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 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 of "Money, Hoes, Drugs." Money brings women, and drugs bring money, Brandon explained. The worst he had ever done, he admitted, was shoot someone.
I mention Brandon because his storyline dominated the hour-long episode of which he was a part. The producers recognized him as the most compelling and "entertaining" of the group. He was flippant and defiant throughout the entire process, openly mocking not only the sheriff's deputies in charge of the tour but the inmates themselves. Brandon said he wasn't scared of prison or the idea of being beaten up in prison. He could handle himself because "they bleed just like I bleed." He had several confrontations before being kicked out of the program early.
In the most poignant of these moments, Brandon starts to break down crying as he yells at a few of the deputies attempting to scare him "I got raised up by all girls! That do something to you!" Anyone watching, anyone who truly cared about Brandon's future, would have taken that moment to note the emotion and vulnerability he was showing. Right here we had reached the root of the problem: Brandon was highly distraught and affected by the absence of his father throughout his childhood. Earlier in the show he said "Only a man can raise a man" and here now he was on the brink discussing the pain he felt from not having a man in his life. Instead of taking this moment to berate him some more, anyone in that room that actually wanted to see Brandon turn his life around should have suggested that he get therapy.
It's not the sexy option, but so many of these stories boiled down to the fact that these teens were acting out because of some past emotional trauma that they had never truly discussed with anyone. One young man lost his mother at age 16 and was now charged with caring for his younger sister and attending high school himself. Another had been abandoned by his mother, never having known his father, and was now living with an elderly grandmother who had little time or patience to truly care for all of his needs.
Even if these kids are "scared straight," the factors that contributed to their unwanted behavior in the first place are not being properly addressed and will surface in other, perhaps more destructive ways. We have a habit of using band-aids in this country to treat the most visible wounds but never taking the time to tackle the root causes. The source is not simply "bad" kids, but something much deeper and more personal that can be explored and dealt with through a public health program that includes talk therapy.
On its website, Beyond Scared Straight is said to be about "transforming the lives of young people through intervention and second chances." But as Robinson and Slowikowski wrote in their op-ed, "we have a responsibility -- as both policymakers and parents -- to follow evidence, not anecdote, in finding answers, especially when it comes to our children."
We may get a kick out of seeing these kids be punked by inmates, hearing the tales of prison abuse, and the off-chance there will be actual physical confrontation, but it's doing little to actually help these teens deal with the exigent circumstances that originally produced their disillusionment. Therapy can.
Of course, a television show centered around teenagers in therapy working through their emotional trauma and mental illness wouldn't exactly be a ratings killer. It would, however, be much more effective than any "scared straight" program ever has been.
Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@mychalsmith