The other day I watched the A&E program Beyond Scared Straight for the first time. I'm familiar with the original 1979 Academy Award winning documentary, Scared Straight!, that inspired many states across the country to institute similar programs in an attempt to deter juveniles already involved with the criminal justice on some level from a future life of imprisonment. These kids are taken on a tour of a jail and introduced to prisoners who recount horror stories of their time behind bars. The hope is that once given a taste of the grim reality of prison life, these 13-19 year old kids will want to go "straight" and avoid incarceration. Executive produced by the director of the original, Arnold Shapiro, this new "reality" series is the highest rated original program in A&E's history.
The show has been met with harsh criticism. In an op-ed for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, director of Justice Programs at Governor's Office for Children and Families in Georgia, Joe Vignati wrote: "The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short -and long-term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants."
A January op-ed for the Baltimore Sun titled "Scary -- and ineffective," written by Laurie O. Robinson and Jeff Slowikowski, two Justice Department officials, sites research that says those who participated in a scared straight type program were 28 percent more likely to offend than youths who had not participated. The Campaign for Youth Justice is calling for the show to be pulled from A&E.
In the episode I saw, there was a young man named Brandon who lived in Detroit. Brandon sported a tattoo on his right forearm of a skull and the word "Heartless" underneath and said he lived by the creed "MHD," which stands for "Money, Hoes, Drugs." Money brings women, and drugs bring money, Brandon explained. The worst he had ever done, he admitted, was shoot someone.