We’d like to think that scaring children into learning something wouldn’t be an officially-approved educational technique. Unfortunately, even mainstream schooling carries a subtle threat – getting high grades is supposed to be a way of avoiding poverty and dead-end jobs, although we might not have realised it when we were younger. This threat is made blatant in the ‘scared straight’ approach of teaching teenagers to avoid anti-social behaviour.
This method involves young people caught up in small-scale crime being taken to the local prison to see what life is like behind bars. Troubled Teens: Jail Shock (CBS Reality) brings to the telly several American schemes, with blunt, no-nonsense names like ‘Reality Check’, ‘Straighten Up’ and ‘Reset’, as well as ‘Scared Straight’. The emphasis of these schemes is on warning the teens about the hellhole they could be sent to if they continue with their behaviour, and the impact this would have on their families. Their approach is to make the teenagers think about the consequences of their actions, rather than covering issues of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
The teens have been involved in gangs, thefts, under-age alcohol use, promiscuity, fighting, truancy and cannabis smoking. Before visiting the slammer, they tend to be cocky about their behaviour, and several later realise their attitude is a way of coping with not having much hope or self-esteem.
When the teenagers arrive at the jail they’re ordered to remove any piercings and put on drab prison overalls, then handcuffed and led in single file through the corridors. Most of them already have the shocked, sad expression on their faces they’ll have throughout their visit. Some smirk or talk back, and in return get a blast of orders from one of the prison officers, who treat the teens with the same kinds of shouty oppression as the inmates. Some of the guards relish how they will ‘break’ the teens.
The teenagers are then paraded in front of the prisoners, who shout and jeer at them from their cells or behind windows. ‘You want to be here?’, ‘You gonna be mine’, ‘this ain’t no place for you’. Some inmates try to provoke the teens to show them they’re not as tough as they think, others plead with them not to make the same choices. Then, in a shock tactic even more blatant than all the other shock tactics, the doors open and the prisoners storm out. The teens then get their faces yelled at, with threats for the few still daring to talk back. The guards don’t intervene, suggesting that the inmates’ boundaries have been agreed beforehand. The aggression is a warning, rather than a real danger to the teens, and perhaps the prisoners find something cathartic in the shouting.
When the teens are shunted into a meeting room, they meet with individual inmates, jailed for murder or drug offences. They introduce themselves with their prison number, and one adds that they may have a number, but they’re nothing while they’re in jail. The prisoners talk about how their identities and decisions have been taken away. As one of the officers says, when people get locked up they become ‘a slave of the state’, as written in the 13th Amendment.
Each of the prisons tweak the formula, often in bizarre directions. On some visits the teens are made to eat the revolting prison food, get shown the morgue, and speak with their crying parents through a window as if it’s visiting day. One jail makes the teens wear placards which say things like ‘I am a thief’, and at another an officer demonstrates how easily an inmate can get dragged into an empty room. Another group is shown a ‘behaviour modification cell’, painted pink because men traditionally don’t prefer the colour. And one of the teens goes with her mother to meet a funeral director, and watches silently as they plan her funeral as if she’s died through her behaviour.
The cameras return to the teenagers a month after their jail jaunt to see whether it has prompted them to make changes to their lives. Most of those we see have calmed down, made more effort with studying, changed who they socialise with and are getting on better with their families, so as a result, feel more optimistic and happy. Despite these apparent successes, research into the effectiveness of the ‘scared straight’ approach hasn’t convinced British authorities to try it here.
A College of Policing briefing from 2014 concluded that these methods ‘have a harmful effect and increase offending relative to doing nothing at all’. Strangely, seeing the tough regimes of prison life doesn’t really prevent teenagers continuing with behaviour which might lead them there, and may even encourage them. The programmes’ worrying approach of trying to teach through humiliation, shock and oppression, of aiming to brutalise the teenagers out of living their often brutal lifestyles, just doesn’t work. However, ‘even non-confrontational, educational programmes were shown to have no significant effect on the frequency or severity of subsequent offences’, according to the briefing. This suggests that there are wider, deeper reasons which have more influence over people caught up in crime and anti-social behaviour. The pressures of living in our competitive, divided, alienating society have more impact on us than one day in jail.