As we search for racial justice memories of ‘Scared Straight’

A scene from A&E network’s series “Beyond Scared Straight,” which ran from 2011-15.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article by staff writer LarryBDNC was written nearly 20 years ago, probably even before he became known as LarryBDNC. We reprint it here today because it has new relevance as America experiences a reawakening to racial injustice.

In these days of battling both an ongoing pandemic and racial injustice, believe it or not, there was a time when schoolchildren could actually go on field trips.

One spring not so long ago, a group of “troubled” children from Washington’s Evans Middle School went on a visit to the D.C. Jail. The school’s director of in-service suspension, who arranged the visit, said:

“I wanted some of the kids to experience the jail — you know, the clink-clink, the bars.”

The visiting students — some as young as 13 — were intimidated by guards, strip-searched, forced to undergo a body-cavity search, and left in the presence of a masturbating inmate — all so they would be “scared straight.”

The Scared Straight program, founded in 1976 at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison, remains one of the most popular “intervention” methods for dealing with troubled teens. But does it work?

A 1979 documentary on the program, which depicted tough teens being reduced to quivering masses by big, scary inmates, won an Academy Award and two Emmys. The producers of the show claimed an 80 to 90 percent success rate, and the race to bring Scared Straight to a city near you was on. Legislators around the country couldn’t wait to implement such programs to eradicate the scourge of juvenile delinquency. The concept continues to thrive around the country.

But many studies have belied the success claims of Scared Straight.

“Youths attending the programs consistently did worse than those who did not,” wrote James O. Finckenauer in his 1999 book “Scared Straight: The Panacea Phenomenon Revisited.”

He’s not alone in this assessment. According to “Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General,” successful prevention programs “target specific populations of young people as defined by risk and life experience, build individual skills and competencies, include parent effectiveness training, and encourage changes in type and level of involvement in peer groups.”

Not exactly a description of the Scared Straight approach.

The surgeon general’s report highlights 27 specific youth violence prevention programs that are effective at preventing youth violence and are also cost effective. Scared Straight is identified in the report as “consistently ineffective” and is placed in the category “Does Not Work.” In fact, studies cited in the report conclude that the program further “hardens troubled children and increases their involvement in crime and violence.”

So why keep going with a method that has been found to be ineffective at best and harmful at worst? There is an increasing tendency in our society to criminalize children, to charge and try children as adults. The Scared Straight and boot-camp-type programs seem to be preparing children for the prison industrial complex. And children know it, especially those in inner-city public schools.

It’s far from a quantum leap to assume that those running programs such as Scared Straight, as well as law-enforcement personnel connected to these programs, begin to stereotype the children and those who look like them.

So, many young people — especially black males — start out with the heavy yoke of negative stereotypes.

“By middle school, they are labeled as special education, learning disabled, angry, etc.,” said Una-Kariim Cross of LISTEN, Inc., a youth leadership-development organization, “and with the teacher-to-student ratio being what it is, they become marginalized.”

Ann A. Ferguson explained in “Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity:”

“There are serious long-term effects of being labeled a Troublemaker that substantially increases one’s chances of ending up in jail. Time in the school dungeon means time lost from classroom learning; suspension, at school or at home, has a direct and lasting negative effect on the continuing growth of a child.”

Many of these young black males — either consciously or subconsciously — view school as a component of the “prison conditioning process.”

In New York City, politicians have hastened the process. For years, the police department has been in control of security in the public schools. Considering NYPD’s well-documented tactics of harassment and abuse against people of color, many feel that the schools have become conditioning centers for incarceration, including lockdowns, stop and frisk, and holding cells. One student told the Village Voice:

“The [police] are like recruiters around here, only they don’t want us for the NBA or the NFL. They want us for jail.”

In the 25 years since Scared Straight was born, more than 1,000 prisons and jails have been built in the United States, yet the prisons are more crowded than ever. It’s obvious that scaring kids straight isn’t working. If we want real results, perhaps we ought to try loving them straight instead.

3 thoughts on “As we search for racial justice memories of ‘Scared Straight’

  1. The presumption of taking children on a “field trip” to prison is that they will end up there. Take them instead to a research lab, a college campus, a thriving small business built up by a person with a dream and the determination and luck to carry it through. Children live up to, or down to, the expectations of those around them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely.

      I guess the appeal of “scared straight” when it was on TV is watching a blowhard, full-of-it teenager crumple publicly. You know, because they’re not vulnerable enough and trying to find an identity already? it’s a perverse pleasure to see some kid who’s been screaming in their parent’s face and running away before to suddenly be crying and wanna go home.

      Hell, when I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, I remember the daytime talk shows would have the same type of things, shows on rebellious youth getting taken down by drill sergeants in their faces and the like. I think those were on at least once a month for a lot of those hosts. Of course, I was a good kid (white bread boring as all hell) so I thought “yeah, do something to those bad kids.” I still don’t understand the appeal of lashing out and hurting others on purpose (I’m sure I do it enough accidentally as it is). But yeah, this is just the inverse of that. Doesn’t help.

      Kids are like moles: they’ll dig deeper when they perceive a threat.


  2. Years ago—decades, actually, I worked in a drop-in center for teens. One kid comes to mind—he was spirited and spoke his truths, much to the dismay of most of the adults around him. He had issues in middle school, and was suspended many, many times. I was his advocate, and, as such, went to his expulsion hearing. The juvenile judge or magistrate—I can’t remember which– wanted to send him to the kind of program you described. My young inexperienced self advocated for community service instead. This young man was expelled for the semester, and with his family, we set up mentoring with an adult male, tutoring, and service in the community.

    Fast forward to about 15 years ago. I was in a store, and a man approached me. He was this boy, now a man. He told me who he was, and thanked me for being the only one who believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself. He is married, has a bunch of kids, and owns several successful businesses.

    I think that there is truth in the adage that we reap what we sow. Thank you for this thoughtful post.


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