Do Scared Straight Programs Actually Work?


Some jails and prisons offer up what is called a “scared straight” program, designed to help show people that are on the wrong path what it is like when locked up. The goal of it is to help bring about a realization of what it is really like, and hopefully push people in to following the laws better so they do not end up being arrested. While these programs have been around a long time, they were not widely known about until television shows (like “Beyond Scared Straight”) started popping up. These helped bring the programs in to the spotlight, and they have opened up people's eyes from at home. But when it really comes down to it, do any of these programs have a real effect on the actions of people who take part in them, or are they mostly just like a “game?” That is what we are going to look at through this article. Please keep in mind, however, that this is going to be highly opinionated; we can throw around our thoughts all the time, but they are still just our views.

Flaw: The Rules

With the Scared Straight programs, there is one thing that (while I believe it is necessary) holds people back from fully understanding the situation: the fact that while the inmates can yell and try to scare the wrongdoers, they can not actually do anything to harm them. This often leads the youth to feel that the entire situation is a game, and that they are not really at risk of anything. It is hard to really comprehend what is going on when you do not experience it as it truly is; people can say what it is like all day long, but it is personal experiences that help us gain a better understanding. The program can not foster this because the inmates simply do not have any power. Furthermore, most youth that are at risk are already yelled at constantly, so the effects of being yelled at, especially by strangers, is minimal. As we get accustomed to things they start to become more normal, and this is the effect of what the youth go through.

On the other hand, allowing the inmates to do as they please would also have its negative effects. After all, it could jeopardize the security of the youth, and would more than likely bring on lawsuits and other implications as a result. Because of this, we can sort of view the rules as being like a “necessary evil,” in that while they hinder the effects of the program, they also ensure that proper protocols are being followed.

Flaw: The Perception

Almost any time someone is trying to teach us a lesson, they will embellish on the truth to make things seem worse than they really are. This is because the goal is to show you the worst that can happen, rather than what is most likely going to. If the opposite approach were taken, it would lead to the “well, it is not going to happen to me” feeling we get all too often, and the point of the Scared Straight programs is to help educate youth on what can happen.

The issue with this system is that it also leads to something: we pretty much all know how it works. Therefore, when we do end up seeing the worst cases, it still often leads back to the “it will not happen to me” feeling. This is bad in this scenario because it means there is a bigger separation between what is real and what is fake. Even though the inmates may end up sharing some real stories and some of them might be acting the same way they really do, the vision is that it is all an act. After all, we are conditioned over the years to expect the embellishing. The only way to get around this situation is to actually be put in to an area with the inmates with the prison rules; otherwise it is hard to tell what is true and what is false.

Analyzing Reactions On the Television Shows

The best way to understand how all of this fits together is to analyze how the youth act on the television shows that revolve around the Scared Straight program. This is the best way to get a detailed understanding because you can see for yourself exactly how the youth are responding. Along with this, they will often do different actions that help show what they are thinking. But what can we learn from this? There are essentially two things that occur pretty much every time (sometimes with one person and others with multiple):

  • The youth will talk back to the inmates and the officers because they understand that (at least at that point) nothing bad can happen to them. After all, the entire point of the program is to cater to those that are at risk, rather than those that are already headed to jail or prison
  • The youth will leave in the same condition they entered in, due to viewing the entire thing as being a joke

These two things help show that while the program does have good intentions (rehabilitation before the actions lead to irreversible consequences), it just does not have the same effects that we would expect (or hope for) it to have. Please understand that this does not mean that nobody is helped by the program; its effects are determined greatly by the perception of the youth. If the youth are seeing it as being a legitimate (and eye opening) experience, they will gain a lot more from it than those who do not. Along with this, those that are afraid of what happens behind bars will be affected a lot more than those who are looking forward to being part of that lifestyle. But what this brings up is a major hurdle: the system has to be designed in a way that it cuts out the “fake” feeling of it. As long as that persists, there is a big wall that blocks off the majority of the youth from benefiting from the program as much as they could otherwise.

How Can the Programs Be Enhanced?

This is a really hard question to answer because at the end of the day, we are all different. What may affect you may not affect me, and vice versa. As a result, creating a system that caters to absolutely everyone would be tough. The only way I could see the system truly being enhanced enough to make a real difference would be to actually put the youth in to the jail for a day or two. This would grant two benefits:

  • It would let them see what it is really like from day to day. Being around the inmates without the supervision (and in the case of television, cameras) helps show what goes on “behind the doors,” so to speak.
  • It would help push forth the realization that what they are facing is a real thing. It turns from being a game in to a real situation and it helps understand the consequences of their actions. After all, we can be told something is going to happen all day long but until it actually does, we will usually brush it off as an empty threat. This would remove that empty feeling and add in the fear that the program is really designed to instill.

Of course, this also brings about its own problems, though. While it would be the best way to show what happens (via direct immersion), it also leads to the possibility of lawsuits over injuries and other things. There are far too many things that could happen while locked away, and parents of the youth would more than likely be open for starting up lawsuits (and maybe they would be right to do so) if something did happen. After all, they are trusting the jail with their child and they do not want anything bad to happen to them (which is why they are taking them through the Scared Straight program in the first place; to protect them).

One thing that might be possible for immersion is to put the youth in their own sort of jail, with guards and such. This would keep them away from the other inmates while still allowing them to experience what it is like behind bars. This limits the amount of risk each one of them is subjected to, but still gives the feeling and realization that what they are facing is real. While they do not get the full experience of being with the other inmates, they do get to at least see what it is like with the massive change of lifestyle that comes with losing freedom. In a majority of cases, I think this would be enough to help deter future wrongdoing.


I love the concept behind the Scared Straight programs. I think they are going for a great cause, and they are designed for good; to help keep youth from making a mistake that puts them behind bars. Those that are put in to these programs are already on a bad path, and if they continue along it they may end up regretting it later on in life. But with that said, the Scared Straight programs do have their flaws. They are just not realistic enough and they turn it all in to what appears like a game. Sometimes the youth will cry or be scared while they are going through the program, but after they reflect on it they just return to their old ways. After all, nothing really happened, right?

I look forward to seeing how these programs grow and evolve. They have a great thing going for them; it is amazing how many people end up locked up and years later reflect on it wondering why they did what they did. Far too often people do not fully comprehend what the punishments for their actions are going to be like, until it is too late. At that point there is no going back for most people, and this is something that the Scared Straight programs can work to offer: the chance to go in reverse and get back on the right path before it ends up being too late.


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