Scared Straight After All These Years: Bad Policy, Good TV?

Remember Scared Straight!, the original 1978 documentary directed by Arnold Shapiro and narrated by Peter Falk? This documentary was a groundbreaking television special about a group of young and cocky juvenile law offenders who, as part of a juvenile rehabilitation program, got to come face-to-face with hardened criminals who told them about the harsh realities of prison life… in the most graphic of terms. Inmates in a New Jersey jail, some lifers, didn’t just describe their prison lives for the youngsters. They also screamed at, threatened, berated and belittled them, all in an effort to scare them straight.

When this Academy award-winning show aired, it didn’t just scare the kids straight! I, like many of my adult friends, had never before been exposed to the inside of a prison and the scary people who are incarcerated there. We had previously only heard distant rumors about prison life. And those distant rumors were terrifying enough. But with this documentary, the inmates, both victims and victimizers, openly explained the truth. And their truth was excruciatingly hard to hear and yet undeniably captivating. The captivating part,  harsh and intense footage, was undoubtedly why Scared Straight! became a cultural phenomenon and a household term. The power of the original Scared Straight! program inspired dozens of inmate-run intervention programs in men’s and women’s prisons across the country and in at least  nine other countries.  And it garnered a great deal of scrutiny, debate and study.

Those who watched had no doubt that the Scared Straight experience would do what it was supposed to do—keep kids out of jail. But the experts were not so sure. According to the producers, the film made a huge impact on the participants. The documentary’s follow-ups and updates — Scared Straight: Another Story (1980), Scared Straight! Ten Years Later (1987) and Scared Straight! 20 Years Alter (1999)– indicate that not all but most of the original kids straightened out and became law abiding citizens. None of them were ever tried for a felony. On the other hand, there is a considerable body of evidence that indicates these programs are not effective. Controlled studies suggest that though they may intuitively seem effective, Scared Straight programs do not deter crime in youth, and may, in fact, increase delinquency and be detrimental to the juvenile participants.

This is curious given the proliferation and persistence of these programs over the years. It is evident that the Scared Straight intervention model has long been popular among policymakers and funders. For example, despite the studies’ findings indicating that the programs don’t work, the governor of Illinois signed a bill into law requiring that at-risk high school students tour a state prison. Even now, Scared Straight programs continue to be funded and run nationwide.

Regardless of their apparent real-world ineffectiveness, there is no doubt that in our current reality-show-driven media, Scared Straight programs make for tantalizing TV…still. A&E Network is planning to air Beyond Scared Straight, a new series executive produced by Arnold Shapiro (the original Scared Straight director), that will profile similar Scared Straight programs and other approaches to juvenile crime prevention in prisons around the U.S. The four-part series premieres Thursday, January 13 at 10PM ET/PT with a special 90-minute episode at a women’s prison in central California.

I’ve previewed the premiere episode which features the Crossroads Program at Valley State Prison, Chowchilla, California. And I must say, the women showcased therein (both the troubled girls and the prison inmates), deliver the expected shock and drama we’ve come to associate with Scared Straight programming. This female group of juvenile delinquents start out talking tough and seem quite proud of their legal entanglements. Some of them are looking forward to the day in prison, they say. They think it will be “fun.” At one point, when the girls are touring the open prison yard, one girl comes face-to-face with her mother, who, unbeknownst to her, is an inmate. In all, the program has the same impact on me as the original. The inmates are scary, the conditions are harsh and there is still nothing about prison I ever want to experience first-hand. With regard to what happens to the girls, I don’t want to be a spoiler. But suffice it to say, it’s not pretty.

The Beyond Scared Straight episode opens with this statement:

Girls, when they commit their crimes, they think because they are female, they are going to get away with more. They don’t recognize the consequences that can come to them until it’s too late.

Perhaps this is why the Scared Straight approach has been chosen for them. Honestly, given the studies on these programs and the life circumstances of some of the girls, I wonder if their circumstances can support a change for the better should they choose to make it. One girl had a very dysfunctional relationship with her mother. She was convicted of misdemeanor vandalism and had violated her probation. She had a history of violence and physically abusing to her mother. You could see in the interviews that their relationship was deeply troubled. So even if she decided to make a positive change, could she be successful in the same home environment? As one researcher points out in a Journal of Correctional Education article, “Another Look at Scared Straight”, there is no program that can end juvenile delinquency. He says:

To expect a two-hour program to combat a condition that involves inner city schools, poverty, and dysfunctional families was unrealistic…[U]nfortunately the Scared Straight program was effective with those that didn’t really need it, but remained ineffective for kids that had already been in juvenile correctional facilities.

All of the girls in the Beyond Scared Straight episode are facing jail time for their offenses. The girl who was convicted of vandalism has already spentmore than forty days in juvenile hall.

I was also disturbed by the racial make-up of the girls versus the inmates. The group of delinquent girls is all Hispanic and Anglosaxon. The majority of the inmates who were featured– those who did the most talking and threatening– were African-American. If the justification for this choice of “cast” was that the majority of the inmates were African-American (which is not apparent from the episode), then certainly African-American girls are at greater risk and should be included in the Scared Straight program, no?  The contrast between the girls and the inmates and the “victimized” inmates versus the victimizers was conspicuously stereotypical, I felt, reinforcing and playing on stereotypic notions of Black aggression and White fear.

The Crossroads Program  had some different components that distinguish it from the original. One such component was that each girl was matched with an inmate for a one-on-one talk. During these talks, the inmates shared more of their personal stories and showed more compassion and concern for the girls. This seemed to have a meaningful affect on them. The inmates were clearly interested in helping the girls stay out of prison. Their stories were profound cautionary tales about repeatedly being in the wrong place at the wrong time and making the wrong choices. Ultimately, the girls admitted that the inmates’ histories mirrored their own.

If these programs are not keeping young girls out of trouble, perhaps at least they are helping the inmates find purpose and a way to give back. Historically,  inmates have found the interaction and purpose of  Scared Straight efforts so rewarding that often prison facilities use programs like the Crossroads Program as part of an inmate reward system. In one program, male inmates who participated in the Scared Straight program had earned, through good behavior, the right to speak to a group of teens for one morning. The inmates believed this was a privilege and enjoyed the time spent speaking to the boys. They felt they were making a “meaningful contribution.” Perhaps the longevity of the Scared Straight approach has more to do with the benefits to adult inmates than the kids. Certainly, there is value in creating positive incentives for incarcerated adults.

I’ll be interested to see what other programs the “Beyond Scared Straight” series showcases. I think this premiere program offers a little more than just provocative television programming. I’m hoping when I tune in for the other three segments, I don’t just find high drama and race-based fear baiting. I’m hoping I hear about actual positive outcomes and somebody getting meaningful help. Otherwise, I can just watch old episodes of Oz or Prison Break, to be reminded of the horrors of prison.



  1. Anonymous says:

    i would like to have any information on this program i have a niece that i way out of control to her mom and dad. i totally see her on this show please hit me up with any info…. please we need help e-mail at (

  2. Anonymous says:

    The talking heads who say this type of program does not work are just that, 'talking heads' who like to hear themselves think theory. Recruits into the Military are rarely prepared for the reality of boot camp and life as a soldier. In our day, the school showed graphic films of car crashes with injury and death to the young soon to be drivers. I remember those films and it gave me caution on driving. 34 years later, I have zero accidents. Scared straight aired in the late 70's and I have never been to jail or prison. The street 'creds' kids think continue inside, are not the truth. Those chicks in the Crossroads program make tough guys question their own ego. Ben & Jerry's ice cream gave out free samples to see if you'd like it or not. And so should these programs. If you like prison, then join. If not, stay out. Kids and adults always miscalculate and underestimate life in every aspect. From Mortgages, babies, marriage, jobs and drinking at parties…just to name a few. Just a fistfight where one person hits his/her head on the pavement and dies from it can put you in prison. Petty theft, to an accessory to a crime and murder. I praise these programs and more punks should see what it's about.

  3. Gina Carroll says:

    According to A&E's website, here is how you get into a scared straight program–
    “How can I get a teen placed on Beyond Scared Straight?

    All juveniles attending these programs are booked through the prison, not through A&E, ASP or the TV show. Therefore, parents must be in contact with those prisons which have juvenile diversion programs, often referred to by everyone as 'scared straight' programs.”

  4. Gina Carroll says:

    Anonymous II,
    I know we all feel that since “Red Asphalt” movies work to make us safer drivers, Scared Straight should work, too. And they do work for certain folks, like you and I, I suppose, who don't need to experience negative consequences ourselves if we can avoid it– those of us watching Scared Straight on TV were indeed scared straight. But not everyone is so impressed. Lots of teenagers saw those car crash movies and crashed anyway and according to research numbers, lots of juvenile delinquents did the Scared Straight program and continued to break the law. As one expert said, the programs work on those who need them least and not on those who need them the most.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I watched the show with my daughter. I cried because she is on the same track. I hoped that her watching would scare her enough to change her behavior even just a little. It did not, but did give me hope that something can actually help her. I didn't pay any attention to race of prisoners or the girls. As a parent with a teen that is out of control, the topic of race does not even compute. All I know is i am desperate, and need some help. I was hoping someone might have contact info for Crossroads? Thank you….

  6. Gina Carroll says:

    Here's the phone number to Valley State Prison for Women– (559) 665-5531

    And here's a website–

  7. Anonymous says:

    Love the show… My kids and i watch it together. In fact, they started me on it to scare me!!!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Gina Carroll, my comment is to support these programs, hence the suggestion of preliminary viewing and experience of such programs and/or models of intervention. Hope I wasn't misunderstood as I disagree completely with those who say these programs do not work. No intervention program, and the incarceration rate is 80% or better; with a program such as this, 20% incarceration rate. Viewing an alligator from a secure glass room at the zoo or animal park is far different than doing a 'Steve Irwin' up close and personal. Seeing real stories and existence removes the virtual world of video game reality. When I was in High School and seen the jocks and cheerleaders walking away from school with babies, I took notice. When schools install daycares, that only encourages and condones their behavior. Sure there are troubled kids who will slip through the cracks no matter how much effort, love or intervention. The percentage is much lower for those who go through a reality check of results from actions. More pilot intervention programs should be funded with audience participation than more money applied to incarcerate and house them. My Dad went from a life as a former cop, business owner to inmate 9 years. The main ingredient; broken homes and family with no one to guide them or show them the reality of their choices. Intervention…yes
    ..talking head naysayers..'hell no'. States should make these programs mandatory and help those kids whom you thought I was missing or excluding. Other than that, you and I agree.

  9. Gina Carroll says:

    Anonymous II,
    Firstly, thanks for coming back! I agree that some intervention is necessary. In terms of funding and attention, I am just wary of throwing all of the eggs in one basket, especially if the program actually motivates some kids to worsen their behavior. Policy makers do that, you know? Adopt a sexy program that feels right instead of actually works. I would just hope they continue to look at causation factors and address those too.

    I've been overwhelmed by the interest in the scared straight programs. Clearly, many, many are impressed with the impact and feel they know someone who needs it.

  10. Gina Carroll says:

    Ha, Anonymous III! Your kids are smart! This issue, keeping kids on the straight and narrow, IS a family issue, isn't it?

    If your kids are saying, “look Mom, things could be worse. I could be like one of THOSE kids,” they have a valid point.

    Now, in turn, you can show them excerpts from Amy Chua's new book about “Tiger Parenting” ( and say to them, “look kids, things could be worse. I could be like THIS mom!” 🙂

  11. Anonymous says:

    I'm not wary, show me a program that's worked. Schools with metal detectors, daycares, gang violence. I've seen schools of today and they are uptight liberal bastions of appeasement where more money is dumped into them. Sensitivity training at it's best including cross dressers. I'll put more eggs into a basket that's tough and less nuturing for radical diversity training on every sensitive needs. Every voice has to be heard these days and that's the problem. So many opinions and so little direct structure. Good luck with the 'Mom' issues.

  12. In working with at-risk teens who have been programmed by a combination of Southern rap music, pop/ghetto sub-culture, and bad parenting, I would give anything to be able to have such programs available on a widescale basis.

  13. i am really interested in sending my niece to chowchilla for the program she is already going down the wrong path i think sending her to chowchilla sate prison will really open her eyes and make her realize that it is not the life she wants to take.. please contact me at with more information thank you and hope to hear from you soon

  14. Hello!!!! i'm reading this conversation from Greece..i too saw the series and find the program really interesting and life changing !!i'm a social worker and because up until now there is no simular program in my country i am very interested in doing a little research but have failed to find any relevent pages and websites!!! i need all the help i can get!!! 🙂 thank you in advance please send anything you have available to my e.mail adress

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