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If the last 15 years have shown us anything, we have seen the invention and mindless perpetuation of the entity known as “reality television”.  Some reality TV shows are compelling for obvious reasons like Fear Factor and Survivor because of the competition and the curiosity into the unknown; others attract people because of the drama and the sex like the Bachelor, the Bachelorette, and other dating shows.  Then there are others which are compelling for strange reasons, the train wreck shows, where something ridiculous and crazy is going to happen almost on cue, like the show where drug addicts and alcoholics congregate to discuss life’s problems, no I’m not talking about Intervention, I’m talking about…Jersey Shore.  As a society we are enamored by the happenings of other people.  Take the Kardashians for example, an entire family who are literally world famous as a result of having their own reality show.

Just the other day I was sitting at home flipping through the channels when I stumbled upon a show which literally had it all; it was dramatic and compelling, had elements of train wreck, had staged violence, yelling and screaming, as well as the dramatic crying, and it engaged the curiosity of the viewer with the delve into the unknown.  I am talking about the show “Beyond Scared Straight”.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, this is a show which documents some of the many “Scared Straight” programs nationwide where troubled teenagers are placed inside a jail with the premise that they will be scared into straightening out.  While in the jail the teens are made to go through the processing unit where they change into their prison uniforms, they meet the inmates and hear their stories; they get put in a cell and gain the “real experience” of being in jail.  These programs have their genesis in a 1970’s documentary called “Scared Straight” where teens from lower class, inner city homes who committed multiple crimes were sent to Rockaway prison in order to scare them into changing their ways.  After the original show aired on television in 1978, hundreds of similar programs were created in counties across the country.

Last year when I was a student at Rutgers University, I watched the documentary “Scared Straight” in class as well as the 20 year follow-up which documented where each of the teenagers is now and how they are doing.  The results were very interesting; and with the knowledge of the “old school” version I viewed this updated version in order to note any differences.

“Beyond Scared Straight” begins like the older version where you have a group of teenagers who claim to be “badass”, “gangsta”, or “hoodrat”.  These kids certainly are Emmy award winners; they steal, lie, cheat, do drugs, fight, and prostitute themselves.  The show begins with a profile of each kid talking about how bad they are and a ridiculous explanation as to why they are this way.  Then you meet their parents who are seemingly at wits end because they can’t figure out why their child acts this way.  At the beginning we start to identify a few of the teens who are more badass than the others; they don’t cooperate, they laugh at the guards and inmates, and don’t follow orders.  Usually these types are identified at the outset and the audience almost feels compelled to hope these few are given the harshest treatment and will ultimately break down in tears and repent, all while making everyone at home feel great and make the whole program seem useful.

In this episode, there is one girl in particular named Ashley who is seventeen years old, she is “hard” and she is rebellious to authority and inmates and is basically laughing the entire time.  Every scenario they put her into she just laughs off.  The more they yell and scream and threaten her with violence, she calls their bluff and their credibility is weakened. (Think about this for a second, could you imagine if one of the inmates actually did attack one of these kids? That would end all these programs pretty darn quick.)  They even take Ashley and a few other girls down to the morgue and show them some dead bodies.  All the other girls who are along for the ride with Ashley have all broken down and this point and are pleading for their parents to take them home.  But Ashley is standing strong, still smiling, and doesn’t seem to be phased by the experience at all.  Unlike most other audience members, I am actually cheering for Ashley at this point, I hope she stands her ground.

In my opinion this show and these programs are flawed on multiple levels. The older documentary showed that after twenty years some of the kids had gotten their act together and become productive members of society and some did not.  No different than any other group of teenagers who didn’t participate in the program.  Most eventually grow, some don’t.  In fact, there is absolutely no statistical evidence to support the theory that these programs are effective.  My question is, if the original program proved to be completely useless, why the remake? Why are hundreds of counties across the country spending so much money instituting these programs when we have no reason to think that they work?  No clear answer is given but I have a few ideas.  First, as a society we like to see people get punished, in this case we want to see these kids who seem to not have a clue to wake up and smell the coffee, and second of course is that it makes for good TV.

The problem with the premise that teenagers are going to “wise up” is that it is based completely without logic.  Teenagers physiologically are unable to do this as their brains are not fully developed, hence the risk taking and impulsive behavior.  The original documentary follow up showed what helps teenagers wise up and stop acting immature…growing up into an adult just like the rest of us!  They don’t need to be locked in a room with hardened criminals and yelled at and threatened with violence (it seems kind of silly to be trying to convince a teenager to stop being violent by locking them in a room and threatening them with violence); they probably need some positive role models and a positive environment.  These kids don’t learn to do drugs or prostitute themselves on accident, they weren’t absent from school the day we learned to “Just Say No”, they see it occurring around them every single day.  Perhaps if the adults around them would stop lying, cheating, stealing, robbing, doing drugs, and prostituting themselves, the kids would stop.

The whole idea of sending teens into fake jail in hopes that they will see the light and change their ways is just flawed and kind of silly.  Think about this, the adult recidivism rate is 40-50% in this country.  About half of people who are in jail will be back in jail within three years of their release.  So, if going to real jail doesn’t deter fully developed adults from committing crime, how the hell is fake jail going to deter immature teenagers?  The answer is that it won’t.  All this show serves to do is give us some entertainment for an hour every night and fulfill our desires to see others punished while exploiting an already vulnerable segment of the population.  Enjoy!

Beyond Scared Straight!!

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