It makes for great television drama, but do “Scared straight” programs work? The Department of Justice says, “No” and I tend to agree.
Back in the early 80’s when I was just beginning my career as a criminal justice major, I had the chance to participate in a program called, “Scared Straight.” Different Scared Straight programs vary, but the same theme – bring at risk juveniles into a prison system to show them how horrific life behind bars is – remains the same. The idea that a tour of a prison will scare kids straight, as in “scare them into following the straight and narrow road” to an honest life, is a popular one. Why shouldn’t it be? It’s visually intense. As law-abiding adults most of us are terrified at the idea of life behind bars. Why wouldn’t a young kid be as well? As intuitively convincing as it seems, the reality is, it doesn’t work like that.
I went through the program and was young looking enough (as a counselor) that several of the inmates mistook me for one of the kids and actually screamed at me as a participant. I sat in the chair in the gas chamber on death row. I got locked up into a cell. I ate prison food and saw the miles of concrete wall and razor wire. It was that experience that led me to believe what studies have shown – that the programs don’t work – especially for the kids who need it most and are most likely to offend.
Many, many studies have been done of the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness of these programs. Yes, some teens will turn around. But most won’t. Most studies show that not only do the scared straight programs not work; they are actually more likely to create or increase criminal behavior in the youth that were the most at risk. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s not really. The program was based on an assumption that those youth participating were able to foresee and act on cause and effect behaviors – something they obviously hadn’t been able to do since they were in the system for juvenile crimes.
Secondly, studies showed that in spite of the threat of rape, humiliation and loss of freedom, many of these youth were actually attracted to the idea of prison life after a visit. Prison culture, with its violence, aberrant behavior and socially unacceptable population, showed youth a culture where their fringe or aberrant behaviors would actually fit in and be accepted.
Prison, more than school or society at large, was a place they felt comfortable – even if it meant being on the lowest level of the pecking order. What I saw was that boys with no fathers, no strong male role model in the home, were suddenly thrown into a setting with strong male energy and “tough” attitudes, was intoxicating. The allure of being around men who seemed to model confidence, attitude, caring (since the prisoners who conducted the program repeatedly said, “We care about you and don’t want you ending up in here like us.”) was strong. Several of the teenagers who I saw attend the program actually expressed a desire to go to prison on the way home from their tour!
Given that gangs exert the same strong attraction to at-risk youth, it seems like we’d be better off creating programs where there’s an atmosphere and culture of acceptance, respect, protection, and social support instead of abuse, fear and threat. Why not put our efforts and funding into programs where like minded youth (single mother families, absentee fathers, living life at poverty level) can come together not to be verbally abused and intimidated even more, but to be welcomed instead.