The premier episode of the new season of the controversial reality show, “Beyond Scared Straight,” adheres to the themes that made it A&E’s most watched show: a small group of at-risk youth spend the day in prison where they are yelled at, intimidated and humiliated by sheriff’s deputies and inmates alike. The screaming and threats of prison rape are followed by emotional conversations with the inmates as they describe to the teens where they went wrong and how the teens can avoid the same fate.
The episode features Mecklenburg County, N.C.’s “Reality Program,” created by Sheriff Daniel “Chipp” Bailey.
“Our Reality Program stresses education, not intimidation,” Bailey is quoted as saying on the program’s website.
According to the website, the mission of the program is to “provide the community with a program which will help educate young people about the long-term effects of participating in criminal activity.”
After watching the show, non-violent communication and conflict management expert Dr. Heather Pincock was baffled.
“There is no coherent approach in the diversion program,” Pincock said. “Most of the episode they [the deputies] were there to intimidate the youth or break the youth down or humiliate them. Then they suddenly start saying. ‘We’re your friends, we’re here to help you.’ There are very mixed messages around their role. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The scenes with inmates were also troubling to Pincock. “The way the inmates are represented, it’s complete chaos, and it is kind of glorifying or sensationalizing this idea that the people that are incarcerated there are completely out of control or inhuman.” But later, she said, the same inmates were shown having intimate conversations with the teens. “It seems highly incoherent as an intervention or a way to communicate a message to at-risk youth. It didn’t strike me as well thought out.”
Teens applying for the program must come from local schools, according to the application for the program. Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE) also obtained a release form parents must sign when enrolling their children in the “Reality Program.” The form absolves the Sheriff’s Office from any liability should their child be injured while participating in the program.
The form also states that it is a “program of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, in cooperation with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools” and others. When asked about the school district’s involvement with the program, a school district spokesperson said they do not endorse the “Reality Program.”
Despite having no involvement with the program, spokesperson Lauren Bell said that school resource officers, some of whom are employed by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, are permitted to provide information about the program to students. Resource officers do not provide information about other diversion programs, Bell said.
“The resource officers do not endorse or discourage the program,” she said.
As JJIE reported previously, “Beyond Scared Straight” has been drawing criticism from juvenile justice experts who say the program is ineffective and a waste of money. They cite studies that show "Scared Straight" programs are actually counter-productive.
But the show’s producer, Arnold Shapiro, claims those studies are wrong and too old to be relevant. He says today’s scared straight programs work better because of the added counseling portion.
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Ryan Schill is a writer and reporter with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. He also hosts the Juvenile Justice Week in Review, a fast-paced one-minute video roundup of the week’s top juvenile justice stories. Ryan is currently a graduate student studying professional writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia as well as editor-in-chief of KSU's student feature magazine, Talon.
Updated: February 08 2018