'Scared Straight:' Did The Famous 1978 Program Work? (Not Really...)

By | January 4, 2020

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Left: Teens in the 'Scared Straight' audience. Right: Memorable participant Ali. Source: YouTube

Starting with 1978’s Scared Straight, the TV special that sent at-risk teenagers to prison with adults in order to freak them out and turn them into respectable citizens, programs that claim to save teens by giving them a taste of prison life have been popping up across America. Every few years there’s a new version of the special and more kids are put through the meat grinder. So it must work, right? No way.

If anything, the at-risk youth who are put through curriculum’s like 1978’s Scared Straight are worse off for having spent time in a facility for adults. Even though there’s plenty of research that proves juveniles pushed through the program are prone to criminal activity, that hasn’t stopped the producers of the series from claiming that they saved lives with their show.

'Scared Straight' Claimed To Save Lives

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Source: Golden West Television

America began scaring the F out of kids in 1978 with Scared Straight, a program hosted by Peter Falk. The special brought young people inside the harsh environment of New Jersey's Rahway State Prison where they were verbally accosted by prisoners in order to put them on the straight and narrow. The kids were threatened with physical and sexual violence, all as way to scare them away from a life of crime.

The special premiered on Los Angeles' KTLA Channel 5 on November 2, 1978, and it was a massive hit. Even without a theatrical release the special earned an Academy Award for best feature documentary, and according to the special’s producer-director Arnold Shapiro, it saved a lot of lives. He told The Hollywood Reporter:

You don't make documentaries to get rich. I've got files full of letters from people who say they'd be dead or in prison if they hadn't seen Scared Straight.

In spite of the TV special’s success and the multiple follow ups that came in the ensuing decades there’s little proof that Scared Straight actually worked. In truth, the program may have made the children involved worse.