02.23.11

Beyond Scared Straight's Real-Life Controversy

A popular show exposing at-risk teens to prison life has ignited a policy debate about the real programs. Andy Dehnart spoke exclusively with the show's producer about the uproar.

Beyond Scared Straight is an A&E reality series that follows teenagers who spend a day in prison to learn from inmates and be terrified by the truths of prison life, which often include the threat of assault and rape. It debuted to record ratings for the network, but the attention brought criticism of the series and to the programs themselves. Government officials and researchers say they do not work, but the series’ producer, Arnold Shapiro, remains passionate about the effectiveness of the programs that his 1978 Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary Scared Straight actually helped to inspire.

Shapiro says the programs that took the name of his documentary and those featured on the A&E series are very different. "Now, the programs themselves are much more comprehensive," Shapiro told The Daily Beast. That’s because programs don’t exist to scare kids. They include “a significant counseling component” and inmates “talk to the kids about their personal issues and their choices and consequences,” he said.

Yet the episodes themselves do emphasize the horrors of prison life more than discussion. At the beginning of one filmed at Maryland’s Jessup prison, a 50-year-old man convicted of first-degree murder barks into a 17-year-old dropout’s face, “Don’t smile at another man in prison, ‘cause if you smile at another man in prison, that makes them think that you like them, and for you to like another man in prison, something seriously is wrong with you.” Moments later, in the shake-down room, where prisoners are strip-searched, a 35-year-old serving a life sentence for armed robbery and attempted murder explains the search process in detail and yells, “How does that sound? A grown man looking at another man’s butthole! Do you want anyone looking in your butthole?”

Those moments are interspersed with biographical segments introducing us to several of the teenagers and their parents, explaining what they’ve done. The teenagers—who are selected not by producers but by counselors who work with the show’s producers, and who agree to be on camera—sometimes seem proud of their crimes or behavior, entering the prison with a smirk that is quickly shouted off their faces by inmates.

“The only accurate studies that are actually being done on 21st-century programs are mine—are my shows,” Shapiro said.

But at the end of the episode, inmates typically sit down to have individual conversations with the teenagers, talking to them in calm, friendly voices. “Everybody that’s in here usually comes from a broken home, man, a broken family, where their mothers and fathers got trapped in the lifestyle. But their lifestyle don’t have to be what we choose for ourselves,” an inmate tells a teenager in the Jessup episode.

Tonight’s episode, which airs at 10 p.m. ET on A&E, is one of several set in a Maryland facility. The state suspended its programs this month, leading to press coverage linking the decision to the show. Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services Director of Communications Rick Binetti told The Daily Beast, “Programs were reviewed not necessarily because of the [Jessup Correctional Institution] episode,” but he said that “the disparate number of youth programs got on the radar after DOC had spent so much time with A&E. Given the number of different programs, the commissioner just wanted to make sure each was consistently following the current DOC policy. As it turns out, each was.”

Shapiro noted that policies and procedures may have changed because although the Jessup prison episode aired second, it was filmed first, 18 months ago. In addition to Maryland’s action, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suspended its program as a direct result of one of three episodes filmed there, a spokesperson told The Washington Post, but Shapiro said that, like in Maryland, California’s programs are reviewed regularly and “are coming back” after making sure “the programs are in compliance.” He added, “What the media or critics or anybody has made out of this thing—the shows are airing and programs are getting shut down—it’s just not true.”

The most high-profile criticism came in a Baltimore Sun op-ed, where two Department of Justice officials argued that a scared-straight program is “not only ineffective but is potentially harmful,” and added that states that sponsor them could lose federal funding. As evidence, they cited a 2002 Campbell Collaboration report that measured the effectiveness of scared-straight programs, concluding that “not only does it fail to deter crime but it actually leads to more offending behavior.”

But Shapiro argues the study "isn't applicable" and “irrelevant” because "they studied programs that no longer exist" and "didn't have counseling components," and said it was unfair "to link our show and the prison programs that we have filmed" to it.

Binetti, the Maryland Department of Corrections spokesman, confirmed that its programs “are not of the same type as the scared-straight type programs used many years ago. That is not our approach,” he said. “They are an honest, frank discussion between troubled youth and inmates about the realities of prison life inside a prison setting.”

Although the programs may have changed, their critics remain unconvinced of their effectiveness. One of the op-ed’s authors, Jeff Slowikowski, the acting administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast: "Reviewers of research on the effects of crime-prevention programs have found deterrence-oriented programs like Scared Straight are ineffective (Sherman et al. 1997, Lipsey 1992). Even with an added 'counseling' component, this underlying theory is still the same." The statement noted the "Campbell Collaboration review included a study of a program that had a counseling component, the Texas Face-to-Face Program" that "concluded there were no statistically significant differences between those in the 13-hour program and those that received no treatment."

One of the Campbell Collaboration study's authors, Anthony Petrosino, who’s now a senior research associate at WestEd, said the report examined nine randomized studies of scared-straight participants. He confirmed that the studies he and his colleagues examined are now at least 19 years old, spanning from the late 1960s to 1992. But he said that “the burden is on the new generation of scared-straight programs… to show that they're not harming," and compared the research to drug trials. "If you had nine randomized trials that said kids were more likely to be harmed by the intervention than helped, probably the FDA wouldn't allow it to go forward.”

Petrosino said because scared-straight is "such a powerful program" and "such a powerful idea,” he thinks “they should test it, because maybe the counseling is the effective thing, and you don't really need the scared-straight aspect.” He added that, " I went into that with my colleagues with no axe to grind, with no pre-conceived notions. If that program worked, my goodness, what a great benefit to society because you'd have inmates helping kids for very little money. But unfortunately, it didn't come out that way."

Petrosino said the data is clear. "Scared-straight is one of the few that really, universally, comes up negative, which is kind of unusual: Usually most interventions have some positive effect, very few have a negative impact,” he said. Still, he pointed out “these programs are being used; the research hasn't stopped it, [though] it's stopped government funding, at least in the United States."

Shapiro said the programs’ existence proves they work. “If none of these programs were working, and wer hurting kids, and were producing only negative results, why would judges, and police officers, and teachers, and school counselors, why would they keep sending kids to these programs month after month, and year after year, if they were not seeing positive results? They'd be fools, because it actually costs them money to send kids to these programs because school districts these days are so poor they can’t even provide a bus,” he said.

As to studies, Shapiro trusts his own observations, which he shares with the world on television. “The only accurate studies that are actually being done on 21st-century programs are mine—are my shows,” Shapiro said. “There's no person in the United States but me who has witnessed these programs all over the place.”

There’s another component that hasn’t been studied: How the documentary, and now the TV show, affect their viewers. “I have countless letters from counselors and parents and teenagers themselves telling them how kids changed just after watching [the documentary film] on TV,” Shapiro said, adding, “I'm assuming the same thing is happened here” with the A&E series.

That’s an outcome he likes. “I like to regard myself as a teacher without a classroom. I try to make documentaries that educate people or enlighten people or inform people, but rather than do it in a lecture, I do it in a film. And I’m hoping that’s the consequence. I believe in these programs; I don’t care about 20-, 30-, and 40-year-old programs that don’t relate to the programs as they are today, because I believe what I’m seeing.”

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.