Scared Straight! is a 1978 documentary directed by Arnold Shapiro. Narrated by Peter Falk, the subject of the documentary is a group of juvenile delinquents and their three-hour session with actual convicts. Filmed at Rahway State Prison, a group of inmates known as the “lifers” berate, scream at, and terrify the young offenders in an attempt to “scare them straight” (hence the film’s title), so that those teenagers will avoid prison life.
The documentary aired on television in the late 1970s, uncensored; it marked the first time that the profane words “fuck” and “shit” were broadcast on many networks. Some broadcasters (an example being CFQC, a CTV Network affiliate in Canada) added locally produced segments in which experts discussed both the content of the documentary, and the rationale behind airing it uncensored.
The cast includes a drug dealer and counterfeit document manufacturer from Westchester County, New York (Mikie C), a gang member from Jersey City, New Jersey (Jerome Watts), an arsonist and bomb builder from Bridgeport, Connecticut (Jon Shipiro), the son of a Mafia informant (Carlo Gallo), and a 17-year-old chop shop parts dealer and car thief from The Bronx, New York (Jesus Rodriguez).
At film’s end, the teenagers say that they have decided that they don’t want to end up in jail. The film ends with a “roll call” of the teens, revealing that most were “scared straight”, though a few were said to have reoffended.
In April 1978, James Finckenauer, a professor of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, began a test of the Scared Straight program, using a control group, something that has not been done previously. His study concluded that children who attended Rahway were more likely to commit crimes than those who did not.
A 2002 meta-analysis of the results of a number of scared straight and similar programs found that they actively increased crime rates, leading to higher re-offense rates than in control groups that did not receive the intervention. In a more recent paper, the authors raise the question of why there seems to be a negative effect. They quote an evaluation from Oklahoma saying:
If one argued that a two hour visit cannot perform the miracle of deterring socially unacceptable behavior, it can also be argued that it was extremely simplistic to assert that a two hour visit can perform the miracle of causing socially unacceptable behavior.
Petrosino et al. then simply said that “Although there were many good post-hoc theories about why these programs had negative effects, the evaluations were not structured to provide the kind of mediating variables or ‘causal models’ necessary for an empirical response to this question in a systematic review.”
Two Justice Department officials have written an op-ed piece describing scared straight programs as “not only ineffective but is potentially harmful” to the kids involved. The op-ed appears in the edition of February 1, 2011 of the Baltimore Sun, written by OJJDP Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and Laurie O. Robinson. They say that, “when it comes to our children”, policymakers and parents should “follow evidence, not anecdote”.
In 2004 the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that each dollar spent on Scared Straight programs incurred costs of $203.51