would be harmful.
Some new scared straight programs state they include counseling for the children after the experience. Seriously? If the child needs to speak with a mental health worker after being exposed to an event to deal with the potential trauma created, professionals need to re-think the program. This is especially true considering many at-risk youth presenting with delinquent behavior already have a trauma history. Re-traumatizing them for the purpose of potential deterrence is unethical.
My Two Sons and Teenage Prefrontal Cortex
With all the discussion of what scared straight might mean to a new generation, I sat down with my 10 year old and 15 year old sons and watched the original Scared Straight! Having many at-risk factors in their lives, I asked for feedback on what they thought. Granted, they were not participants in the program. In typical teenage fashion, my oldest said if he were there he would never have taken it seriously, he knew it wasn't real, and, most important and similar to my own teenage thought process, It will never happen to me. This statement is poignant due to its reference to one of the current discussions in child brain science. Adolescents have immature prefrontal cortexes. Therefore, their cause and effect thinking is significantly impaired. How then, can a program designed to deter by creating fear of what will happen if they continue to behave as they have, be effective? Children just do not think that way.
I don't know how long as a society we will continue to support programs that don't work. A sentiment that seems pervasive in regards to scared straight programs, especially from exasperated, scared parents of acting-out kids is, "Well nothing else works," "What are we supposed to do?" and from other adults, "Somebody needs to yell at them." Within these statements exists frustration and desperation and good policy, especially prevention policy, historically does not rest on this type of foundation. What does work?
Instead of negative, fear-based shock tactics, programs utilizing positive, consistent modeling should be more effective. These programs, for example mentoring, follow evidence-based practices and have been supported quietly for decades. It's time we started listening to what really works even if it whispers instead of screams.