Beyond Scared Straight is a 60 minute reality series on A&E where teens who have behavior issues that put them at risk or teens who have already had run-ins with the law are taken to a prison where convicts run a scared straight program. The program is structured to scare the teens by having them experience what life in prison is like. Convicts "get in their faces", yelling at them and threatening them with physical harm or sexual abuse. The purpose is to show the teens that they may be the tough ones on the outside but they would be victims inside the prison system. Later in their experience the convicts sit down with the teens and talk about how they were once just like the teens and now they are locked up like animals. They motivate the teens into changing their behavior and striving for a better life before it's too late. Most of the time an episode ends with an update showing how each teen is doing a month or more after they spent their day in prison.
Beyond Scared Straight Trivia
Scared Straight began as a 1978 TV documentary special. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that year. That show inspired a sequel titled "Scared Straight! Another Story" in 1980. That was followed by "Scared Straight! 10 Years Later" in 1987 and "Scared Straight! 20 Years Later" in 1999.
While the follow-ups showing how the teens are doing after going through the scared straight program show mostly teens who have totally been turned around, those follow-ups are done fairly recently after the program took place. Several long-term studies have shown that most teens eventually return to their old ways and often even get worse than teens that didn't go through the program. Many experts feel that this reflects the same problems that exist in the U.S. prison system. Treating bad people badly typically just makes things worse. In other nations, rehabilitation and counseling along with decent treatment during incarceration has produced much better results. If you send a thief back into society with no skills they will most likely return to crime since it's the only way they know to earn a decent income. If you send a person who physically abuses others back into society with no counseling and lock them up for years in an environment where you either abuse others or they abuse you then they will most likely be even more abusive when released from prison.
The scared straight program also poses legal questions. Is it legal to put teens into a dangerous environment and then terrorize them regardless of how good the intention?
Despite the evidence that the scared straight program is ineffective, audiences love it. It is the highest rated non-fiction crime/justice program on cable TV. The series premiere got A&E its largest audience ever for any of its original series. This is hardly surprising as there's probably nothing more hurtful than seeing a teen who is throwing their life away. The desire to save that young person from a life of despair is close to overwhelming but the question remains as to whether the scared straight program works at all and whether there are better methods.
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