Reading 11.1 “I Hate These Little Turds!”: Science, Entertainment, and the Enduring Popularity of Scared Straight Programs
In the first two chapters of this book, I discussed the challenge of getting people to understand the value of research. I also noted that laypeople sometimes consider themselves more knowledgeable than the experts in our field. This article is a good illustration of ignoring research because a pro- gram seems to be a common sense approach to crime prevention. Scared Straight has made for decades of entertaining television. It appeals both to people who want to see juveniles humiliated and to those who are truly optimistic that the experience will lead to meaningful change. Scared Straight originated in a New Jersey prison in the late 1970s, but we have had evaluation results as early as 1982 to show us that the program is ineffective and possibly harmful. That did not stop the show’s creators or its fans from continuing to champion what is widely considered among criminal justice experts to be a failed program. Maahs and Pratt (2017) conducted a content analysis to learn the reasons members of the public either like or dislike Scared Straight.
“I Hate These Little Turds!”: Science, Entertainment, and the Enduring Popularity of Scared Straight Programs
Jeff Maahs and Travis C. Pratt
Americans have an uneasy relationship with scientific methods and scientific findings (Gauchat 2008, 2011). They generally think highly of science when it comes to how new discoveries and technologies might make their lives better (National Science Foundation 2014). The problem, however, is that the public is much less enthusiastic and literate when it comes to basic scientific knowledge. For example, one out of every four citizens is unaware that Earth orbits the sun (Poladian 2014), three in ten think that sound travels faster than light (NSF 2014), and one in five do not know what kind of radiation sunscreen is supposed to protect them from (Pew Research Center 2013).
These figures could be dismissed as humorous were it not for the negative social consequences that stem from the public’s lack of scientific knowledge. Measles outbreaks occur when parents fail to immunize their children because they mistakenly think it will cause autism (Axelrod 2015); public school curricula get changed when a critical mass of citizens cling to the idea that Earth is 6,000 years old (Beckwith 2003; Sarfati 1999); and environmental legislation gets blocked when people become skeptical of global warming because
snow still happens (Smith and Leiserowitz
Crime control policy is no different. And while there is no shortage of examples of a mismatch between the public’s knowledge and the scientific consensus, and of media portrayals that depart from scientific reality (Fennell and Boyd 2014; Griffin et al. 2013), one that is particularly illustrative is Scared Straight programs. The original Scared Straight documentary was based on Juvenile Awareness Project Help (JAPH), a program developed in New Jersey’s Rahway prison in 1975 as an intervention for high-risk delinquent youth (Finckenauer 1982). The idea was to take a group of delinquents— most of whom would be drawn from communities plagued by structural disadvantage—into prison for a day to have a bunch of adult inmates yell at them and tell them in graphic detail all of the horrific things that await them should they ever be sentenced there (Feinstein 2005; Sellers 2015). Then, based on an almost religious faith in the deterrent power of threats, the kids could be put back on a bus to go home, cured of their deviant proclivities.
This turned out to be a seductive idea for policymakers because it presented a simple view of the cause of criminal and delinquent behavior (Cullen et al. 2002; Pratt, Gau, and Franklin 2011)—one that the public seemed to have already bought in to. Thus, no longer would policymakers be on the hook to address the criminogenic effects of complex problems like structural inequality or weakened social institutions in urban environments. Crime and delinquency could instead be eradicated by dropping kids off at prison for a day of being browbeaten by inmates serving life sentences (see Cavender 1981; May, Osmond, and Billick 2014). Problem solved. Of course, it helped that this simplistic view of criminal and delinquent behavior resonated well with the generation of citizens who would later support slogans like “just say no to drugs” and “I know what causes crime: Criminals! Criminals! Criminals!”
It should come as no surprise, then, that these programs spread quickly (Finckenauer et al. 1999; see also Heeren and Shichor 1984). Driven in part by the popularity of the 1978 Scared Straight film (starring TV’s Columbo, Peter Falk, no less), by the end of 1979 alone, more than 13,000 juvenile offenders had participated in the program at Rahway (Lundman 2001). Over the years, similar programs have popped up all over the United States and around the world (Hutchinson and Richards 2013). There was even a Scared Straight redux that was shown on MTV in 1999, which contained the same script of inmate taunts of sexual violation and demands that the kids take off their shoes and throw them into a big pile in the middle of the room (along with the same looks of confusion on the youths’ faces as to what lesson this was supposed to convey). At the same time, the original Scared Straight, now with a 20-year follow-up of the kids and convicts, was rebroadcast on UPN. Lethal Weapon’s Detective Mur- taugh (Danny Glover) took over the narration reins from Colombo.
While all of this was going on, scholars were working hard to evaluate the effect of Scared Straight programs on juvenile offending. In the process, a lengthy roster of studies emerged that showed pretty similar results: the effects of Scared Straight programs on recidivism were either null or negative (i.e., they made things worse for youth) (see Petrosino, Turpin- Petrosino, and Buehler 2003; Welsh and Rocque 2014 for reviews and meta-analysis). Yet none of these results did much to curb Scared Straight’s popularity or to educate people about what is, and is not, scientific research. Indeed, the Arts and Entertainment (A&JE) Network’s most highly rated weekly series is the latest flare-up of the Scared Straight franchise: Beyond Scared Straight (2011). The show’s producer, Arnold Shapiro, who was also responsible for the original Scared Straight documentary, actually claims that his show is science. In dismissing the large body of empirical evidence demonstrating the ineffectiveness of Scared Straight programs as “irrelevant,” he stated that “The only accurate studies that are actually being done on 21st- century programs are mine—are my shows.” Shapiro boldly proclaims that “academic studies don’t work,” while characterizing Scared Straight: 20 Years Later as “the longest study ever done” (Denhart 2011).
And therein lies the problem. The line separating scientific reality (the empirical research demonstrating that Scared Straight does not work) from “reality” television (and the wishful thinking of those who really want it to work) has been blurred. This happens because when people watch Scared Straight, the idea that it can be an effective tool for crime control seems plausible given the veneer of legitimacy provided to it by how it is portrayed on television. Indeed, the format of the program (pre-interview, intervention, followup interview) roughly mimics a scientific study. Of course, critical differences make this show decidedly non-scientific. There is no comparison group, recidivism data is collected on camera, and footage is heavily edited. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 20-year follow-up interviews of the original Scared Straight youth.
In the interviews, there is no explicit definition for what counts as success. In fact, many of the adults considered “straight” readily admit on camera to committing crime after the Scared Straight intervention. Presumably, they are classified as law abiding because they eventually desisted from crime. With no comparison group, however, there is no scientific way to know whether desistence resulted from Scared Straight or from extraneous factors. Indeed, scientifically verified (see, e.g., Laub and Sampson 2003; Sampson and Laub 1993) influences on desistence—military service, marriage, and employment—are featured prominently in the interviews. Ironically, though, such factors are portrayed as the result of a successful Scared Straight intervention. Thus, with soft music playing and video footage of their children playing basketball and cheerleading in the background, the now “law-abiding adults” proclaim (some after a bit of prompting from the producer) that Scared Straight changed their lives.
That Scared Straight was given new life on A&E illustrates how stubbornly persistent “correctional quackery” can be—particularly when it is endowed with the entertainment value provided by the spectacle of punishment (Latessa, Cullen, and Gendreau 2002). Accordingly, in an effort to understand why entertainment seems to trump science in this context, in the present study we conduct a qualitative analysis of the user comments from Netflix regarding A&E’s Beyond Scared Straight program. Our analysis of 141 user comments is intended to provide some insight into public opinion and knowledge about Scared Straight programs and their consequences. Qualitative approaches like this, which were once a staple in criminological research (Shaw 1930; Short and Strodtbeck 1965), are experiencing a resurgence in contemporary criminology (Copes, Hochstetler, and Forsyth 2013; Lindegaard, Miller, and Reynald, 2013; Miller, 2008). Qualitative methods are particularly useful when studying complex phenomena that cannot be easily captured by a limited set of survey items from large, publicly available datasets (Copes 2014). This approach allows us to begin with the assumption that public attitudes toward punishment are complex (see, e.g., Applegate et al. 2000; Sundt et al. 2015), and to explore— rather than stifle or otherwise mask—that complexity.
In particular, given that Scared Straight programs seem to be both loved and loathed (depending on who you are talking to), our analysis is focused on one primary question:
What are the reasons behind users’ positive or negative assessments of Beyond Scared Straight? To foreshadow our results a bit, it is important to note that the title of our article is not intended to be gratuitous. It is instead an actual Netflix user comment that captures perfectly a key sentiment found in the data: many viewers simply see these kids as snotty little jerks and find it to be good fun to watch them get their comeuppance. And in the joy of watching it all happen, thoughts about whether or not getting verbally abused by inmates to the point of crying will actually help these children are often pushed aside. Our broader purpose, then, is to shed light on whether and how the public blurs the lines between information and entertainment when it comes to intervening in the lives of some of our most vulnerable youth.
The data for this study were obtained from all available Netflix “member reviews” of the Beyond Scared Straight series. Netflix originated in the late 1990s as an alternative to traditional video stores. Consumers could find movies on the Netflix website and have the DVD delivered via mail. Over the past decade, Netflix has become the industry' leader in providing on- demand internet streaming media to viewers in North America (Kerr 2013). Part of the appeal of Netflix is undoubtedly their system of extensive, personalized video recommendations. As opposed to browsing “staff’s picks” at a local video store, consumers are offered movie recommendations based on their particular tastes. Much like an online dating service, Netflix uses a complex algorithm to match consumers with specific media. For this system to work, a subscriber must rate movies or other media programs on a scale of one (“hated it”) to five (“loved it”) stars.
In addition to rating through the star system, many subscribers provide anonymous narrative reviews. Netflix requires that each review be at least 80 characters long. This serves to limit trivial or uninformative reviews. Although Netflix does moderate reviews and reserves the right to delete certain submissions (e.g., those with foul language or criticisms of Netflix service), the company does not examine the content of member-submitted reviews on a regular basis, which means that the content of the comments we examine here are less likely to have been subjected to heavy filtering or editing (Netflix Help Center 2015).
Netflix has provided on-demand streaming access to the Beyond Scared Straight series (the particular seasons available have changed) for the past several years. Currently, for example, subscribers can stream seasons four and five. As of February 2015, over 230,000 Netflix members have rated Beyond Scared Straight. The subscriber ratings are largely positive, with an average of four out of five stars. On the Netflix scale, four stars means “really liked it.” Additionally, there are 141 narrative reviews. As this information is available to any Netflix member or visitor, we were able to retrieve the narrative reviews, the number of stars given by each reviewer, and the number of other members who found the review “helpful.” These narrative reviews constitute the data for our analysis. While this approach is somewhat novel, it is not without precedent. Indeed, social scientists have recently used internet-submitted comments or reviews to understand the intersection of media and perceptions generally (Ballantine, Lin, and Veer 2015; Collins and Nerlich 2015; Ksiazek, Peer, and Lessard 2014), and specifically the crime-media nexus (Gosselt, Van Hoof, Gent, and Fox 2015).
We recognize, of course, that we cannot treat this sample of responses as though they would be representative of the opinions shared by the broader American public. This problem of representation is likely compounded by the fact that those who actually take the time and effort to provide written comments likely feel more strongly about the subject, in one way or another, relative to the viewers who did not feel the need to provide such comments. Yet in qualitative research, the representativeness of the sample is typically forfeited in favor of the richness of the qualitative data—richness that may be enhanced when responses tap into emotional content (Creswell 2013). Thus, our purpose is to use this qualitative data to uncover the complexity in what drives people’s opinions of Scared Straight in ways that, for example, a large-scale survey with limited items cannot (see, e.g., Cullen, Fisher, and Applegate 2000).
To do so, we employ a form of narrative analysis to uncover patterns in Netflix reviewers’ online comments (Holt 2010; Sandberg, Tutenges, and Copes 2015). Both authors examined and analyzed the narrative reviews and independently coded them as positive or negative. Positive reviews recommended the show to others and/or otherwise described the program using positive (e.g., “great show”) language, whereas negative reviews used terms such as “horrible program.” Reviews that were mixed or ambiguous (“it was OK”) were coded as such. A mixed review, for example, might portray the show as emotionally appealing but also caution that the Scared Straight-type programs are ineffective. As noted earlier, the reviewers also indicated their level of support using a star system. Table 1 illustrates support levels using both of these dimensions. Classification based on the tone of the review closely corresponded with the number of stars given. Positive reviews (mean = 4.7 stars), for example, generated more stars than ambiguous (3.0) or negative (1.2) reviews. After systematically identifying the tone of the review, researchers relied on thematic content analyses to identify' salient themes within the narrative reviews (Loftland and Loftland 1995).
Table 1 Frequency Distributions Indicating the Tone of the Review
Nature of Review
Coded tone of review
Number of stars (Netflix label)
One (hated it)
Two (didn’t like it)
Three (liked it)
Four (really liked it)
Five (loved it)
Although the member-submitted reviews were more positive (68%) than either negative (26%) or ambiguous (6%), there was substantial variation in their tone. Several themes emerged that appear to explain this variability. These themes include the extent to which the reviewer: (1) indicated that Scared Straight-type programs reduced crime, (2) commented on the brutality exhibited in the show, (3) portrayed the program as inspirational or emotional, and (4) described the show as either “real” or “scripted.” Although we explore these themes individually, it is clear that they are often interrelated in that they are not mutually exclusive. Reviewers could, for example, comment in either positive or negative ways for several of the reasons we specify here (i.e., they could express positive sentiments about the program’s emotional content while at the same time praising the program’s effectiveness in reducing recidivism).
As noted above, the scientific literature on Scared Straight-type programs is unambiguous. Randomized experiments consistently show that at best, these programs have no effect on juveniles’ criminal behavior. Some of these experiments, including the Rahway prison program that was the subject of the original 1978 documentary, yield slight to moderate criminogenic effects (Petrosino et al., 2003). When Beyond Scared Straight emerged in 2011, representatives of the Office of Justice Programs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention authored an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun that denounced the programs as ineffective and potentially harmful (Robinson and Slowikowski 2011). In contrast, and consistent with past Scared Straight films, many of the youth filmed for the television series are portrayed as repentant/changed in the “follow-up” segment of the show.
The vast majority of positive reviewers clearly believed that Scared Straight-type programs reduced crime. Often, such reviews made specific reference to the post-intervention television interview of the juvenile:
the concept is great, and many young lives were changed throughout the series. I guess that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?
Beyond Scared Straight is performing a real public service. That is the 1st time I have ever even thought that about any TV show or movie. It offers a public service because it gives every parent of a troubled teen a chance to sit that teen in front of the screen & see for themselves what the teens in the show went through in their jailhouse experience & how it apparently turned many of them around.
Positive reviewers often made connections between the show and their personal life experience. They stated that they: “wished there was a program like this when I was a teen,” that this program “would’ve scared the hell out of me,” or that it “makes me realize I wouldn’t last 5 minutes in prison.”
The following excerpts exemplify this point:
I wish there was a program like this back in the day (90s) when I was a troubled teen, it would of changed me real quick. I was arrested at 17, fraud and burglary. . . . These teens remind me of how I was as a teen, young and dumb. I thought i was a bad B* when I was that age and in my 20s.
I was just like these girls: attitude for days, stole, did drugs had major anger problems, disrespectful, the works. Was in the system for 2 years but by a miracle I managed to straighten up and be a productive law abiding citizen. These prisoners put there heart and soul in this program.... If a teen doesnt get affected by this show then you deserve to be locked up period! These kids need to understand once your locked up there is: no good food, no clean toilets, no video games, no phone, no text, no facebook, no privacy NOTHING. YOU GET NOTHING IN JAIL!
Members who authored positive reviews were not persuaded to be skeptical even when the television follow-ups portrayed kids as unrepentant and unchanged. One member stated: “I still can’t believe some people don't change that sad for them. I guess they need to go through the program again until it gets through their heads.” Another reviewer said that: “I watch the program to see the kids break- down and turn their lifes around. If it works 20% of the time or more it’s well worth it.”
Several commentators fell victim to the illogical but oft-repeated mantra that if a program “saves one child” it is worthwhile. Logically, if a program harms more children than it saves, few people would call it worthwhile. Nevertheless, reviewers noted that: “Even if only one teen gets to avoid going to that horrid place, then the programs have worked,” and “Its good to see when these programs work even if just for one child because one is more than ‘just’ in my book.”
It was clear that many who wrote positive reviews were not persuaded by research or other reviewers’ reference to scientific studies. One member stated: “I’ve read that studies have shown that there is really no major impact or change overall among troubled teens who go through this program, but even if the ones who truly change are a minority, it’s still wonderful!” In some reviews, there was an explicit attempt to balance the media construction of Beyond Scared Straight as effective with the science that suggests otherwise. In this narrative, media clearly trumped science: “This is a fascinating and eye-opening show. . . . Scared Straight-ish programs really do seem to make a difference, even though I've read studies that seem to suggest otherwise.” Another commentator offered a more blunt assessment of science and government agencies: “A previous reviewer noted that the US Dpt of Justice denounced Scared Straight programs as being ineffective. Big deal!!! That doesn’t impress me . . . what do they know???”
By comparison, in many of the negative reviews, the lack of effectiveness of Scared Straight was a central theme. Authors of negative reviews often referenced terms such as “science,” “research,” and “evidence.” A handful of the reviews cited specific research and provided a web link to this reference. Most, however, referenced research in a more general way. One member noted:
A lot of research has shown “scared straight” programs do not work. In fact, some research shows it makes kids worse. Consequently, many DOC systems have stopped doing them. After seeing this, I can understand why. The reasons a lot of these kids are troubled in the 1st place are due to complex societal, familial, and other environmental issues. Traumatizing and re-traumatizing them is NOT going to help anything. . . . These programs need to consult mental health experts and criminologists before implementing this kind of treatment to children because no well-educated person would endorse them.
Other negative reviewers were skeptical of the effectiveness of the program not because of their familiarity with the empirical research, but rather because of how they felt about the premise and content of what they were seeing on television. One member noted: “This is just horrific. A bunch of awful parents sending their awful children into an awful program that is completely corny and ridiculous. It is painful to watch.” Some negative reviewers rejected the premise that scare tactics would work:
This is not the way to rehabilitate people, especially minors. This treatment I imagine only brews more anger and rebellion.... IMO, rehabilitation is not through yelling, intimidation, and threats, but should be through positive discussion, teaching of ethics, and calm dialogue.
Although it was clear that most people who discussed the issue of effectiveness in their reviews had strong feelings on one side or the other, a few of the reviews were more ambiguous. They balanced knowledge or suspicion that the program did not work with hope that it might work for some. The following “four star” (positive) review exemplifies this more nuanced view:
I think another reviewer (or more) commented on how the tactics of these programs may not actually help kids. I agree. In many ways I view the show as simultaneously showing troubled youth get “help" while also showing the tragedy of our society’s obsession with punishment. The show strangely sheds light on the problems of both sides. Some of these kids need therapy more than the fear of jail. It’s painfully evident in this show. I hope others also see this. If you’re uncomfortable with what you see then take a stand against our overbearing criminal justice system. However some of these kids maybe do need a reality check and for those who do, I hope these scared straight programs help.
This reviewer tempered their skepticism about program effectiveness with a perceived value— exposing the brutality of the corrections system—of the show. Indeed, the brutality (or lack thereof) of the inmate-juvenile confrontations emerged as a theme in many reviews.
Public enjoyment of the “spectacle of punishment” is not a recent development (Foucault 1977). Dating back to the Roman Coliseum, history is replete with examples of the “carnival of punishment” (Presdee 2000). The infotainment industry is well positioned to meet the public appetite for the shame and humiliation of others. For example, tabloid magazine shows such as TMZ thrive on embarrassing or humiliating videos of celebrities. The A&E Network has also made a spectacle out of other “sick” people on television with their shows like Hoarders (2011) and Intervention (2005). Similarly, in Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” would-be pedophiles that show up at a bait house are grilled by host Chris Hanson. This confrontation is mixed in with explicit chat logs and close-up shots of condoms, lubricant, and any other sexual items that were discovered on their person or in their vehicle (Kohm 2009).
Unsurprisingly, then, many of the positive reviews of Beyond Scared Straight noted the enjoyment of watching “punk” juveniles get their comeuppance from inmates. “I hate these little turds!” exclaimed one reviewer. Another stated that: “I like when ‘no good punks’ get a once over from folks with experience. I enjoy that aspect of this series.” These comments suggest that the commercial success of this program is at least partially rooted in the public’s thirst for the verbal abuse and degradation of others. Reviewers appear to find humor and emotional enjoyment in the “smack-down” of juveniles:
I love how all these kids think that they are so tough and all end up crying for their mama’s when the inmates get in their faces. Just goes to show no matter how bad you think you are, in the end you just want your mama.
The show is funny . . . last episode inmates make kids comb an inmate’s chest hair. 10/10 would LOL again.
Some reviewers appear to live vicariously through the inmates’ tactics. For example:
As a middle school teacher, this show is like a mini vacation, where the adults say what I want to say to the kids! I love this show!!!! I used to work in an inner city school, but now I am out in the suburbs where I do not have kids with this lifestyle, yet the overall attitude is the same. It is pervasive and non-stop. At 20 minutes into the first episode, when the cop finally just yells at the stupid kid to “SHUT UP!” I found myself applauding and laughing out loud. ... I feel really guilty when I take pleasure in the little punk ass boys sobbing so hard they are going to hyperventilate—especially when the demands on their sorry little bottoms are so few and far between in our society.
Many reviews made clear that they thought the program would be more effective if there was more physical brutality. They lamented the fact that kids knew that the inmates could not really follow through with their threats, and had suggestions for how to up the ante:
I’d like to see more water in the face, more screaming, and MAKE these punks SLEEP overnight in the prison. Have the prisoners rough them up a bit more, within reason, of course. But make it as real as you possibly can for these kids, because some of them are sociopaths, they need to be broken or they will never snap outta it. A sociopath can be prevented, but only with the toughest intervention.
It seems that each episode the prisoners get softer and softer. The kids know that they cant really do anything to them so it doesnt really have much of an impact.. . . This show is more drama than anything. Would be better if the prisoners were able to slap the hell out the kids once in a while.
As might be expected, many of those who had a negative opinion of the show did not share the thrill of the spectacle of violence. Instead, they framed the inmate threats and intimidation techniques as a form of “child abuse,” and pointed out the hypocrisy of using threats of violence in an attempt to reduce violence:
This is a HORRIBLE show. It’s full of adults bullying, verbally abusing, and threatening children. Prisoners threaten to rape the girls on this show. Guards threaten to beat the children up. It is so horrible.
I wonder why people seem to think this is so great, when all it really highlights is how badly we treat our prisoners. . . . It’s sad how all the people who think this show is great don’t see the hypocrisy of threatening to hurt minor children, threatening to lock minor children in an adult jail overnight-things that are not just illegal, but a great deal more harmful than many things that the convicted criminals are there for—to teach them to follow the law. It's pathetic.
As the preceding quote illustrates, some reviewers felt that the threats of rape and other violence within prison revealed the inadequacy of American correctional system:
I am not naive in thinking that this violence does not occur on a daily—if not hourly—basis in these types of institutions; but that does not make it ok.... We must re-think the way we are running our prisons. The way we are filling them with non violent offenders, domestic violence victims, black men and boys who were in the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.” . . . These kids. These kids. They are not bad kids. They are not bad people. They do not need to be yelled at, scared, forced into uncomfortable positions and made to eat gross food. They need to be loved. Cared for. . .. It’s not hard. I’m rating this 5 stars because it made me reflect.
This series reminds me of why I back prison reform. The evident prisoner-on-prisoner human rights violations, managed by the institution, shouldnt be used to justify its existence.
While some Netflix viewers took guilty pleasure in the shame and humiliation of kids, others described the show as “inspirational,” “emotional,” and “touching.” Many reviews mentioned crying in reaction to the series. The emotional reactions, which were nearly universally found in positive reviews, revolved around two different aspects of the program. First, some people reacted to the transition between the “pre-prison” and “post-prison” segments in which juveniles are first shown in their environment (and interviewed along with parents) and are then given a chance at “redemption.” For example, a reviewer stated that the series was: “emotionally gripping when you get to the issues about why these kids are acting the way they are.” Another reviewer stated:
It’s a great series to watch, something about it is just so interesting to watch! Also really tugs on your heart strings. First from hearing these stories and all the bad things that they do, and secondly, how most all of them turn their lives around!! Love the show!
Reviewers also got caught up in the drama and uncertainty of how the juveniles would react to the program. The following narrative captures this sentiment:
I watched every' episode in less than 2 days and each one of them ended in tears. At the end of each episode I found myself with my fingers crossed praying that the kids had gotten the message and was so happy with how much impact these programs have.
The second emotional aspect of the series concerned how the reviewers felt about the positive portrayal of inmates. Indeed, one rationale for continuing Scared Straight-type programs is that it is “good for the inmates” (Petrosino et al. 2003). Clearly, many who wrote reviews were inspired by inmates attempting to help juveniles. One reviewer noted that: “It is really great that even the most hardened criminals care about what our children do. I cried, on all 7 shows, I cried.” Other responses included:
The inmates deserve all the credit in the world, some of them won’t see the light of day for the rest of their life but still choose to focus their life on helping their kids and there is nothing more honorable than that.
This show brought me to tears several times as I witnessed the selfless love and compassion of the prisoners trying to reach these kids so they could avoid the pain they were experiencing because of their mistakes in life. WONDERFUL show!!!
Those who were moved emotionally almost always wrote positive reviews, and many also indicated that they thought the program was effective. Even some of those who were skeptical of the program, however, were still drawn in by the framing of inmates as caring and constructive. One reviewer stated: “Scared straight is known to be a failed program for the kids who go through it. I do like seeing how much concern the convicts show though.”
While most of the narratives that mentioned inmates did so in a positive manner, negative comments were certainly still present. For example, a few reviewers pointed out the irony of using prison inmates as role models for juveniles. One commentator stated that: “It’s pretty laughable how people that are murderers demand respect from kids that are just there for mild drug use (which could be solved by legalization and making it tougher to obtain), petty theft, and fighting.” Another had the following appraisal:
I also found the way that the inmates (most convicted of MURDER) expected to be “respected" and called sir or ma’am was a little ridiculous.... I don’t care how “reformed” they want to claim they are, especially when in the next breath, they want to say “you would be my ***** if you were in here.”
Popular network programs—particularly those within the “reality television” genre—are viewed as especially insidious by those who study the nexus of crime and media because the “stew” of live footage mixed with dramatic music and cinematography blurs the line between news and entertainment. As Surette (2015:19) notes, “The feel with infotainment is that you are learning the real facts about the world; the reality is that you are getting a highly stylized rendition of a narrow, edited slice of the world.” This is especially relevant to criminal justice programming, as the vast majority of the public has little direct experience with prison and inmates.
What did Netflix viewers have to say about the reality of Beyond Scared Straight ? Many comments directly affirmed the “realness” of the series. This was most apparent in the positive reviews. Illustrating the concern of media critics, one Netflix member stated that: “Teens would benefit from this [Scared Straight] so much more than reality shows, or music videos.” Thus, according to this reviewer, the series was so real that it was not even included in the domain of “reality shows.” Another reviewer offered this rebuke to those who questioned the authenticity of the program:
Just for everyone thinking this show is a bunch of staged crap, it’s not. Someone I went to high school with was on this show and it is very real. These scared straight programs are not fake. They treat all of the kids that come through the same way, whether they’re being filmed or not. The whole point is to scare them. You think the inmates shoot out empty threats? They won’t be so empty when the kid ends up in jail right next to them.
In contrast to the true believers, skeptics of the program—those who provided more negative comments—often saw the program as “fake” and “scripted.” One reviewer wrote: “I feel like a lot of this show is staged (like the inmates yelling and screaming at the teens. I’m sure production told them to do so, though I don’t doubt that some of them would have done it on their own).” Another narrative focused on the “after” segment:
And the things they tell their parents afterward! Good God! It sounds so scripted, every time, like it was being repeated by some young actor just starting in acting school. They say things like: I’m going to do better, I’ll stop lying, I'll stop fighting, I’ll stop stealing. How fake can you get its not a documentary' its reality tv, dont be stupid and think its real, its just a bunch of actors.
These comments concerning the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the Scared Straight program point to an interesting contradiction in reviewer preferences: while some viewers applaud the program for its brutality and/or inspirational content, others scorn the program because the brutality and inspiration do not come off as genuine.
In recent years there has been an increased call for “evidence-based” criminal justice policy making (Sherman 2013). This sure sounds good, and success stories certainly exist (Lum, Koper, and Telep 2011), but the reality of the situation is that scientific evidence typically occupies but one chair at the policy-making table (Welsh, Rocque, and Greenwood 2014). And when it comes to Scared Straight, social science research is sitting at the kids’ table. Indeed, on the one hand, our analyses reveal that the evidence demonstrating the ineffectiveness of Scared Straight programs has a voice in public conversation. Yet on the other hand, that voice is generally drowned out by those belonging to entertainment, emotion, and the joy that people take in the misfortune of others. The purpose of the present study was to understand these voices and to organize what they tell us about how people view the tactics employed by Scared Straight. And based on our analyses, three issues warrant particular attention.
First, our analysis sheds light on how viewers make judgments about the effectives of the programs featured in Beyond Scared Straight. In particular, we are encouraged that at least some research is leaking through to the public. Although a small minority, some reviewers were clearly exposed to and persuaded by the science that undermines Scared Straight-type programs. Comments that made explicit reference to “doing some research” on the web after seeing the program are particularly heartening. Unfortunately, the analysis also revealed that many Netflix reviewers saw Beyond Scared Straight as “real,” and judged the program effective based on the television “follow-up.” Even more problematic are those who rejected science outright, or mobilized an “If it saves one child” defense. Perhaps most disturbing was evidence that some reviewers weighed scientific evidence against the media presentation and went with the entertainment version of truth. Put simply, with respect to reviewers’ level of scientific literacy concerning the effectiveness of Scared Straight, many are still reading well below grade level.
Second, and relatedly, it is also apparent that a good part of the attraction to Beyond Scared Straight has little to do with whether the program “works.” What often matters instead is how viewers respond to the brutality on display with the program, the extent to which the stories elicit an emotional response, and the extent to which viewers feel as though what they are watching is “real.” Indeed, the Scared Straight franchise is built around a narrative that appeals to many: smug, cocky delinquents go to prison and get taught a lesson by “real” criminals. Viewers get satisfaction in watching inmates wipe the smirks off the faces of these young “turds,” and they take pleasure in the spectacle of confrontation.
Such realities suggest that criminologists are facing a challenging task if they wish to tame public support for Scared Straight programs. It is also apparent that the Scared Straight franchise will not fold their tent because social scientists tell them to stop. A more realistic approach may be to tailor our “science-based” message toward correctional decision-makers in addition to the public at large—something that corrections scholars have gotten much more adept at in recent years (see, e.g., Latessa 2004; Latessa et al. 2002; Lipsey 2014). Ironically, Mr. Shapiro, the producer of Scared Straight, makes this argument (although indirectly) when he asked, “If these programs weren’t working and were hurting kids, why would judges, and police officers, and teachers, and school counselors, why would they keep sending kids to these programs month after month after month, and year after year, if they were not seeing positive results?” (Denhart 2011).
Third, our study illustrates how qualitative work can be useful in the area of public opinion about crime and justice. Qualitative studies are becoming more popular in criminology and criminal justice in general (Brezina and Topalli 2012; Giordano 2010; Wright and Bouffard 2014), and in research on corrections in particular (Leban et al. 2015; Miller, Tillyer, and Miller 2012; Turanovic, Rodriguez, and Pratt 2012). This approach allows scholars to get at the complexity of citizens’ attitudes in ways that large-scale surveys cannot (Creswell 2013). Employing qualitative methods, including narrative analysis, may prove useful in the future as criminologists continue to assess the dimensions of public support for programs that intervene in the lives of offenders.
In the end, with respect to correctional interventions for high-risk youth, we know that a number of approaches are better than Scared Straight (Cullen 2013). The key will he for scholars to do a better job of disseminating that knowledge in a wider and more accessible way. Part of that, according to Pratt (2008:46), requires that scholars “relearn how to talk like a real person again.” This means that we need to communicate our work—even if it is complex—using language that is not. It also means that, as scholars, we are permitted to have an opinion. But we need to do more than merely call negative attention to the programs that we dislike. Complaining in the absence of providing alternatives comes off as whining,
not as problem-solving. And Scared Straight is
a problem. We have a long list of solutions, so
let’s get to it.
- 1. The show’s producer claims that the show itself constitutes research. What are the flaws in the “research” conducted by this show?
- 2. How might the sampling plan have impacted the findings?
- 3. Discuss the types of manifest and latent content that they analyzed.
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